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Reality TV squabble shines light on Britain's sore point

Race and class issues play out in living color on `Celebrity Big Brother,' where a quarrel turns into an international incident.

January 19, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — It was perhaps foreseeable that a plan to lock some of Britain's most annoying personalities under the same roof would turn ugly.

The defrocked beauty queen, the sniffy Bollywood movie star, the dimwit reality show veteran famous for wondering whether Cambridge was in London -- could it have turned into anything but a catfight?

Hardly anybody, though, thought it would turn into an international incident.

But that was before the latest edition of "Celebrity Big Brother" -- never a stranger to the scandalous and snide -- spun out of the usual confines of reality television into a down-and-dirty referendum on race and class in Britain.

These are Britain's most troubling issues at a time of an unprecedented level of immigration and a never-ending divide between rich and "common," and that is why the nasty, some say racist, comments that fellow contestants directed at Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty have ignited protests in India and a record 30,000 viewer complaints.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was called to account in the House of Commons, and a miserable-looking Gordon Brown, scheduled to take over as prime minister this year, spoke out during a visit to India when officials there pondered a formal protest. He said Britain should be "seen as a country of fairness and tolerance."

"Anything detracting from this I condemn," he said.

It started, as with any "Big Brother" series, with a cast of characters chosen for their potential to get on each other's nerves.

In addition to Shetty, a native of India who has become one of its most popular actresses, there was Danielle Lloyd, who was stripped of her title as Miss Great Britain last year because of a purported affair with one of the judges, and Jade Goody, a fun, foul-mouthed and often clueless former dental nurse who talks like Eliza Doolittle.

Goody, now one of Britain's most recognizable faces, parlayed an earlier "Big Brother" win into a fortune that some have estimated at $16 million.

How famous is she? More than 2.8 million viewers tuned in after her original victory to watch the documentary "What Jade Did Next." Answer: D-cup breast implants, a perfume line aptly named "Shhh," an autobiography, an "Extreme Makeover" for her mum and another reality TV show.

Goody's partner and mother figured among the original contestants on "Celebrity Big Brother," while film director Ken Russell fled the house early on, calling the scene "a little too much to take" for a "fuddy duddy" such as himself. Singer Jermaine Jackson, older brother of Michael Jackson, has tried to take on the role of peacemaker since the three women began trading insults.

Shetty, 31, whose 5-foot, 10-inch frame has been described as the best body in Bollywood, alternately flounces, pouts and giggles around the house, poufing her long hair to the obvious irritation of Goody, Lloyd and several of the other female contestants.

The "girl gang," as the Mail on Sunday described them, ripped into Shetty this week, pretending to have trouble pronouncing her name, calling her "the Indian" and condemning the way she spoke English and cooked chicken.

"I just don't want her hands in it. Where have those hands been?" one said.

Shetty, who speaks five languages and earns $1.2 million a film, struck back, telling Goody that she needed lessons in "elocution." Goody and Lloyd complained that Shetty was making fun of their lower-class backgrounds, considering them "common." Shetty cried and complained to other contestants, "Why am I so despised?"

Images of her dabbing her eyes were played and replayed across India, causing protesters to burn effigies of the "Celebrity Big Brother" contestants. Viewers across Britain complained that Shetty had been the victim of racist insults.

"This risks being racism in entertainment, and that is disgusting," Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell told Sky News.

Carphone Warehouse pulled its sponsorship, the nation's media watchdog said it would launch an investigation and pundits went on television to announce, in case anyone was not aware, that racism was alive and well in Britain.

"Bully v Bolly; Celeb Big Bruv; World in Crisis," the Sun proclaimed happily.

On the other hand, the Independent pointed out, the 30,000-plus complaints over the show were "a measure of how far Britain has progressed in recent decades in reshaping attitudes to racial prejudice."

Feminist author Germaine Greer was one of a few who bucked the tide, pointing out that Shetty, clearly one of the few bright bulbs in this particular candelabra, appeared to be deliberately exploiting her capacity to be annoying to get a racist rise out of the others.

"Not watching will spare you the nerve-fraying annoyingness that is Shilpa Shetty. Everything about her is infuriating: her haughty way of stalking about, her indomitable self-confidence, her chandelier earrings, her leaping eyebrows, her mirthless smile, her putty nose and her eternal bray, 'Why does everyone hate me?' " Greer wrote in the Guardian.

What people haven't figured out, she said, is that Shetty "is a very good actress."

"Everyone hates her because she wants them to. She also knows that if she infuriates people enough, their innate racism will spew forth."

And when the hissing's over, Shetty could be the last cat standing.

Tonight, viewers will be asked to choose whether Shetty or Goody should be thrown off the show.

Shetty said Thursday that, on reflection, she didn't feel she had been the victim of racism.

"I've thought about it. It's not a racist thing," she said. "People say things in anger. [Goody] is not a racist. I respect the fact that she's had a hard life."

Goody, for her part, insisted that "it's not in me to be racial about somebody.... If I offended any Indians out there, I apologize."

As for Shetty, Goody added, it's simply personal.

"Everybody knows I don't like her."


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