Richardson: In Death as in Life

The ending of life for two very different Englishwomen speaks volumes about celebrity. With a defiant working-class chip on her shoulder, Jade Goody turned a reality show shot into a career. Embraced and trashed, she converted fame into hosting gigs, exercise videos, two autobiographies and even a fragrance that made her a millionaire and UK […]

The ending of life for two very different Englishwomen speaks volumes about celebrity.

With a defiant working-class chip on her shoulder, Jade Goody turned a reality show shot into a career. Embraced and trashed, she converted fame into hosting gigs, exercise videos, two autobiographies and even a fragrance that made her a millionaire and UK household name.

Along the way, she shared endless detail about romances and two sons’ births. Then, in one of the most controversial reality show moments, Goody learned on-camera that she had advanced terminal cancer.

From that point on, she chose to live as a 24/7 news story, aided by shrewd British PR practitioner Max Clifford. Her treatment, deterioration and final days have been painfully documented. She’s sold exclusive interviews, photos and video rights. She finished a DVD and third autobiography for eventual release. Last week, she was sent home and told only hours remained; as this is being published, she’s clinging to life.

She has planned a Diana-esque funeral with a ride through London and service streamed to giant outdoor monitors. Even if you’ve never seen her before, Goody’s drama is addictive – enough so that People magazine profiled her and Oprah and Larry King were supposedly in pursuit.

Who knows if Clifford, a controversial publicist famous for representation of low-end celebrities and fabricating stories, is moved by Goody or just enjoys the affiliation. But she’s clearly been calling the shots. A debate rages in the UK: Is Goody obsessed with fame literally to the end, or bringing humanity to cancer and dying?

Either way, she claims her only goal is to provide for her sons. Whatever the reason, she’s built a nest of media and is living out her life inside it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum has been the tragedy of Natasha Richardson.

Even if she had never worked, Richardson was destined for visibility through her family lineage and spouse. But following this heartbreaking story, I realized that aside from random red carpets and talk show appearances to hype her work and activism, we knew very little about her.

She always seemed gracious, engaged and very normal. But with her legacy and appeal, she could’ve easily forced her autobiography on us. Shared child-rearing tips. Launched a GOOP-like website so we could see how wonderful it would be to lead her life. Yet she chose not to and, in the past two days, those around her did likewise.

In turn, I believe the media acted differently, too. There were few updates and refreshingly fewer of those awful trumped-up features written to fill space — all bucking conventional wisdom that the internet and news channels demand constant fresh content. What seems to have been the first official statement came nearly 36 hours after the initial story broke, and it was brief and polite.

The statement released upon Richardson’s death Wednesday evening was painful in its simplicity.

Aside from the occasional photo of famous friends’ visits to the hospital, this story played out below the radar. No regular spokesperson offering updates? No spontaneous sidewalk press conferences by family? Almost no celebrities pontificating (aside from a cringe-worthy get well message from from fashion designer Valentino)?

It’s as if Richardson and Goody existed in parallel universes.
 
But what struck me most was what felt like rare respectful distance provided by the media to Richardson’s family at the hospital, if the video coverage was accurate. Ironically, all this played out on the same day a media frenzy descended on clueless OctoMom and two of her newborns arriving home.

If the paparazzi had thought overturning her car would’ve provided an even better shot, they could’ve done it. And it was hard to tell by her permanent gap-mouthed expression whether Octo was thrilled or terrified.

It could be argued that Richardson’s age or career choices made her less appealing to the arbiters of celebrity coverage. But I’d argue back that if visibility had been sought, in her life or as her death approached, it would’ve been granted instantly.

Instead, what Richardson and her loved ones secured was pretty unique in today’s media culture: relative privacy and dignity. May Natasha Richardson rest in peace.

And may Jade Goody find peace behind the headlines.