The boy done good: Jade Goody's ex Jeff Brazier on surviving reality TV

He made his name on reality TV and had two children with the late Jade Goody. But if you think that's all there is to Jeff Brazier, prepare to be surprised.

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Jeff Brazier's mother was a single parent at the age of 16, and Brazier never knew his father, an older teenager who had immediately swanned off and got another girl pregnant, before later dying in a tragic accident (The Marchioness disaster, but more of that later). Brazier himself grew up to have two children from a short-term relationship with Big Brother contestant Jade Goody and, all in all, this should be another sorry tale from 'Broken Britain', another Daily Mail-inciting example of teenage mothers, feckless fathers and feral children. What is so interesting is that the exact opposite is the case – in Brazier's case, at least: his is a heartening story about taking responsibility, making the most of yourself and generally manning up.

"What's the style of the shoot?" Brazier asks, his gaze coolly appraising rather than instantly friendly. The 32-year-old is fashionably dressed and fit looking, like a footballer on a photo shoot, which isn't a million miles from the truth, and has just been delivered from Elstree Studios where he has been recording that afternoon's edition of OK! TV – Richard Desmond's synergetic meeting of his celebrity magazine and his recently acquired TV station, Channel 5. "Just you being you?" I suggest. "I find it hard to be anything else, to be honest," he replies. That, of course, is the secret of television success, but if Brazier's public persona is that of the Essex cheeky chappy – a bit of a Jack the lad, but sweet and toothy and boyish with it – there is a core of steel. He has needed it.

The childhood sounds almost Dickensian in its adversity, including a spell in a women's refuge in Yarmouth, where Brazier's mother, Jeanette, had taken him and his brother when her relationship with his stepfather finally broke down – the brother, Spencer, suffering from cerebral palsy. The only time that Brazier unwittingly came face to face with his biological father, Stephen Faldo, was when he was a newborn baby. "He was a little bit older than my mum, he was 19, and you can imagine my mum and my nan going to see him on the river, as I believed happened, and saying, 'This is yours'. Unfortunately, he had a mum and she was very protective of her son."

They confronted Faldo "on the river" because he was a skipper on the Thames – in fact, some 10 years later, he was to be the captain of the pleasure boat, The Marchioness, at the time of its horrific collision with the dredger, The Bowbelle, in August 1989, when 51 people died. Faldo was among them. "I didn't know of his existence until my mum and I sat down many years later and she said to me, 'Would you like to meet your real nan and granddad?'," says Brazier. "It struck me straight away – why not my real dad?"

Chaotic it may have been, but Brazier's childhood was far from unhappy – a chief pleasure being football, playing at West Ham United from the age of six, and then for Leyton Orient when the family moved to Essex; he turned professional at 16. "I went to play in Sweden and Finland and Iceland – and had a decent stint, and went back to Orient and it didn't work out with the new manager," he says. "My biggest regret was that I allowed someone saying that I wasn't good enough for one club to allow me to feel like I'm obviously not good enough for any club."

After football came another avenue of escape – reality TV. Brazier's friend sent in an application on his behalf to appear in the T4 reality show Shipwrecked, a sort of Big Brother meets Lord of the Flies in which 16 young people were dropped on to a remote corner of Fiji and left to fend for themselves. For the 20-year-old Brazier, then working as a mediator for people whose council flats were being renovated, it was something of a gap-year break. "Right down to getting up at six in the morning to walk around to the other side of the island to watch the sun come up – that little bit of a cultured existence hadn't been accessible to me before. It was something I actually quite liked."

Channel 4 quite liked something about Brazier and gave him his first interviewing job, co-presenting a T4 show, Dirty Laundry, with June Sarpong. "I'm good with people, which is why I got that job," he says, with what I'm starting to realise is not him being boastful but an almost American lack of self-deprecation. "It got me very close to being the next T4 presenter, but actually, around that time there were other things going on in my life..." Two words: Jade Goody.

The year was 2002 and Goody had become a sensation after her gaffe-prone stint on Big Brother, in which she referred to East Anglia as "East Angular" and became the first person to have sex – oral sex – on the show. By the time she met Brazier, she was well on her way to becoming a millionaire, was making a fitness video and had been sent to Harlow in Essex by her management company to stay with her personal trainer, Kevin Adams. Brazier was Adams' flatmate at the time.

In her 2006 autobiography, Jade, Goody described clapping eyes on Brazier for the first time: "I thought he was beautiful ... I fancied him so much I wanted to get his pants off there and then". For the object of her lust, however, some mental adjustment was required. "The person I'd spent three months shouting at on the TV screen had ended up being a good friend and then developed into something else," says Brazier. "What was lovely – and a very valuable lesson really – is that you don't really know someone till you've met them and spent some time with them." And what surprised him most about Jade? "How caring she was, and how warm and friendly and how engaging she was and how much she made you laugh."

Three months after that first fateful encounter, Goody found she was pregnant with their first child, Bobby. "All of a sudden my own experiences tumbled into play," says Brazier. "It was a case of, 'I'm here enjoying my life because my mum said no to abortion... where everyone at the age of 15 was telling her, 'Do not have this child'... so I'd be a huge hypocrite if I had then denied my child the right to the same kind of existence.

"The overwhelming sense of responsibility that I'd never needed in life until that point, that's what kicked in, and I'm proud of that because I feel that that's what's maybe lacking in society at times," says Brazier, with words to warm the hearts of social conservatives everywhere. "I didn't really have the highest of hopes for the relationship [with Goody] but that wasn't really what mattered. What mattered was that you dug in because you knew that one day, whether it worked or not, your children would know that you acted responsibly. I did what I maybe hoped my biological father would have done."

Brazier was right not to have high hopes about the relationship, which soon enough descended into verbal and physical abuse – Goody admitting in her autobiography to hitting her boyfriend – and the couple split up shortly after the birth of their second son, Freddie. "Freddie caught the last train, so to speak," says Brazier. "He was born just shortly before I took part in something called The Farm – and from there it was all about just trying to maintain an amicable relationship as possible with Jade. It wasn't easy."

The Farm was the Channel 5 reality show notorious for Rebecca Loos, David Beckham's former PA, masturbating a pig. Although the contest had everyone from Vanilla Ice to Paul Daniels by way of Stan Collymore and Terry Christian, it was the largely unknown Brazier who won the final public vote, after which he started getting presenting work again, including ITV2's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! Now!, with Kelly Osbourne in Australia, and as a roving reporter on X Factor, as well as hosting The X Factor tours. He was now squarely on the other side of the reality TV curtain.

And all this was against a backdrop of trying to be a good father, while Goody regularly and baselessly lambasted him in the press for not paying (or not paying enough) maintenance. And then, in 2008, while appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother – part of penance after 'Shilpagate' (the Celebrity Big Brother controversy in which she was accused of racially bullying Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty) – Goody was diagnosed with the cervical cancer that would kill her less than a year later, at the age of 27.

"There was a huge shift when she found out she had cancer," says Brazier. "Jade dropped a lot of the unnecessary stuff and all of a sudden she started speaking from the heart... she started speaking as the person I hoped she was going to turn out to be in the early stages of our relationship."

Despite Goody having married boyfriend Jack Tweedy shortly before her death, there was never any doubt that Brazier would get sole custody of Bobby and Freddie, especially as Tweedy was serving a prison sentence for assaulting a taxi driver at the time of his new bride's death. "There was no battle whatsoever," says Brazier. "The battle ended when she found out she had cancer. Then all of a sudden it was all very realistic, it was very adult... it was just a shame that it wasn't always like that. Shame it took a disease to show us how things could have been."

Brazier, who was presenting The X Factor tour in Glasgow – the children in tow – when news of Goody's death came through, executed a long-rehearsed plan to whisk his sons off to Australia in order to save them the ensuing media circus, Bobby and Freddie having been prepared beforehand for the death of their mother. "One day Jade told them, 'I'm going to heaven' and then we went into the next room and it was my job to sit there and make sure that they had understood and that it wasn't quickly swept under the rug," he says. "There had been regular instalments leading up to the inevitable, but in bite-size portions.

"For six months [after she died] it was like they were unaffected. I wasn't silly enough or naïve enough to think that was always going to be the case, I was kind of waiting for the day when it hit them. And then it did, and for 10 months they were completely lost in the world, they just couldn't find their feet. With all the love in the world, all the cuddles... you're fighting fires, effectively, with their grief."

The boys are now aged seven and eight, and Brazier has had two serious girlfriends (PA Amy Purcell and fashion buyer Claire Springett), plus encounters he'd rather not talk about. In fact, his PR had told me two subjects were off limits – Jack Tweedy and a recent tabloid kiss-and-tell story (in case anyone suspected that Brazier was too saintly for his own good). He's not, however, trying to protect himself from tawdry allegations, it seems, but to shield his sons – an over-arching concern that extends to his love life.

"The two girlfriends that I've had have waited a while before meeting the kids because that's my rules, and when they did meet the kids they didn't let me down," he says. "But then you can't be in it for that reason, it has to be love first and foremost, and you worry about the impact on the kids secondly. But I'm not likely to be attracted to someone that isn't good for the kids.

"Career-wise I'm really proud. I think I've been very patient with the career. I used to be referred to as someone's ex and I've waited a long time to earn my name back." He'd also like to start writing books. "I think I've got a lot of relevant life experiences – one day when people don't see me as a young cheeky Essex chap [they] will actually see the credibility in me."

I suggest that he's anything but a cheeky Essex chap, and he agrees that "I've got a good head on my shoulders". In fact, Brazier is one of a handful of contestants who has built a solid career on the nebulous foundations of reality TV. "Good luck to them," he says when I ask whether the subjects of ITV2's award-winning The Only Way is Essex is blackening the name of his home county. "A lot of them are just taking the opportunity that has been put in front of them." And Brazier knows all about seizing opportunities. "I did Dancing on Ice and I made a business out of it," he says. "I do skate academies, I'm in the process of doing a deal with the guys who own a third of the country's ice rinks..."

With his serious outlook, preppie dress sense and his look of a 1950s American teen heartthrob, Brazier is the sort of chap a respectable girl could safely take home to meet her mother – even if her mother might be unnerved by the whitened-looking teeth. He'd make a very plausible poster boy for moral regeneration, for people taking responsibility for themselves, although despite admiring Margaret Thatcher's leadership qualities, he hasn't voted for years – he isn't interested in politics.

"I don't trust it," he says. "I'm one of these people who takes complete, ultimate responsibility for everything that I do – it's a lot easier to have everything in your own hands than to put it in someone else's. And I've never met a politician who I've thought, 'They're cool'. I mean, Lembit Opik... Lembit's trying to have a go, but I'm not sure that he's pulling it off."

And anyway, if Brazier has a cause, it's one much closer to home that any generalised notions of social dysfunction. "I want Bobbie and Freddie to come out of this balanced," he says when discussing how he keeps their mother's memory alive for them by showing videos of her (home videos – not outtakes from Big Brother, it should be added). "Because I think it's very easy for children to be affected by the loss of a parent and hard for them to be balanced in their teenage life and adult life." He's right, of course. But I also hope that Jeff Brazier gets to let his hair down sometimes, I find myself thinking, as I take my leave and re-join the throng of Broken Britain.