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Mike Thalassitis Getty Images.jpg

Great TV, Bad Real Life: In Support of Giving Reality Television Contestants Aftercare

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | March 20, 2019 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | March 20, 2019 |

Mike Thalassitis Getty Images.jpg

Last week, Mike Thalassitis, a contestant on the wildly popular British reality series Love Island, died from suicide at the age of 26. Thalassitis, a former professional footballer, appeared on the show in 2017, then joined the fourth season of another reality series, Celebs Go Dating, in 2018. It was reported that Thalassitis had been struggling with the recent death of his grandmother. The news came less than a year from the suicide of Sophie Gradon, another Love Island contestant and former Miss Great Britain.

Various celebrities and fellow contestants from the show, which was described as the breakout television hit of the Summer in the UK last year, shared their condolences while offering their candid opinions on how the series left many of them ill-equipped for the real world once filming stopped. Dom Lever, a former Love Island contestant who had appeared on the show alongside Thalassitis, said on Twitter, ‘You get a psychological evaluation before and after you go on the show but hands down once you are done on the show you don’t get any support unless you’re number one.’ Jess Shears, another former contestant and Lever’s wife, shared similar thoughts, saying, ‘Shows offer you ‘support’ but realistically it’s only while you are in their care. Minute you get home & are no longer making them money it’s out of sight out of mind. There should be ongoing support & also financial [sp] advice. Life after these shows isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’

A spokesperson for ITV, after expressing their sympathies for Thalassitis’s family, told the Daily Mail that contestants do receive support, and that ‘all of our Contributors are able to access psychological support before, during and after appearing on the show. The programme will always provide ongoing support when needed and where appropriate.’

I’ve never watched Love Island but as a celebrity and pop culture writer, I am keenly aware of its unexpectedly seismic impact on British entertainment. The series went from being a one-trick pony to the binge-watch of the Summer, and it felt like everyone I knew was watching it, even those who admitted to finding reality television distasteful. It was too addictive, but ITV2 were savvy enough to have the show on every weeknight to give their viewers a regular fix. It’s the perfect formula for fizzy Summer viewing: Take a bunch of good looking young people with sex on the brain, send them to a sunny location where wearing as few clothes as possible is encouraged, remove all the airs and graces, and manipulate events just enough so that authenticity still seems to be the prevailing force. Watch enough reality TV and you’ll see this formula everywhere. Sometimes, the people involved are rich and bratty, other times they’re ‘regular folks’ letting it all hang out. It doesn’t even need to feel all that real. Indeed, we seem happier with our reality as manufactured as it can possibly be these days, as evidenced by shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, any iteration of the Real Housewives, and indeed, Love Island.

The Love Island phenomenon proved all the more intriguing to me over this past year as the ecosystem that sprung from it helped to strengthen a very specific level of celebrity: The C-List. Think reality contestants, those actors who were big in that thing you loved as a kid but don’t do much of merit now, the one hit wonder musicians who always seem to perform at your old university’s freshers week, those people who you know are famous, even if you can’t entirely remember why. It’s a cycle of self-sustaining celebrity, the routine of becoming famous for being famous. In a new age of fame, where there are more platforms than ever to leverage for profit and one only needs a small but captive audience of devotees to remain on top, there’s a lot of space and opportunities for a one-time reality show contestant to make bank. Browse any Love Island contestants’ social media pages and you’ll find all manner of sponsored content, club appearances and details on contacting their respective managements. There will always be detox tea to sell, teeth-whitening services to advertise, nightclubs to party at for the right fee.

And there will always be a new crop of C-Listers to replace last season’s lot. Forget fifteen minutes of fame, you’re lucky if you get fifteen seconds now, but the after-effects are more heightened than ever. This is something no reality show producer seems willing to prepare its contestants for, and something that seems so unavoidable for people like the Love Island ensemble. You’re on television all Summer and you’re sparking endless online conversations as well as tabloid inches of varying degrees of emotion, but you don’t get a chance to read any of that until you’re off the air. You go from being the hottest property on celeb-dom to that hanger on who won’t go away, but it’s not like you can entirely return to your old life.

In a world of media monopolies, the cannibalistic nature of celebrity becomes all the more evident. In the UK, the publishing group Reach plc owns the publishing assets to the Daily and Sunday Express, the Daily Star, the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the Sunday People, the Scottish Daily Record, OK! Magazine, and Sunday Mail. News UK, also known as News Corp, currently publish The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun, three of the biggest newspapers in the country. American Media, Inc., the gossip magazine kings, are responsible for everything from Closer Magazine to Radar Online to Us Weekly and, yes, the National Enquirer. There’s always a need for content and a market for those stars who you ‘love to hate’, the reality TV contestants who are universally agreed to have little worth beyond the cheapest entertainment value. They’re not ‘real celebrities’ under this system, but they’re still famous enough to exploit. You get to be much crueler to them than you would be with the A-Listers, and they’ll play along and provide more stories because it’s always safer to have the vultures on your side than against you.

We see this cycle play out with the Love Island crew. They take advantage of the opportunities available to them, which creates more headlines, but soon every aspect of their lives becomes content. Cameras can chase you down the street — in British tabloid culture, the press cruelty is especially pointed — and every facial expression you have is fodder for a clickbait story. You’re smiling? What have you got to be so happy about? You’re sad? Clearly, you just can’t hack it. You take the opportunities offered to you and you’re slammed as desperate, fame-hungry, trying to cash in on something nobody cares about. Even rejecting these options will earn you sneers of derision that you’re suddenly too good for all this.

The comment I’ve seen repeated the most following the news of Thalassitis’s death was varying iterations of the phrase, ‘Well surely these contestants know what they’re getting themselves in for.’ But nothing can prepare you for that sudden increase in attention and hatred. I’ve had tweets go viral in major ways and that led to major anxiety on my part, so I can’t imagine the mental and emotional strain of becoming a reality show hero/villain. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have good support structures in place before you sign up, or you’re genuinely unshakable in ways that most of us truly envy. Perhaps the producers and showrunners do have your best interests at heart, but it’s tough to buy that line when this particular form of entertainment is built on manipulation and human puppetry. Maybe you know how this genre works and all the tricks of the trade but it’s a whole other thing to experience in real time when you’re being filmed 24/7 and the edit happens without you seeing the end results.

The Love Island problem also comes with a very specific side-effect. This is a show where contestants are supposed to find love. The entire conceit relies on participants pairing up for romantic shenanigans, and sex is encouraged. Contestants who have done the deed on air, particularly female ones, are likely to be subjected to all manner of abuse and slut-shaming. The Catch-22 of this is especially harsh: It’s a show set up to encourage sexual interactions, but those who do so are immediately lambasted for it.

I’m sure there will be plenty of cynical replies to this, the usual cries of ‘Nobody makes them go on these shows’ or insistence that there are more important things going on in the world. I get that. I don’t think anyone’s a hero for going on a terrible reality show, but it would be naïve of us at best to pretend that people who participate in this particular game are doing so with a full deck. As evidenced by the many former Love Island contestants speaking up on social media, they haven’t been given the support and provisions promised by the network, and that’s made an indelible impact on their lives. Want people to play the game? Then give them all the tools.