Since the tragic news broke this weekend that Mike Thalassitis had died at the age of 26, several former Love Island stars have been voicing their concerns online about the aftercare contestants receive, claiming more needs to be done to look after those that have been catapulted to instant fame after taking part and prepare them for the hardships that come.
Scrolling through their replies, what struck me was just how many people were completely lacking in empathy, even in the wake of Mike’s tragic death, suggesting they signed up for Love Island of their own accord, and ‘knew what they were getting themselves into’.
With respect, they very obviously did not.
First of all, Love Island is only four series into its current ITV2 incarnation. The first went by pretty much unnoticed in 2015, with the second only beginning to grow its audience as things went on.
The third series in 2017 was when Love Island’s popularity began to skyrocket, something no one involved could have been prepared for, not least the contestants taking part in it, who are completely cut off from the outside world for their entire stay.
This means that when the majority are at the height of their celebrity (ie. when the show is still on the air) they have no control over, or even knowledge of, what’s being written about them – their media profile is something they have to wait until leaving the show to figure out.
However, by then, the chances are the tabloids have already made their mind up about you, your persona, the angle they’re going to use to write about you with, and therefore what their readers are going to be led to think about you, and that’s something that’s very difficult to shake.
At the same time as having this new-found celebrity to get your head around – and a backlog of tabloid stories to catch up on, should you so wish – there’s an army of tabloid reporters with a daily quota of stories to write, waiting for you to say something, upload something to Instagram or fire off a tweet.
Essentially, by this point your every movement is a potential story, depending on how much interest there is in you. Posting a smiling selfie on Instagram becomes ‘laughing off a Love Island row’. Replying to someone on Twitter becomes ‘speaking out amid backlash’. Leaving the house becomes ‘stepping out after latest Love Island shocker’.
And then there’s the hell-pit of social media. Your mentions will already have been jam-packed with an unsettling mix of viewers dying to just be acknowledged by you, and trolls calling you every name under the sun, because of something you did on TV a few weeks ago, that you’ve long forgotten about.
Maybe it goes one step further than that. Maybe you had sex on TV with someone you loved, or liked in that moment, or just fancied having sex with, and Love Island fans don’t want to let you forget it. Maybe they don’t like the way you look, your race, your religion, your background, your body.
Scrolling through that can fill in hours at a time for someone who’s just come off Love Island, and while sensible folks will tell you ‘don’t read the comments’, how many of us can honestly say they wouldn’t be refreshing their mentions?
It’s a dark rabbit hole to fall down, and an addictive one at that, with journalists just waiting to see how you deal with it, and anyone you respond to is an instant headline: ‘Love Island contestant hits back at trolls’.
Of course, maybe some outlets won’t even wait that long, instead choosing to simply write a story on the online backlash you’re facing – as they did with Mike Thalassitis’ ex-girlfriend, Megan McKenna. She was the subject of completely unnecessary headlines about ‘vile trolls’ when she waited more than 24 hours to tweet about his death, which ultimately gave said ‘vile trolls’ an even bigger platform.
There are upsides too, though. There just might be an Instagram sponsored post request coming your way, or an invitation to do a club appearance, or a cameo on Celebrity Juice if you’re particularly lucky. And not all of the comments online will be negative, either. Perhaps every now and then there’s a message of support, someone telling you to keep your chin up, a fan telling you how you’ve made them laugh or inspired them.
But even in those instances, it’s not a warm glow you should get used to, because before long, we all know what happens. Just when you’re getting to grips with it, the light starts to dim, the offers start drying up, people begin to lose interest, the joke (if it wasn’t already) is now fully at your expense.
And at that point, there’s a real limit to what you can get away with unscathed. Showing up to red carpet events and giving interviews inevitably leads to you being branded ‘washed-up’ and ‘desperate’ to cling onto your 15 minutes of fame.
Accepting an offer to go on another reality show can lead to jibes about how you couldn’t land anything more high-profile. And even for those who do get the more prestigious showbiz jobs, they’re still criticised for not being qualified, or bringing down the name of whatever it is they’ve attached themselves to for being from a show like Love Island.
And then what? After shooting to instant fame from nothing, being put through the tabloid machine and ultimately spat out in the space of a few short months, who can honestly say they know how they’d react, or the toll that would take on their self-esteem, their self-worth and even their mental health?
Yes, it was a process they opened the door to and volunteered themselves for willingly, and yes, quite a lot of the people appearing on Love Island will have auditioned actively inviting fame into their lives. But does that mean they deserve all of the toxicity that they were unwittingly welcoming along with it?
‘Former Love Island contestant’ is a very specific type of fame that only a handful of people in this country have ever experienced, and only they can truly understand it. But if those people are saying that it’s a broken system, then we owe it to them to listen and make changes – particularly as it’s a system that now has a death count.
And in all honesty, I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, and I don’t think it’s as simple as blaming ITV for their apparent lack of aftercare (allegations they have themselves addressed). I think if we want things to change, it’s going to take everyone in the process accepting some responsibility for what’s gone wrong until now.
What we need is for producers to be more aware of the pitfalls that come with instant fame, specifically in a digital age, and potentially to keep checking on those who might be struggling as a result of it, even years later. But similarly, agents and publicists and managers need to better prepare their new clients for the new difficulties they will be facing as a result of being on a show like Love Island.
It’s also going to take tabloid journalists reminding themselves that the young people they’re writing about day in, day out, are new to the world of fame, and they’re vulnerable. They aren’t fictional characters in a soap, they’re very much real people with the same insecurities and issues as everyone else, no matter how confidently they might choose to portray themselves.
And then there’s the part we all play in situations like this, particularly on social media, of which I am certainly not exempting myself. But perhaps before lambasting someone, or calling someone out, for reasons that are probably pretty trivial in the long run, perhaps we need to ask ourselves a few questions.
Questions like, “is this actually worth saying?” “Am I the 20th person to make this joke today?” “Am I making someone’s bad day even worse by piling on?” “Is this constructive?” “How would I feel if someone said this about me?” And perhaps most crucially, “is this person equipped to deal with what I’m contributing to?”