When the fifth series of Celebrity Big Brother (CBB), a spin-off of the reality show Big Brother, was broadcast in the UK in January 2007, it initially appeared that it would fail to generate the same level of public interest as previous series. That changed spectacularly when the show was hit by allegations of racism. As a reality format, the principal appeal of CBB is that it gives viewers an opportunity to explore how well contestants cope with the pressure of constant surveillance in the Big Brother House, often revealing their ‘veridical’ self (Rojek 2001) in the process. CBB also plays successfully with ‘fame hierarchies’ (Holmes, in this issue). One of its trademarks is its fondness for making ‘top’ celebrities (i.e. participants with some degree of fame) mingle with bottom-ranking Z-listers. A masterstroke in the 2006 series was undoubtedly the introduction of the non-celebrity Chantelle Houghton, whom celebrity peers genuinely believed to be a singer in the (fictitious) girl band Kandy Floss. When she went on to win the show, her triumph appeared to confirm not only that everyone can be famous these days but also that everyone can successfully pretend to be famous. Celebrity itself has become a kind of pastiche we can skill ourselves in by studiously reading the celebrity press and cherry-picking the most affordable aspects of celebrity fashion and lifestyle. Despite its continuing association with privilege, wealth and excess, celebrity status appears to have been become increasingly egalitarian thanks to the ubiquity of reality TV.


Celebrity is nevertheless less democratic than it often appears to be (Turner 2004). What shows such as Big Brother fail to explain is that the ‘ordinary’ people they feature are most likely to be individuals with some talent for celebrity: it is mostly those with good or unusual looks, an extrovert nature, an exuberant personality or colourful past, etc. who will be primed for celebrity status. As Holmes points out in her contribution, even in our age of supposedly manufactured celebrity, fame retains an element of mystique and charisma. Nevertheless, reality TV’s promise that celebrity is equally available to all may account for the apparent determination of some to pursue it at all costs. This raises some important ethical questions about the welfare of vulnerable wannabes and the need to balance their eagerness to be famous against the risk of exposure to ridicule and contempt when appearing on television. A person’s dignity is all too easily compromised on reality TV. A judge recently called the Jeremy Kyle Show, a daytime UK chat show which thrives on conflict and confrontation between its guests, a ‘human form of bear baiting’? (Cadwalladr 2008). He was making his remarks on the occasion of fining a defendant for headbutting another guest on the show. Not all reality TV is admittedly this extreme. However, viewing pleasure in a format such as Big Brother typically derives from the unavoidable conflict which emerges when a group of strangers are made to live together while being under constant camera surveillance and with seemingly no possibility for escape other than making an early exit from the show.


In Britain, Jade Goody has become the epitome of the trappings of celebrity in the age of reality TV. As Holmes explains in her contribution, Jade gained fame and popularity by appearing on Big Brother in 2002, but there was always a degree of ambivalence towards her in the British press. She was liked and had shown extraordinary staying power in the fickle world of celebrity, but affection for her was based on public fondness for her well-publicised gaffes, her poor education and her supposed stupidity. When she returned to the reality format that made her famous and appeared on CBB 2007, she entered the show a star but left disgraced and in fear of her own safety. The cause of her downfall was her apparent racist behaviour towards her fellow contestant, the Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Her main allies in the House, former pop star Jo O’Meara and model Danielle Lloyd, also stood accused of racism towards Shilpa. Jade attempted a comeback by taking part in the Indian version of the show in the summer of 2008. A cruel twist of fate meant that she learned that she had advanced cervical cancer while on the show. Although the footage was not broadcast in the UK at the time, this incident once again highlighted the ethical quagmire that is reality TV. As the CBB race incident amply demonstrated, regulators and lawmakers struggle to deal with the unpredictable and unscripted character of reality formats in which a heated argument between a group of bored individuals cooped up in a television studio can easily escalate and generate very offensive content.


It is this issue which Eliza Varney addresses in her contribution. She draws a comparison between regulatory responses in the UK and the US. The CBB incident, she argues, gives us an insight into the application of the Broadcasting Code and Ofcom’s duties under s. 319 (1) of the Broadcasting Act 2003; but most crucially it illustrates the inherent difficulties of regulating offensive broadcasting content in the specific context of reality television. The Code differs from previous broadcasting regulations in that it does permit the broadcasting of offensive content provided that the broadcast is ‘justified by context’ and accompanied by the ‘appropriate information’ to minimise or avoid offence (rule 2.3 of the Code). Ofcom had already adjudicated on Big Brother on a number of occasions but it generally found that the offensive content had been justified in the context of Big Brother. However, in respect of CBB 2007, Ofcom ruled that the broadcaster Channel 4 had failed to take adequate steps to address potential offence and challenge the offending behaviour. Channel 4’s procedures for compliance with the Broadcasting Code were also criticised. Varney suggests that the CBB ruling reveals the inherent difficulty of striking a balance between freedom of expression and regulatory intervention in broadcasting. She criticises the vagueness of the regulatory framework and she argues for a clearer definition of the principles which regulators have to take into account in making such delicate choices.


Ofcom in its report on CBB singled out three separate incidents as constituting a breach of the Broadcasting Code: (1) remarks about cooking in India (transmitted on 15 January 2007), (2) the ‘fuck off home’ comment (transmitted on 17 January 2007) and (3) the ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ comment (transmitted on 18 and 19 January 2007). The first incident involved a conversation between Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara in which they reasoned that ‘ all Indians are thin’ because they are ‘sick all the time’ from eating undercooked and contaminated food. On the (Indian) practice of eating with hands, Danielle famously commented: ‘I don’t know where her [Shilpa’s] fingers have been’. The second incident came at the end of a heated argument between Jade and Shilpa about some Oxo chicken stock cubes the contestants had ordered as part of their communal shopping list. While it was Jade who lost her temper during the row and launched into a flurry of expletives, it was Danielle’s remark that she wished that Shilpa would ‘fuck off home’ which was upheld by Ofcom as deeply offensive and in breach of the Broadcasting Code. The third offensive moment involved Jade calling Shilpa ‘Shilpa Poppadom’. Earlier in the show Jade’s mother, who was also appearing on CBB, had claimed that she struggled to remember and pronounce Shilpa’s name correctly, referring to her at one point as ‘The Indian’.


Should we consider it a mere coincidence that each of these flashpoints centred on food and food metaphors? Sean Redmond points out in his contribution that ‘food consumption is not just the act of ingestion…but the symbolic construction of self identity’. He argues that the rows over food in the CBBhouse and the name-calling involving food and bodily functions are symptomatic of a profound crisis of self and nation. This could help to explain why Jade, Jo and Danielle felt the need to put Shilpa, the oriental Other, in her place and diffuse the threat attached to her status - and that of contemporary India more generally - in the postcolonial order. ‘ Eastern cuisine’, Redmond points out, ‘resides in the belly and bowels, in the primordial part of human nature’. Shilpa had to be brought down a peg by ‘unmasking’ her glamorous persona as the depository of the suspect sensuality and inherent ‘dirtiness’ of her culinary heritage. While Danielle and Jo conjured up the horror of Shilpa’s dirty fingers and her disease-ridden body, Jade accused her of talking ‘shit’ and being a ‘fake’: to Jade, Shilpa’s graciousness and glamour only served to conceal the ‘real’ - that is, in Redmond’s words, the ‘raw and uncooked’ - Shilpa. Redmond suggests that Jade’s comments are reflective of a wider cultural aversion to, but also fascination with the Other: ‘Britain’s own sense of its national identity, and its place in the global world, is symbolically projected onto Jade, Jo and Danielle’s crude and offensive musings’.


However, during the broadcasting of CBB Channel 4 and Shilpa herself were very reluctant to read the comments made by Jade, Jo and Danielle as racist. A large number of viewers disagreed. What is striking is how determined they were to make their voices heard. How should we interpret this intervention by the (viewing) public, in particular the snowballing of complaints reaching Ofcom in ever-greater record numbers? Does the enormity of the public response reveal the depth and intensity of anti-racist sentiments in British society, isolating Jade and co as its racist outcasts? In her assessment of the Ofcom ruling Varney observes that ‘what is unclear… is whether the regulator’s adjudication in the CBB incident was motivated by the public reaction during the broadcast of the series, or whether Ofcom’s decision was influenced by wider considerations for citizenship interests, such as the protection of human dignity’. One of the most curious aspects of the CBB saga, as Dania Thomas points out in her contribution, is the simultaneous presence and absence of race and the disavowal of racism as Shilpa’s harm. The intensity of public feelings was refracted by consumer choice: people voted to eliminate Jade from the contest and complained to Ofcom en masse. Public opinion was also an overriding concern in the commercial sponsor’s decision to withdraw its sponsorship and end its association with the programme. Shilpa, on the other hand, was compensated in this moral economy by her rising popularity. In sum, it appears that the main responsibility for apportioning blame was with the citizen-consumer- and not so much with the official regulator. The matter was resolved as a concession to what Thomas terms ‘the consumption politics of race’ in which it was ultimately left to the market to punish ‘bad behaviour’ and reward ‘good behaviour’. She observes that ‘a central feature of this disavowal was that the regulators, the Channel and the programmers have acceded to ‘democratic decision-making’ where well-defined voting procedures were used by sufficiently large numbers of consumers to voice their demands’. This, she argues, amounts to the treatment of racism as ‘racism lite’ (i.e. forms of racial harm articulated in normative frames specific to the entertainment industry, defined by the consumption patterns of a target audience). The importance of Thomas’ argument resides in her observation that racism lite does not in any way address the failure of the law to deal with more insidious forms of racism and confront its own ambivalence, in particular unresolved tensions between race discrimination law, on the one hand, and immigration law, on the other.


Much of the endless flow of media commentaries on Jade’s racism was riven with class prejudice. In our respective contributions, both Su Holmes and I note how such discourses constructed racism as a problem of the underclass and treated it as a mere fly in the ointment of broadminded and multicultural Britain. As Holmes suggests, at one level, Jade’s success in establishing herself as a very popular celebrity showcased her extraordinary skills as ‘a veritable entrepreneur of the self’ who was able to reinvent herself freely without being held back by her class background. However, her demotion or ‘déclassment’ (Holmes) following the CBB race row amply demonstrated the durability of the social hierarchies which contemporary celebrity status is thought capable of neutralising. Jade’s celebrity persona was deconstructed to reveal an altogether more menacing persona, the anti-social Jade, who had not been able to shake off the burden of class after all. Su Holmes observes that ‘Jade’s re-education had apparently not been comprehensive enough’. In my own contribution, I situate the CBB race row against the backdrop of the human rights ‘culture’ which the Human Rights Act 1998 intends to foster. The public response to the racist behaviour on CBB appeared to suggest that people have an intuitive grasp of the importance of human rights principles, most importantly (race) equality. However, like Dania Thomas, I cast doubt on this particular reading of CBB. I argue that it was easy for the public to lavish sympathy on Shilpa: she was a wealthy and glamorous Bollywood star passing through the CBB house en route to even greater success, and this clearly put her in a different category from the ‘undeserving’ groups (most notably asylum seekers) who are routinely berated by some sections of the British press for ‘taking advantage’ of human rights. Moreover, the treatment of Jade in the press during and following the CBB race row hardly befitted a nascent human rights culture: her dignity was compromised in hostile and abusive media commentaries.


Su Holmes argues that despite the perceived ‘vapidity’ of reality TV, celebrity, reality TV’s most coveted reward, is a ‘site of political and cultural struggle, dramatising prevailing ideological currents, tensions and aspirations at any one time’. Legal scholars should take note: scratch celebrity’s glamorous surface and we may find that it offers a rewarding and fascinating insight into the popular legal imagination. The aim of this special issue is to give a taster of the kind of interdisciplinary synergies that are needed to put celebrity on the academic map, not just in legal studies but across the humanities and the social sciences.



Jade Goody died of cervical cancer on 22 March 2009. The articles in this special issue were written a considerable time before Jade’s illness and terminal diagnosis became public knowledge.


Cadwalladr, C (2008) ‘When reality bites, it leaves deep scars’, The Observer, Sunday 7 September http://www.guardian.co.uk accessed 15 October 2008.

Rojek, C (2001) Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books).

Turner, G (2004) Understanding Celebrity (London: Sage).