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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: Jade's history may have cost her life itself

The tragedy of Ms Goody reflects ill on us all

I've hardly ever seen Jade Goody on television. But I've been aware of her since she first appeared on Big Brother – and I've always felt uncomfortable about her. She has made a career as a "reality" TV star, earning more money than is usually available to someone from her working-class background, but at the price of confirming a huge number of prejudices. Her fame has been founded on negatives, from her lack of education to her dysfunctional relationships. Now she has been told her cervical cancer may be incurable, and an agonising set of circumstances is once again being lived out in the glare of publicity.

At one level, Ms Goody's reaction to the devastating news is understandable; she needs to go on working to secure the future of her two children, and living her life in public is the only job she has. Until her illness, she made good copy but got a bad press, becoming a single mother and graduating to Celebrity Big Brother, where she became embroiled in a row about alleged racism. The recent change in attitudes towards her says a great deal about class in this country.

For years, Ms Goody was treated as a semi-house-trained pet, willing to perform without fully comprehending the malicious pleasure she evoked. It wasn't just Big Brother fans who laughed at her ignorance of basic geography; gleeful commentators claimed her as a symbol of the worst aspects of working-class culture, as though people from her background are congenitally stupid. In fact, far from being stupid, Ms Goody made the most of an unexpected opportunity. She grew up in south London, with parents dependent on drugs, her father in and out of prison. It's hardly surprising that she did badly at school. She went on to have two children with someone from the only world she has ever known as an adult – another "reality" TV star. But she was never going to marry a Wykehamist and open a health food shop, was she?

Now we know that Prince Charles calls a black friend "Sooty" and the Queen thinks it's OK to sell golliwogs, the furore over Ms Goody's behaviour towards the Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty looks like double standards. While every possible excuse is trotted out for the racism of the upper classes, working-class people are torn to shreds.

I always thought Ms Goody's boorish attitude to Ms Shetty was more about class than race, a feeling which was confirmed when it emerged that Ms Goody herself is mixed race. She duly apologised and agreed to appear on the Indian version of Big Brother, which is where she received her original diagnosis of cervical cancer. The worst that can be said of Ms Goody is that she enjoys fame as much as Princess Diana, whose connection with the public was equally morbid.

In the princess's case, star quality and an aristocratic background transformed her hunger for attention into an improbable series of positives: empathy, informality, compassion. Ms Goody has had no such luck and she also failed to get treatment after an abnormal cervical smear, like too many working-class women.

The lack of education that made her a laughing stock seven years ago has shortened her life, and you would have to be very callous indeed not to see that as a tragedy.