Reality check: the deadly true cost of brutal TV fame
A second 'Love Island' contestant's suicide has put the spotlight on such shows and how they fail in their duty of care
The tragic death of Love Island star Mike Thalassitis, who was found hanged in a north London park over the weekend, has raised questions about how fame, especially reality TV fame, is handled by the people who go through it.
It has also left many people, from former cast mates of 26-year-old Thalassitis to UK health secretary Matt Hancock, saying such shows need to do more to protect their contestants from the position they propel them to.
In 2000, the early days of what we now know as reality TV, no one gave much thought to ordinary people and the effect TV fame would have on them. “Duty of care” they now call it. Television didn’t feature “ordinary people”. It was reserved for actors in dramas or comedians or game show presenters. All already famous. There were a few ordinary types, but not many. They featured in vox pops on local news bulletins, showing concern about new building developments. Or nervously looking into the camera as they asked something on Question Time. Or as a guest on a quiz show with a prominent name badge: they had to have a name badge because otherwise we wouldn’t know their name. We’d never seen them before, we’d never see them again.
The talent shows of the 1970s were dead. No one unknown was made famous by television. It just didn’t happen. But in 2000, things started to change.
In January that year Castaway 2000 began, and in July Big Brother launched in the UK. But even they weren’t supposed to turn unknowns into celebrities. They were social experiments, where members of the public were left on a Hebridean island or locked in a house in east London to see how they got on, like mice in a lab. The latter had been a hit in the Netherlands, native country of show creator John de Mol, but hadn’t made anyone famous. In Britain, they didn’t become famous either, at first.
The early weeks saw “housemates” have intense conversations into the early hours or feed the chickens or read a book. Then one contestant, Nick Bateman, tried to fix the show to his advantage and he was suddenly “Nasty Nick”, the reality TV scoundrel who got thrown out of the house and into a celebrity world where he was invited to film premieres, had his photo taken with Brad Pitt and ended up on the front page of The Sun.
As then editor of the celebrity magazine Heat, I saw the nature of fame start to change, first-hand. Big Hollywood stars and their entourages were out. What our readers wanted to read about was down-to-earth, “real” stars. Talent shows were revived, this time showing the process behind the process. Real-live auditions were filmed and shown on prime time TV, with critical judges and actual tears.
Then there were the ordinary people being left to fend for themselves on desert islands – endurance formats and the like. These people really did become famous. They got agents. Big Brother, especially, got bigger and bigger. The final night of the third series in 2002 peaked at 9.9 million – 51% of the UK’s television-watching audience. Contestants in that series went on to have their own radio shows (Adele Roberts still has a regular slot on Radio One, while Kate Lawler has a prime-time show on Virgin Radio) or become roving reporters on daytime television (Alison Hammond is one of the star presenters on the UK’s This Morning).
During the two decades since Big Brother began, reality TV got enlarged and refined. This leads us to Love Island, the British show where singletons get dumped in a glitzy villa in Majorca and are encouraged to make out and fall out. The rise of the show has been matched by the rise of social media – the combination of the two has created insta-celebrities.
It has also created challenges. Yes, some of the “stars” do go on to present their own television shows or climb Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief (like Dani Dyer, daughter of EastEnders star Danny Dyer and one half of the winning 2018 Love Island couple), but most don’t. They make a living doing personal appearances or endorsing products online. Some have said they get paid thousands for pushing surgical procedures or weight-loss products on social media feeds. It’s habit-forming and it pays. They are famous now, these people, they are recognised as they walk down the street. But their means of making a steady, long-term living as a famous person has never been established.
It all gets very precarious, which is why some take the endorsements for the most morally dubious of products as times get tougher. The fame and money can be so fleeting, it is tough to keep up the facade. It has been reported that Thalassitis had been dealing with huge debts in the months leading up to his death, having had to put his party lifestyle on hold to become a fulltime carer for his grandmother, who died days before he did.
What is particularly notable with a show like Love Island is that, of course, there’s a whole new generation of “stars” who come along each summer and largely replace the ones who have gone before. It’s brutal. It’s always assumed that these contestants get everything they dreamed of. But living with the reality is tough.
Thalassitis’s death, and that of fellow Love Island star Sophie Gradon, 32, in 2018, has raised questions about the show’s duty of care arrangements.
His former co-star, Dom Lever, said: “You get a psychological evaluation before and after you go on the show but, hands down, once you are done ... you don’t get any support unless you’re number one.”
Changes will probably need to be made. But with the number of people these shows churn through, and the problems they generate manifold, it’s a huge challenge for television companies that is going to be very difficult – maybe even impossible – to manage.
– © The Daily Telegraph