Sponsorships, scrutiny and selling sofas: The making of a modern TV reality star

Diyora Shadijanova
The male Love Island contestants are joined by new female islanders in Casa Amor: ITV2

Once upon a time Love Island was about finding love. Now contestants know they are more likely to leave the villa with a Boohoo deal than a budding romance: series two winners Alex and Olivia are reportedly the wealthiest of all Islanders having made £4.4m between them since 2016. It’s no wonder 98,000 people applied to be on the ITV show last year (more than double the number of applicants for Oxford and Cambridge universities combined).

As the growing popularity of the show has made it a fast-track route to stardom – or at least some sponsored appearances at the Sugar Hut – it has become a window into the making of a modern reality star: the extensive preparation, the curation of an “authentic” online personality, the potential financial gains and the often-huge sacrifices involved.

Mayah Riaz, a PR manager with 14 years experience in the industry told The Independent she has no doubt people now perceive Love Island as a speedy gateway to fame. “Before the winter series started, people contacted me saying ‘I’m going on the show. What do I do? Can we meet? I need representation.’ The language they’re using – they’re savvy. You’re not going on a show [of] that magnitude with your eyes closed,” she says.

Even the producers are not ignorant to how much the contestant’s lives are about to change; those who go into the villa are now contractually obliged to undertake therapy to help them adapt to the post-Love Island spotlight. But managing their mental health is only one aspect of the new world the Islanders will find themselves in.

The transformation from average Joe to aspiring-influencer starts long before we see the contestants on our screens. With cameras following their every move for 24 hours a day ex-Islanders say one of the first considerations for any contestant is the pressure to look good. Despite the show making commitments to diversifying body types in the cast (and making everyone take a BMI test as standard during the application) standards are undoubtedly high for anyone spending their day being filmed in swimwear.

Former contestant Amy Hart told The Independent that her shift to the “reality star mould” began with switching to a vegan diet and going to the gym every day for months before. Montana Brown, who appeared on the show in 2017 also admitted to adopting a strict exercise regime. She told Closer magazine: “I’d start the day with cardio – spinning or running for an hour before eating breakfast. I’d do hill sprints, too. In the evenings, I’d do 90 minutes of weight training. I was also doing around 50 squats a day to get a peachy bum.” The 24-year-old also ate nothing but salmon, avocado, eggs for breakfast, salad for lunch and pumpkin seeds for weeks.

Others went to more concerning extremes. Season four contestant Ellie Brown said she “practically starved” herself: “I’d end some days completely exhausted because my body wasn’t getting all the nutrients it.” Even last year’s contestant Anton Danyluk, who has been in the fitness industry for over ten years, felt he had to do more. “I run my own gym in Scotland, so was in pretty good shape,” Anton told The Independent, “I definitely stepped it up before I went out there – I think everyone did.”

And when contestants fall foul of the physical expectations put upon them? They soon know about it. Curtis Pritchard opened up about struggling with his body image after leaving the villa last summer. “I’ve always had my weight on show as a dancer and now coming into the villa, and being even more in the public eye, I got a bit of fat shaming.”

Contestants are also given a full wardrobe makeover. Of course this is partly due to sponsorships (in 2018 Love Island partnered with Misguided and in 2019 and 2020 they did the same with e-retailer I Saw It First) but also to align themselves with the Love Island aesthetic. They are given a voucher to buy clothes (up to 20-30 dresses and 20 bikinis) and are told they cannot bring their own items unless they are totally unbranded. They are also given a full professional makeover including hair, nails, eyelashes, tan and filler top ups if requested, says Eve Gale who featured on the January 2020 show with her twin sister Jess.

As well as refining their physical appearance, the weeks before they enter the villa are used to establish a squeaky-clean social media presence. This year contestant Ollie Williams faced calls for him to be removed from the show after fans found photographs reportedly showing him trophy hunting. Over 40,000 people signed a petition to remove him and he left 48 hours later. Although he maintains this was due to unrelated personal reasons.

Gale told The Independent that the ITV2 press team checks the Islander’s social media and often advise people to start afresh. She said: “I deleted my Twitter because it was quite political – I stand up to human and animal rights, but you don’t know what kind of stuff can come up.” Amy Hart revealed it took her four days to have a social media cleanse. She said: “I cleared the whole of my Facebook and made a new Twitter account.” Contestants also hand over their passwords to a chosen friend or family member to manage while they are away.

(ITV)

For those unchosen relatives not privy to social media management, they are told nothing. Hart says she had to tell her extended family she was having kidney stones taken out as a way of explaining her disappearance for a period of time. Others are more vague: Gale told her friends she was going on a long holiday. The double life of the reality star has already begun.

Deciding to try out your luck as a full-time reality star means compromising on any pre-existing career. Rosie Williams admitted she quit her job as a solicitor to participate in series four and Zara McDermott applied for a year-long break from the civil service. University students like Gale often interrupt their education too. Gale said: “I’m halfway through [my degree], so I actually deferred. I can either go back in September 2020 or do it for two years. It just depends on how I feel.”

This carries an inherent risk – you aren’t swapping one job for the certainty of another, only the chance to try. Some of the contestants who appear in the Casa Amor (the second house) quit their careers only to go home a week later. And Riaz explains that even if you do last longer in the villa, you’re only ever one blip away from a career-defining disaster. A blunder can be a great TV moment but career suicide. Brands won’t want to work with you after. You can’t even get a normal job afterwards,” she says.

Many of the contestants will decide they want to help avoid these pitfalls by enlisting the help of industry management. Gale says she was approached by a few agents even before the show line-up was announced. In the end she decided to manage herself but says she still believes this might be damaging her ability to monetise her position. “I’m really new still and I don’t know, I’m not good at putting my foot down either. I’m struggling a lot and maybe missing out on some stuff because I can’t go through everything.”

But having a manager doesn’t necessarily mean your brand is bulletproof. Riaz says she has witnessed managers exploiting stars for money. Avoiding this requires Islanders to be financially savvy, which is hard as both a newcomer and as part of a heavily-unregulated industry (Kendall Jenner’s Instagram endorsement of Fyre festival reportedly netted her £192,000 despite the festival being cancelled after descending into chaos). Riaz says: “There is a lot of money to be made from Islanders for management. And they aren’t prepared to know what is accepted so if a manager says ‘I’m taking a 40 per cent cut’ they will think it is normal.”

Even if Islanders manage to navigate the initial hurdles of appearing on reality TV, being liked by the public, gaining a following on social media and signing the right contracts, it doesn’t ensure longevity in the industry. Particularly now with the addition of a winter series, as well as the regular summer one. Riaz says this has “effectively halved” their shelf life. “They go to Mahiki every night, buy their handbags, but this money doesn’t last forever. They’re expecting the free entry to clubs, they’re expecting a free sofa for sending a tweet.”

For some the journey of a reality star ends in an unimaginable way. Both Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, former contestants on the show, have died by suicide in the years following their appearance on Love Island. Thalassitis’s friend Montana Brown told people she hoped his death would make people “a little bit nicer, a little bit kinder” to each other. The show has also enlisted measures to ensure the mental health of contestants including sending them to a set number of therapy sessions and ensuring regular contact with the show’s welfare team.

Gale says despite being prepared and being told “how hard” the experience will be, she was still overwhelmed by what happened on the other side. “Nothing can prepare you for how much it actually hits you,” she says, although does confirm she feels supported by the show and says the only thing stopping her seeking more help is her busy schedule.

Riaz agrees she has seen this with her PR clients: “Everyone wants a piece of the Islanders, they’re offered after care but sometimes they’re too busy to take it on! They don’t have time because they don’t sleep. Sleeping four hours in a different hotel every night, living out of a suitcase, the fast food – physically and mentally, it’s draining. They’re not used to that level of tiredness. They’re making those decisions when they’re not in the state to do so.”

For better or for worse Islanders have to accept that becoming a reality star means their lives are unlikely to be the same on the other side. Riaz recalls how a previous client’s phone bleeped for a whole five minutes when she was handed it back by the crew at the airport. One client told her: “I had friends I never knew I even had from school. All these companies wanting me, I felt famous.” Gale had a similar experience: “I’ll go into a shop and everyone is like – can I have a picture? It’s quite overwhelming because these people don’t actually know you.”

For some stars this demand clearly bears fruit: Amber Davies reportedly landed a £1m deal to be the face of a clothing brand and Kem Cetinay has become a Dancing On Ice presenter. But others are not so fortunate. Zara Holland who was on the 2016 series said going on Love Island was the “biggest regret” of her life. Holland was stripped of her Miss GB title after having sex with a fellow contestant on air. She said she struggled with anxiety and depression for two years after her exit. Essex PR consultant Nicki Rodriguez said: “Reality shows like Love Island are great entertainment but people should bear in mind, reality stars are still human.”

Not everyone who goes into the villa will become famous but all will witness the human impact of fame. Whether they end up being paid thousands to promote a grey velvet sofa or forgotten to the annals of pub quiz trivia, they will try to change their reality to become a star. Only time will tell whether the price is too high to pay.