Is Reality TV Killing Its Contestants?

Mike Thalassitis, an ex-Love Island contender was found dead on the 15th March

On 15th March, Mike Thalassitis, the Love Island contestant, was found dead. His suicide came within a year of another Love Island alum, Sophie Gradon, who died in June 2018. They bring the number of former reality television contestants who have died by suicide up to 38.

How do you prepare someone for the instant fame reality stars receive

38 people: if this were a result of a serial killer, the number would be akin to Ted Bundy’s known victims. But we’re not talking serial killers. We’re not even talking one television programme, but people from different countries and completely different shows. The shared experience is that all those programmes were reality shows. Is reality television killing its contestants?  It certainly sets up its stars for a life they aren’t always equipped to deal with. But when it comes to the cult of celebrity, we’re all complicit.

How do you prepare someone for the instant fame a reality stars receives once they re-join real life? After weeks or months of seclusion, contestants re-enter the world to find their lives irrevocably changed. There are Instagram deals, endless, exhausting public appearances, constant attention and, of course, fortunes to be made. 

As Geordie Shore’s Holly Hagan said, unlike almost every other profession on the earth, there’s no clear advice for what reality television stars should do when they’re no longer actually on reality television.

Not only does everyone suddenly know who they are (including A-list celebrities and politicians), but after months of watching them, everyone has an opinion, too. Those opinions are no longer restricted to tabloid headings but can be found splashed across the contestants’ social media, making it almost impossible for them to avoid unless they’re particularly disciplined. The trolling can be brutal, as Olivia Attwood, who appeared on the same series as Mike Thalassitis and dated him on the programme, attested to after she shared a tribute to him. In her last interview, Gradon described it as 'horrific' and said she struggled to cope, that it affected her mental health. 

Then, after a year, there’s a new crop of contestants and the moment is over for the stars of the last series. If they haven’t managed to secure a spin-off, joined an existing programme or otherwise capitalised on their infamy, the money dries up and it’s back to normal life. Except now, they have the tag of ‘ex-reality star’ or Z-list celebrity’ following them around. Most of the contestants are teens or 20-somethings who haven’t been taught how to handle the spotlight, the pressure that comes with it or how to manage their finances and the experience can be a whirlwind. When it abruptly ends, they’re left shattered. 

And that’s just for those that had a positive experience. The ones that made mistakes or bad choices (and what 20-something hasn’t?), or simply didn’t understand how unflattering editing could make them look, the consequences can follow them far longer than the fame. When the former Miss Great Britain Zara Holland had sex on Love Island, she was stripped of her title. She has since said it was the ‘biggest regret of her life’. 

 an epidemic of ugliness.

Love Island isn’t alone in this. The Only Way is Essex’s Maria Fowler and Mario Falcone have also both spoken about their attempted suicides and struggles with depression after the treatment they received in the media, the latter facing the breakdown of his relationship after he was accused of cheating.

Even for experienced celebrities, it can be difficult. Pamela Anderson, who has appeared on Big Brother, Dancing on Ice and With The Stars, called for a ban, saying they’re an ‘epidemic of ugliness’. 

While some former stars have praised the support they received after their time on television, plenty of others have said they were left to struggle alone. Former contestants, producers and psychologists alike have criticised the screening process that allows the vulnerable to slip through or even to be used for ratings. Like former Big Brother housemate Caroline Wharram, who had a public breakdown while on the show, binge-eating and purging in full view of the cameras. Her eating disorder predated the programme, but producers still cast her. Love Island has promised to change, but it’s under no obligation to; there are no regulations about providing support.

It’s reductive to point to any one cause of a person’s suicide. In 90% of cases, there will have been some form of mental health problem leading up to the death. There may be triggers, but a trigger is not the cause. Attwood has said it’s ridiculous to blame the show. She has said that it ‘saved her’. 

Mike Thalassitis was facing a lot of debt. He was grieving the recent death of his grandmother and his best friend, who died months before, and he had just been through a break-up. He was reportedly on anti-depressants, having struggled with depression for months. And on top of that, he was working on a new business venture, opening a restaurant

There are also greater societal issues. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 50 and men aged 20-59 are particularly at risk. In 2016, the ONS released figures that showed men are three times as likely to die by suicide as women. Yet men are far less likely to seek help than women are. There’s a stigma surrounding mental health, which is particularly prevalent for men. 

But it’s also hard to ignore the signs, the shared experience, the life changes that are inspired by one summer in a villa, or a season on a reality show. Were the producers of Love Island responsible? No. But could producers across these shows do more for their stars? It sounds like the answer is an absolute yes.  

By Amy Lavelle

Amy Lavelle is a freelance journalist and writer who covers everything from crime to lifestyle, for national newspapers, magazines and online. Website: amylavelle.com