For the past month, a collection of attractive young men and women have been ensconced in a luxury Majorcan villa. Their days are spent lounging by an infinity pool under the hot Mediterranean sun, showing off bronzed, gym-honed bodies in skimpy swimwear.
As they laugh and flirt, their perfect smiles dazzle, while every word and move is filmed for television viewers.
This is the fourth series of ITV2’s Love Island, a reality show where contestants are tasked with finding ‘true’ love. Couples get voted off by fellow contestants and the public, leaving the final pair to claim a £50,000 prize.
The show is seen by more than three million viewers a night and has even won a BAFTA. It’s also hugely appealing to contestants, with more than 85,000 applicants this year, lured by the promise of fame and fortune.
Yet beneath the glitz and glamour, the fledgling romances and picturesque Spanish countryside, a darker side has started to emerge.
Ten days ago, a young woman died two years after being a Love Island contestant.
Sophie Gradon, 32, a former Miss Great Britain, was found dead at her parents’ home near Newcastle. In interviews, and on social media, she’d described having ‘sold her soul’ to reality TV and of suffering extreme anguish afterwards, exacerbated by online abuse. Chillingly, in a recent interview referring to her torment, she said: ‘The harsh reality is, it can end up with that victim taking their own life.’
The privately-educated graduate had also criticised the show’s makers for lack of psychological aftercare. ‘Honestly horrendous,’ she wrote in a Tweet last year. ‘They will lie, trick you and segregate you should you speak out against them BUT they provide a therapist for 6 months after so it’s OK.’
Reality TV is not new — it’s 18 years since Big Brother launched — but it has come to dominate TV schedules.
The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore, Made In Chelsea, Dating In The Dark, Wife Swap, Naked Attraction — the list goes on and on, such is the appetite to watch the lives of real people and their warts-and-all vulnerabilities.
Of course, Big Brother also heralded a new breed of celebrity, bereft of any discernible talent and famous for nothing more than appearing on a reality show.
But what is the psychological cost to contestants? What happens when they emerge from the Big Brother house or Love Island villa and return to normal life, when the cameras stop rolling and the promised fame and fortune fails to materialise?
When they, like Sophie, realise that having exposed themselves on television, the public now view them as fair game for bullying?
This week, Niall, one of the current crop on Love Island who was subjected to abuse and cruel rumours after leaving the show early, revealed he has Asperger’s.
As for Sophie, she found fame on Love Island after being in the show’s first same-sex relationship. She also had sex with a male contestant in a wardrobe. Highly inadvisable behaviour perhaps, but in the context of the reality show, perfectly acceptable.
After leaving, she said she was ill-prepared for the abuse she received from internet trolls. ‘We became public property overnight and everyone had an opinion, both good and bad,’ she said.
Psychologist David Wilson, an emeritus professor at Birmingham City University, advised on the first Big Brother series before resigning over concerns it was not the respectable sociological experiment he had been led to believe.
Although these shows attract huge viewing figures and are very profitable — at its peak Big Brother was generating £20 million a year for its makers Endemol — he says this is no excuse for the emotional suffering contestants can endure.
‘Crude popularity cannot be a justification. Throwing Christians to the lions was popular in ancient Rome, while public executions drew huge crowds in 18th century England. Civilisation is meant to have moved on since then.’
He says that with a saturated reality TV market, makers are driven to ever-increasing extremes to keep audiences interested: ‘In Big Brother, it was all very boring and yet was a sensation because we were just people-watching.
‘That would not happen today. There has to be drama, controversy and action to generate an audience. The more tears, humiliation, conflict and embarrassment, the more the public loves it.’
To prevent contestants being damaged, he believes producers should be subject to the same ethical guidelines as scientists when conducting research on people,’ he says. ‘The principle should be no harm should befall anyone taking part.’
Contestants on reality and talent shows often seem naive and sometimes mentally vulnerable — especially when it comes to coping with instant fame. Remember what happened to Scottish singer Susan Boyle who, despite having learning disabilities, appeared on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009 and became an overnight star. Days after the final, she was admitted to a psychiatric clinic following a breakdown.
The makers of these shows insist participants are robustly assessed and that aftercare is provided.
ITV says: ‘All our islanders are offered psychological support before, during and after their time in the villa. We take our duty of care very seriously and this is always our top priority. We discuss with islanders, before and after the show, how their lives might change and difficulties they might face.’
But Love Island contestant Zara Holland, 22, disagrees. She spent five weeks on the island with Sophie in 2016 and they became close friends.
Zara was the reigning Miss Great Britain but was stripped of her title after having sex with fellow islander Alex Bowen, 26. The months afterwards were a blur of interviews, photo-shoots and red carpet events, but as the dust settled and she returned home to Hull, East Yorkshire, Zara became seriously depressed.
‘I could not stop thinking about Love Island,’ Zara says. ‘It really hit me, what I’d done, and I felt so ashamed. I felt I’d let everyone down, like I could never make anyone proud of me again. I’d have nightmares and panic attacks. I didn’t care what happened to me.’
Things became so bad Zara saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-depressants as well as fortnightly sessions with a psychologist.
‘I was in a horrendous, dark place and would cry every day. Losing my Miss Great Britain title hit me hard: it was biggest thing I had ever achieved.’
Zara, who now runs a clothing boutique with her mother Cheryl, 52, says she instantly regretted sleeping with Alex, but it happened when her self-confidence was at rock bottom. ‘I was a naive 20-year-old. I’d gone on Love Island to try to open new doors in my career and meet a boyfriend but I was the only one who wasn’t coupled off. In the communal bedrooms, everyone was having sex around me.
‘I felt so lonely and rejected. On the day it happened, I’d been voted the least attractive and most boring out of all the women (by the other housemates) and was then given the task of choosing someone to go on a date with.
‘We were on our own in a hideaway and it just happened. I’m not blaming drink, but I am a lightweight and we’d had mojitos and champagne.’ The next day she learned she had lost her Miss GB title and left the day after when her mother was rushed to hospital with a long-term health problem.
Zara says she was given a full medical beforehand, including psychiatric evaluation, but did not receive any aftercare and did not know it was available, as ITV say.
‘I don’t believe I would have got so severely depressed if I had known there was support,’ she insists. ‘From the moment I left, I heard nothing until the day after Sophie was found dead and they phoned to see how I was. This was the first time in two years.’
ITV, however, say their production team maintained contact with her in the months after she left.
Zara adds: ‘Sophie said that when she asked for help, they offered a ten-minute video Skype call with a counselor. I don’t think that was good enough.’
She says she also found the online abuse tough. ‘Even to this day I get death threats. I got a message recently from a woman saying “I know how ugly you are, I want to punch you in the face”.’
Lisa Jeynes, 49, appeared on Big Brother in 2003, then on Channel 4, not its current home, Channel 5.
With a degree in psychology, she applied after seeing an online ad. Before entering the house, she had a successful career as an events manager in Cardiff and says she was happy and confident, with no history of mental illness.
Four months after her two-week stint, she suffered a breakdown. She now says the show ruined her life. While in the house, rumors spread she had undergone a sex change. As a consequence, she was bullied by fellow contestants, including being spied on in the bathroom to see if she urinated standing up.
Still tearful 15 years on, she says: ‘My life was destroyed. I had death threats, someone threw a brick through my mother’s window, my boyfriend left and I couldn’t get a date. I had to have bodyguards for two years.’ In terms of aftercare, she says: ‘I spoke to the psychiatrist a week after I came out and that’s it. I ended up in hospital with exhaustion and psychological problems.’
To anyone thinking about going on a reality show, she says: ‘You need to be very careful. Most people fade back into obscurity. This can be hard. Also, remember if you sleep with someone on TV, it will affect your career for ever.’
Channel 4 says that aftercare is a priority, adding: ‘We work very closely with production companies to ensure strict protocols are in place for preparing participants, as well as ensuring that specialist support is available both during and after a show is broadcast.’
Rebecca Jane, 32, a 2017 Big Brother contestant, says she should never have been allowed on the show because of her history of mental illness and has been left feeling suicidal. ‘I was assessed for one hour each by a psychiatrist and psychologist beforehand.
‘I told them I suffered from depression, had post traumatic stress following the difficult birth of my daughter, had taken overdoses and suffered a breakdown — and they still let me on.’
Rebecca, a single mother to daughters aged 12 and five, says she entered to ‘run away from life’ and access the psychiatric aftercare the producers promised.
‘They really sold this. I thought it could be a great way to fix myself, to get private psychological help for the next year.’
However, Rebecca says she feels bitterly let down. ‘I spoke to the psychiatrist for about ten minutes, an hour after I came out. He asked how I was doing, but I was in a daze. Two weeks later, I started to struggle. I felt detached from life.
‘I asked to speak to the psychiatrist and he called a few days later. This conversation is the only aftercare I received.’
Rebecca says she suffered several emotional breakdowns during her three weeks in the house after feeling bullied by contestants and manipulated by producers.
A Big Brother spokesman said yesterday: ‘Big Brother takes contributor welfare extremely seriously and has robust assessment and welfare systems in place both during and after transmission.’
Meanwhile, Sophie’s parents Colin, 61, and Deborah, 59, say their ‘hearts are broken’ at the loss of their ‘precious daughter’.
Whether her death will bring any change in both the seemingly insatiable appetite for reality TV or the way their makers may exploit the vulnerabilities of those who enter, remains to be seen.
With Love Island on for another four weeks and attracting ratings of 3.4million, it seems unlikely.