Between the azure waters, caramel-coloured sand and taut beach bodies, ITV Studios’ hit reality TV dating show “Love Island,” which returned to British screens this week, offers viewers a Mediterranean dream away from their own humdrum lives. The strapline on the U.S. version is “Escape Nightly.”
The show’s premise is, of course, to find love and some couples have gone the distance after meeting in the infamous “Love Island” villa, with a handful even going on to get married and have children. Even “Love Island’s” latest presenter, Laura Whitmore, and its long-time narrator, Iain Stirling, are now coupled up, after reportedly meeting at an ITV party several years ago.
But romance isn’t the only — or even the primary — impetus for many contestants. Instead, they’re lured onto the show by the promise of untold fame and riches. “Going on ‘Love Island’ now is like winning the lottery, isn’t it?” ex-Islander Rachel Christie told Variety. Christie, a former Miss England, appeared on the show in 2015 and has since gone on to launch her own vegan make-up and apparel line, Christie Collection.
Which is perhaps why, last year, twice as many people applied for “Love Island” (over 100,000) as Oxford and Cambridge, Britain’s top universities (43,840 combined, according to recent figures). So popular is the series that producers in the U.K. are having difficulty finding contestants for other reality TV shows. “The problem we’ve got is everyone wants to do ‘Love Island,’” one reality TV casting director, who asked to remain anonymous, told Variety. “No one wants to do any other show. I mean, [it’s like] Willy Wonka. That is the golden ticket.”
As well as a £50,000 ($69,000) cash prize for each season’s winning couple, former Islanders have landed lucrative sponsorships, brand deals, clothing lines, modelling work and appearances on other primetime reality TV shows such as “Dancing on Ice.” John Alberti, who, along with his twin Tony, appeared on the first season of the re-booted show in 2015, admitted to Variety the brothers only went on “Love Island” to promote their cooking skills. “We’ve never had a problem finding girls,” he said. “We knew what we wanted to do in the future so we knew going on there would be a good platform.”
The twins have since gone on to publish a cookbook, called “Twintastico,” launched a YouTube channel and even appeared on the “Today” show alongside Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Ali. They’re currently at work on a second cookbook.
But behind the glossy “Love Island” fantasy, there is a darker reality — one in which two former Islanders, as well as the show’s former host, Caroline Flack, have died by suicide in the space of three years, leading many to question the responsibility the show has to its contestants as well as its audience.
“Love Island” first launched on ITV in 2005 as “Celebrity Love Island,” running for two seasons until it was axed in 2006 amid poor ratings. In 2015, ITV Studios announced they were re-booting the show with “real” people. It aired that summer, six days a week, on ITV2 and quickly became appointment viewing among the valuable 16-34 demographic, a rarity in the age of streaming.
It also became a cash cow. As well as selling the format across the globe (there are versions in the U.S., Australia and Nigeria, among other countries), this year there are nine sponsors attached to the show, according to The Guardian, and advertising spots are charged at a premium. In 2019, when the last summer season of the show aired (2020’s was canceled due to the pandemic), ITV reportedly made £77 million in ad revenue, according to advertising industry trade publication Campaign.
But behind the scenes, life after “Love Island” was proving to be not so much a dream as a nightmare for some of its former contestants.
In June 2018, just a few weeks after season 4 began airing, ex-Islander Sophie Gradon, a marketing manager and beauty queen who had appeared on the show two years earlier, died by suicide after consuming alcohol and cocaine, an inquest found. Her boyfriend, who was not associated with “Love Island,” also died by suicide 20 days after finding her body.
The following March, Mike Thalassitis, a professional footballer and fellow ex-Islander who had appeared on the show two years earlier, died by suicide after consuming cocaine and alcohol. Toxicology reports found traces of anti-depressants in both Gradon’s and Thalassitis’s systems.
A source at ITV was keen to point out that neither inquest mentioned “Love Island” as having contributed to either death. And in both cases, some time had elapsed between their appearance on the show and their deaths.
These tragedies were soon eclipsed by a third, even more shocking, suicide in February 2020, this time of the show’s popular host Caroline Flack. An inquest found that Flack’s mental health had deteriorated following her December 2019 arrest after she allegedly assaulted her boyfriend. She was facing trial at the time of her death.
While there is no suggestion that “Love Island” was in any way connected to the deaths, there has, understandably, been something of a reckoning at ITV. Before the show’s seventh season aired this week, the broadcaster released updated duty of care protocols, which offer contestants multiple therapy sessions, financial advice and social media training.
“I have reviewed ‘Love Island’s’ duty of care processes from end to end and they show a degree of diligence that demonstrates the seriousness with which this is taken by the production team,” Dr Paul Lichfield, ITV’s independent medical advisor, said in 2019.
“The processes and the support offered to Islanders have necessarily evolved as the show has developed and grown in popularity. The aim throughout has been to identify vulnerabilities at an early stage so that necessary adjustments can be made or potential Islanders can be advised that the show is not right for them. A high level of professional expertise has been engaged to provide comprehensive support not only while young people are actively engaged with the show but also for an extended period when they are adjusting to life thereafter.”
But even with producers’ best intentions, it can be difficult to prepare people for how fickle fame can be.
“There’s a one-year shelf life,” the anonymous casting director said frankly. “You go into the villa on ‘Love Island’ in the year 2020, you’ve got ‘til 2021 because next year is the new batch of people and no one’s really going to want to know about you next year. They want to know about the new people.”
According to Montana Brown, a friend of Thalassitis’s who appeared alongside him on the show’s third season, work and money were weighing on Thalassitis in the months before his death. “At that point, the work wasn’t coming in; he’d finished ‘Celebs Go Dating,’ the buzz had kind of gone, and he didn’t really know what to do for work,” she said during an appearance on “This Morning.” “I know he had a massive tax bill that he paid.”
Christie said it’s a common misconception that people on television are all rich. She would often notice people staring and whispering when she took the bus with her young son. “When you’re on TV and [appear in] the papers, people automatically assume that you must be a multimillionaire, you don’t have a normal life,” she explained. “And that’s not the case at all.”
Even John Alberti, who, alongside his twin Tony, said they’d had a “fantastic” time on the show, admitted that life after “Love Island” isn’t always plain sailing. “I think when you come off a show like that you think you’re gonna be massive and everything’s going to be perfect,” John Alberti told Variety. “And it doesn’t end up like that.”
And, as many ex-Islanders have discovered, social media has made appearing on reality TV far more perilous than it was even 15 years ago. Gradon had spoken of struggling with internet trolls just months before her death. Even Caroline Flack, a seasoned professional, struggled with the digital onslaught. “Carrie was the worst one, she would look at her phone all the time,” her mother Christine said in a recent Channel 4 documentary about Flack. “It took her over, what was being said on there.”
As reality TV psychologist Gladeana McMahon, who has worked on hundreds of shows including “Big Brother” and “Next Top Model,” told Variety, she always warns wannabe contestants that the audience “loves to love and they love to hate.”
It’s a subject ITV is now trying to tackle directly with viewers, who seem to enjoy talking about “Love Island” as much as they enjoy watching it.
Earlier this month, before the latest cast was announced, the “Love Island” Instagram account posted a note saying: “We hope you enjoy the show, but please think before you post.” Whether audiences will take heed — or not — could go a long way in shaping the future of its young stars.