Reality cheque

<strong>Jade: Catch a Falling Star</strong>

Jade Goody

<em>John Blake, 288pp, £18.99</em>

The last thing you expect to read, on opening the second autobiography by the former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody, is an extract from Prospect magazine. Like the rest of this book, it's not written by her; it's from a piece by Peter Bazalgette, former chairman of Endemol, the television production company that makes the 24-hour reality programme and its various spin-offs, and was written shortly after Goody was removed from a series of Celebrity Big Brother after being accused of acting in a racist manner towards another contestant, the Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty.

What the show's detractors fail to understand, he writes, is that "Big Brother is 12 characters in search of a story". An interesting way of putting it, I thought, given that the very reason Goody is a nationally known figure, six years after coming fourth in Big Brother 3, is the stories that fountain out of her. Describing real people as "characters in search of a story" suggests that they didn't have any of their own until they appeared on the show. For Goody, daughter of two drug addicts, who has made her fortune from lobbing those stories into the public sphere at a shrewd and steady rate, reality television allowed her to show the world what she had learned from her terrible childhood: that truth matters, and that truth will out because it can't be shaped, no matter how much effort is put into the attempt to do so.

She has managed to stay famous for six years not because she confirms stereotypes about individuals from the truly benighted end of the working class, but because she subverts them constantly. Her lack of formal education, brought about by her mother's serious motorbike accident, which led Goody to become her full-time carer from the age of five, hasn't blunted her wit or nous. She didn't sit waiting for an income or for recognition; she leapt at the only tangible opportunity to escape poverty and drudgery with the ferociousness of someone who knows the ugliness of wasted lives.

At the point where she auditioned for the third series of Big Brother, she had spent virtually her whole life in service to her mother's needs, and the effort had exhausted her. She was in a phy sically abusive relationship that she was too poor and too tired to leave. Throughout her life, she had busied herself to a manic degree both with trying to protect her vulnerable mother and grandparents and with trying to maintain the hope of having a different life herself.

To live a life completely different from that of her parents has taken courage, though there are areas she hasn't yet managed to sort out. Reading this book, with its litany of car crashes (both literal and metaphorical), violent arguments, short relationships and accidental pregnancies, one often feels as if one is being sucked into a vortex of endless chaos.

This is not helped by her economic ascent, which has brought only financial independence from men. The quality of her relationships has not much improved since the days when she was a shopworker and grimaced her way through beatings from an exploitative lump called Danny. The father of her children, Jeff Brazier, sounds reasonable enough, but his successor, Ryan Amoo, "turned out to be a complete psycho", and the one after that, Jack Tweed, is serving 18 months in prison for whacking a 16-year-old about the head with a golf club. She blames herself for not being the sort of woman who can attract stable, successful, non-psychotic men; for being "too common" to deserve better.

Goody comes across as an anger-filled, insecure, but extremely warm-hearted person whose love for her sons propels her through life and gives her hope for the future. Her ghostwriter, Lucie Cave, keeps the narrative flow clear without dimming Jade's idiosyncratic voice. Those who blithely call her "vile" and somehow representative of a parallel world in which feelings mean naught should note that she has precisely the same aspirations for herself and her family as anyone else.

She flew to India in August knowing there was a possibility she had cancer. (As it turned out, she did.) She went ahead because she was being paid £100,000 to appear on Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother (hosted by Shetty), and was frightened that she wouldn't be able to cover her sons' school fees. "I had all these questions, but there was no one that I could ask," this apparent "character in search of a story" writes, in a direct afterword. "The show's producers had sent someone from Endemol to be with me, but I didn't want a stranger. I wanted a hug from someone I loved."

Lynsey Hanley is the author of "Estates: an Intimate History" (Granta Books)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama