Celebrity Big Brother racism controversy

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The Celebrity Big Brother racism controversy was a series of events related to incidents of racist behaviour by contestants on the fifth series of the British reality television show Celebrity Big Brother, shown on British television station Channel 4. The incidents centred on comments made by contestants on this reality television show, most notably Jade Goody, glamour model Danielle Lloyd, and singer Jo O'Meara, which were directed towards Indian actress Shilpa Shetty. The screening of these comments on UK television resulted in national and international media coverage, responses from the UK and Indian governments,[1] and the show's suspension during the 2008 season.[2]

Many agencies and corporations cancelled their contracts with the housemates accused of racism, citing the allegations as the reason for the terminations. Also, many sponsors of the Big Brother series cancelled[3] or suspended[4] their sponsorship of the show. After the show, Goody stated that she understood her comments appeared as racist and apologised for any offence caused.[5] Shetty later told the media that she forgave Goody.[6] After conducting an investigation, Ofcom ruled that Channel 4 had breached the Ofcom code of conduct, and statutory sanctions were placed on the network.[7]


The fifth UK series of Celebrity Big Brother began on 3 January 2007. On Day 1, eleven celebrity housemates entered the Big Brother house, including model Danielle Lloyd, singer Jo O'Meara and Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Then, on Day 3, former Big Brother housemate Jade Goody entered the house, accompanied by her boyfriend Jack Tweed and her mother Jackiey Budden.

During Budden's relatively short stay in the house, she and Shetty clashed on numerous occasions. Budden claimed that she was unable to pronounce "Shilpa", and referred to Shetty as "Princess" and "the Indian". Budden insisted that it was "not her fault" if she were to say Shilpa and it were to come out wrong.[8] During her eviction interview, after Budden used the term "the Indian", presenter Davina McCall coerced Budden into saying "Shilpa" and Jackiey pronounced it properly.

After Budden's eviction, Goody's boyfriend Jack Tweed called Shetty an expletive, with the bleeped-out expletive variously reported as "cunt"[9] and "Paki"[10] who should remove objects from the toilet with her teeth. The night that Carole Malone was evicted, Lloyd was heard to refer to Shetty as a "dog".[11]

However, the first large upsurge in complaints occurred after a conversation between Lloyd and O'Meara was shown, during which O'Meara generalised that all Indians were thin because they were "sick all the time" as a result of undercooking their food, following their belief that Shetty had undercooked a chicken.[8] Lloyd also mentioned that she didn't like Shetty touching her food because she didn't "know where her hands have been".[12] Lloyd, O'Meara and Goody repeatedly maintained a belief that Shetty was "fake", and "a mole".[13]

The tensions in the house came to a peak on Day 15, when an explosive argument between Shetty and Goody erupted, seemingly over stock cubes. During this argument, Goody told Shetty that she was "not no fucking princess here", "normal" and needed "a day in the slums", while Shetty told Goody that her "claim to fame was [Big Brother]". Witnessed by a giggling O'Meara and Lloyd, Lloyd said afterwards she thought Shetty should "fuck off home".[14] She also said Shilpa "can't even speak English properly anyway".

The next morning, Goody referred to Shetty as, 'Shilpa Fuckawallah', 'Shilpa Daroopa' and 'Shilpa Poppadom'. She later insisted that she had done this with no intention of racism. She later apologised if her actions had offended anybody.[15][16] After Goody apologised to Shetty for her behaviour, Tweed stated that he was very disappointed with Goody for apologising, and called Shetty a "dick" after previously describing her as a "wanker".


By 20 January, Ofcom received 44,500 complaints from members of the public,[17][18] while Channel 4 received an additional 3,000 complaints about racism and bullying by housemates against Shilpa. Channel 4 initially described the situation as "girly rivalry", but later admitted there had "undoubtedly been a cultural clash between her and three of the British females in the house".[19] Channel 4 continued to air moments of alleged racism on their show, stating that the social dynamics of the housemates are part of the story and viewers had the right to see the events portrayed as accurately as possible.[20]

Media reaction[edit]

Various media outlets initially characterised the issue as 'girlish rivalry'[21] but later blamed it on bullying and racism. As time progressed, the majority of media coverage of Jade became negative, although accusations of racism were superseded by those of bullying. An editorial published by The Daily Mirror on 18 January 2007 called 'Beauty v Bigot', deplored what they referred to as "disgraceful racist bullying of Big Brother's Shilpa Shetty", and criticised Channel 4 management for maintaining that there was not a racial element to the bullying.[22] The British tabloids mostly concentrated on the comments made by Jade, rather than those made by Jack, Danielle, and Jo and the bullying from them. For instance, when Jade and Shilpa were arguing over Oxo cubes, Shilpa pleaded with Jo for assistance by saying "Jo, I mean, are you going to say something here what is happening here?" - to which Jo responded by bursting out laughing. Jermaine Jackson, another housemate witnessing the situation, later said, "When all this was going on I saw Danielle and Jo laughing and then branded them as 'the allies'".

The controversy generated over 300 newspaper articles in Britain, 1,200 in English newspapers around the globe, 3,900 foreign language news articles, and 22,000 blog postings on the internet.[23]

Vanni Treves, Channel 4's former Chairman, urged the station to cancel the show[24] even though Big Brother was Channel 4's most financially successful television programme, accounting for around seven per cent of its total £800 million advertising income.[24] However Celebrity Big Brother was suspended on 24 August 2007.[25]

Political reaction[edit]

Leicester East MP Keith Vaz tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament addressing this issue,[26] while the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown condemned the attacks. Tony Blair refused to comment on the issue as he had not been watching the show, although he did condemn racism in all its forms. The government of India stated that it would take "action as required".

Then London mayor Ken Livingstone stated, "The racism towards Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother is completely unacceptable". He went on to accuse the producers of the programme of selectively editing the show "to broadcast participants' racist comments".

In an interview with Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman Trevor Phillips, Channel 4 Chairman Luke Johnson was held accountable for what Phillips termed as 'failing to deal properly with the crisis'. Phillips suggested that Johnson should "make clear that they got it wrong" and admit that "they intervened too little too late". He also suggested that Channel 4 should not profit from the series, giving all of the money to charity. Phillips suggested that if this failed to happen, further action could be taken by the culture secretary and Johnson's job could be under threat.[27]

Reaction in India[edit]

In response to the alleged racism directed at actress Shilpa in the Big Brother House, protesters took to the streets in India and burned effigies of the show's organisers. The Indian Government planned to raise the issue with the British Government. India Tourism Office extended an "invitation" to Jade Goody to visit India and experience its "healing nature". Jade did eventually become a contestant on the Indian version of Big Brother, Bigg Boss.[28]

Police investigation[edit]

According to the BBC, Shilpa confided in fellow housemate Cleo Rocos that she feared the arguments between Jade, Jo, Danielle and herself were the result of her race. After being told by Cleo that this was unlikely, Shilpa retorted, "It is, I'm telling you". Shilpa did not lodge an official complaint of racist behaviour to Big Brother.[19] However, her words compelled police to investigate whether or not to classify her treatment as 'racial hatred' under Part III of the Public Order Act 1986.

Hertfordshire Police said in a statement that it was:

investigating allegations of racist behaviour in the Big Brother house and will be conducting enquiries, including a review of the tapes. We will continue to liaise with Ofcom and with Endemol, whom we have strongly encouraged to ensure that any form of behaviour that could raise similar concerns, does not occur. We will continue to closely monitor the situation over the next few days. Hertfordshire Constabulary will not tolerate racism in any form and is taking these allegations seriously. The constabulary has experience of investigating and resolving incidents in the Big Brother house in past seasons.[29]

Shilpa later withdrew her claims of racism, stating she did not think Jade was being racist during their argument.[17] However, Shilpa was unaware of all the alleged insults levelled against her, often behind her back.


On 18 January, The Carphone Warehouse suspended its sponsorship of Celebrity Big Brother with immediate effect over the alleged racism. This did not however, entitle the Carphone Warehouse to recoup prepaid sponsorship monies, therefore causing minimal financial damage to Channel 4.[17] The company's chief executive, Charles Dunstone, stated:

Our concern has rapidly mounted about the broadcast behaviour of individuals within the Big Brother house.

We are totally against all forms of racism and bullying and indeed this behaviour is entirely at odds with the brand values of the Carphone Warehouse. As a result we feel that as long as this continues we are unable to associate our brand with the programme.

We had already made it clear to Channel 4 that were this to continue, we would have to consider our position. Nothing we saw last night gave us any comfort.

Accordingly we have instructed Channel 4 to remove our sponsorship name and branding with immediate effect.

Other sponsors of the show, Beauty-boxes.com, Zamya aromatherapy products, United Biscuits and Cobra Beer, withdrew sponsorship from the programme,[3][24] and deals with a number of advertisers, including Cow & Gate, the baby food manufacturer, and MoneySupermarket.com were cancelled. Vanni Treves, Channel 4's former chairman, urged the station to cancel the show[24] while Hertsmere Borough Council, the owners of Big Brother's studios in Borehamwood, threatened to refuse permission to film.[30]

Fragrance chain The Perfume Shop withdrew Jade Goody's brand of perfume, Shh..., from their stores.[31] Pharmacy chain Boots, and Debenhams department stores followed suit and pulled the perfume from their shelves.[15][32] HarperCollins cancelled plans to publish the paperback version of Jade Goody's autobiography. The book, titled Jade: My Autobiography was published in hardback in May 2006, and was scheduled to be released in paperback on 5 February 2007. A spokesman for the firm stated:

In light of recent events, HarperCollins has decided it wouldn't be appropriate to proceed with the paperback publication of Jade: My Autobiography as planned on 5 February. The author and agent support this decision.[33]

A charity supported by Jade named Act Against Bullying dropped all mention of Jade from their website citing the racism allegations as the cause.[34] LIVINGtv also cancelled its six-figure contract with Jade Goody, though it did not specifically cite her behaviour as a cause.

Motorcycle insurance company Bennetts also terminated its six-figure agreement with Danielle to be the official model for their company, citing the racism allegations for this termination.[30]


While on a trip to India, Jade apologised for her behaviour. She admitted that her comments to Shilpa could be seen as racist. In a video posted on the News of the World's website, Jade tearfully said:

I know that things that I don't think are necessarily racist ... could be. ... And I am sincerely sorry for the pain and hurt I've caused to Shilpa's family. I am wrong ... I am wrong and I know that my words and my actions were wrong and I'm not trying to justify that in any way – I am wrong, and the people who have complained are not wrong. They're just insulted by me and I completely take that criticism.[5]

Big Brother intervention[edit]

A Channel 4 spokeswoman admitted Big Brother had intervened in the row - but only to make contestants "realise that what they have said has been misconstrued in the house". The idea, she said, was to allow the housemates "to explain themselves" to their fellow contestants.[35] This was followed by a series of apologies by the housemates to Shilpa, and a declaration by her that she did not believe Jade was racist. Also Jade said inside the house before she left: "I know why there's no noise". When Shilpa asked "Why?", Jade replied: "I know, but I can't tell you".[3] In an interview with the Daily Star, Jade admitted that, during her final hours in the Channel 4 house, Big Brother had revealed that her abuse of Shilpa had ruined her own "girl-next-door" image.

Additional claims[edit]

On 1 February 2007, several British media outlets began reporting additional claims that Shilpa had in fact been called a "fucking Paki" by a housemate, although it was unclear whether this was the incident involving Jack. In another instance, Shilpa was reported to have been the subject of a 'limerick', improvised by one of the housemates, which began "there was a young girl from Bombay", and ended "this house was happy, until we got that fucking Paki" – inaccurately recounting what was said.[36] These claims allegedly come from an Endemol employee who was interviewed the previous day by Hertfordshire Police, and who provided them with a hand-written "production running-order", intended for Dermot O'Leary, the back of which detailed these episodes as well as noting "there ARE dodgy clips, we are fucked". Police were said to have demanded unedited footage of these alleged incidents from Endemol, who confidently denied the claims, and refused to hand over any footage.[37] The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to bring criminal charges against anyone or pursue unbroadcast footage through the courts. The informant did not come forward to have his/her claims tested.


The launch show of Celebrity Big Brother (aired on 3 January 2007) averaged 7.1 million viewers,[38] and ratings fell to 3.9 million by 7 January.[39] Ratings quickly rose as media coverage reported alleged racism towards Shilpa from fellow female contestants; the episode which aired on 2007/01/16 saw a ratings boost with the show sharing 18% of the available audience and ratings of 4.5 million viewers.[40] The episode the following night also rose in ratings, with 5.2 million viewers. The ratings once again rose on Jade's eviction night to an average of 7.8 million viewers,[41] and a peak of 8.8 million viewers, which were the highest viewing figures in the history of Celebrity Big Brother'[42] and second for any Big Brother show after the Big Brother 3 finale, which landed a record 10 million viewers.[43] The Big Brother 3 final night was the same night that Jade left the house for the first time back in 2002.


Shilpa Shetty[edit]

On 28 January 2007, Shetty was announced the winner of Celebrity Big Brother after polling 63% of the final vote.[44] On 14 February 2007, Shetty said "Jade did apologise. And I've forgiven her. Anyone, who knows me, knows I forgive and forget easily."[6] On 17 February 2007, Shetty said that she wanted to forgive Jo O'Meara, but she and other Celebrity Big Brother contestants had difficulty contacting her.

On 11 May 2007, Shetty released her new Bollywood film, Life in a... Metro. The film had a Leicester Square premiere (the first for a Bollywood film). In the UK, Shetty continues to work on projects, including a West End musical and perfume.

Jade Goody[edit]

After the controversy, Goody's career took a rough blow and she decided to step out of the limelight for a while due to alleged death threats and all her deals being scrapped. She returned in August 2008 to launch a new television show Living With Jade to try to revive her career. In August 2008, she appeared as a houseguest on the Indian version of Big Brother, Bigg Boss, but left on day 2 after being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Her show returned months later showing her progress until February 2009 when she was told her illness was terminal and that she had months to live. Goody died one month later on 22 March 2009, leaving behind her two children and newly married husband, Jack Tweed.

Jo O'Meara[edit]

Unlike fellow housemate Jade Goody, O'Meara did not donate her fees for appearing on the show (and for an interview with the Sunday Mirror) to charity, stating that her intention in taking part in the show was to pay off her mortgage debt. She claimed that the media frenzy surrounding the depiction of her as racist had left her on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that she was in an unstable mental state, and had even considered physically harming herself.

In an interview with Sky News, O'Meara explained that she had been left feeling paranoid, and had been prescribed drugs to return her to 'normal'. In an interview with United Kingdom breakfast television show GMTV, O'Meara stated she needed to be in a safe house as she had received death threats. In the interview, she stated how she received very little support from Big Brother.

Danielle Lloyd[edit]

Unlike housemates Jade Goody and Jo O'Meara, Lloyd did not receive as much criticism from the media or public and remained a prominent figure throughout 2007. In May 2007, she attended the premiere of Shilpa Shetty's film Life in a... Metro in London, in which she and Shetty were photographed together.

Ofcom Report[edit]

On 24 May 2007, it was reported that TV watchdog Ofcom had adjudicated on the race row during Celebrity Big Brother following the record number of complaints. Channel 4 was found to have breached the Ofcom code of conduct. Statutory sanctions were imposed on Channel 4, obliging them to broadcast statements of Ofcom's findings on three separate occasions at the start of the new series of Big Brother in May. It was also reported that footage of an alleged racist limerick about Shilpa devised by her antagonisers did exist, despite previous denials by Endemol.[45] However, the report made clear that the word "paki" was not used by Jack Tweed as previously believed.[46] A transcript of untransmitted footage was also released where Big Brother clearly warns some housemates that what they were saying could be regarded as racially offensive.[36]

Bigg Boss[edit]

In August 2008, Shilpa and Jade came face-to-face during the second season of the Indian version of Big Brother, Bigg Boss. Jade was a contestant, Shilpa was the host. In the VT played before Jade's entry into the House, she said that CBB5 was "behind her" and that she "wasn't proud of it".

Jade was forced to pull out of the show on Day 2, after tests conducted before she entered the house revealed she had cervical cancer. Upon hearing the news, Shilpa said, "I was really sad when I heard the news. It's a tough time for her, and I hope she is able to cope with this pain."[47]

In February 2009, after the cancer metastasised, Jade was told that it was terminal[48] and died one month later, in the early hours of 22 March 2009.[49]

Big Brother[edit]

After the show, the Big Brother producers suspended Celebrity Big Brother for the 2008 series, stating that it needed a rest, and they wanted to make room for new shows.[2] Replacing the show in 2008 was Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack.[50] Celebrity Big Brother returned for its sixth series in 2009. Channel 4 dropped Big Brother from its schedules in 2010, and the rights were acquired by Channel 5.


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