I sat down for a meal Saturday night with my mum and my friend, right in the heart of a city that was alive with glee and celebration. People sang around us, laughter filled our table and drinks flowed at such a pace it was like water was turning to wine right in front of our eyes. In a brief lull waiting for our next tray of drinks to arrive we took advantage of the two minutes peace to catch up with the social media we had so happily neglected throughout the day. That’s when my friend saw the news. “Oh my God, Mike from Love Island has died”. The news hit like a ton of bricks as I tried to wrap my head around this information which was unfolding rapidly online. I actively refreshed my twitter feed hoping somewhere that it was some messed up rumour. My WhatsApp groups came alive with notifications of disbelief as the three of us sat there trying to process how, in a World where we were naively immersing ourselves in so much joy, an individual had been in so much pain. I didn’t know Mike Thalassitis. Neither did my friends. Or my mum. Or the countless people messaging on WhatsApp. But something about this abhorrent news hit us all hard, as if it could have happened to any one of us, our boyfriend, our friend, our brother, our son. See the thing with reality stars is that they are so good at being just that, real.
We build a relationship with these people daily for months on end. We engage with their friends via social media. We read about them every day in the news. We watch their families on morning TV. We see baby pictures of them printed in the news. We hear gossip about them trending on twitter. They are relatable in all their guts and glory; their insecurities and mishaps reassuring us that we are all human, whilst we can’t help but admire their undeniable beauty. They leave you feeling as if they really could be your best mate, but deep down you know you’ll never be cool enough to sit at their table. Like the popular kids at school, they’re attainable, they’re accessible, and you can’t help but want to know what Johnny got up to round the back of the school sheds, no matter how much you pretend you don’t care. The media and the public place them on a pedal stool for approximately 120 days of the year. 120 intense days where they are catapulted to a level of fame only a select few A-List, Media-trained celebrities have ever reached before. A level which no-one, no matter how many 20 minute psychological reviews they were given, could ever be fully prepared for.
The Reality TV World is a phenomenon which is still relatively new, and a World which production companies and contestants are actively trying to navigate. Whilst shows like Big Brother were huge in their day, the introduction of social media means that the 2 million people watching at home are not just judging you to their husband sitting next to them on the sofa, but can actively tell you how much of a twat they think you are direct, online, for millions more people to see, to like, to retweet and to join in with. If you’ve been on Twitter when Love Island has been airing you will know exactly what I mean. The entire trending topics are filled with Love Island hashtags; Hundreds-of-thousands of tweets sent out about a girl who until last week worked in a local shoe-shop and now has the entire World watch her chase after a man she met 24 hours ago to stay in a game show with the allure of finding your soul mate at the end of it. Srsly, just read that sentence again. The social media World is so fickle, you can go from hero-to-zero in one 60 minute episode as #Loyal Georgia was soon to find out. Personal Home-made sex video’s that before now had only ever been seen by the two of you engaging in the act have now gone viral for everyone and their nan to see. Ex-partner’s tweet their stories about you, Childhood friends sell their stories on you, feeding into this villain character which this edited entertainment show has created of you, all for their 15 seconds of fame online and to be a part of this insane feeding frenzy which we all buy into like crack addicts waiting for our next hit. I always joke to my friends that I could never go on Love Island because of the embarrassing catalogue of old modelling pictures of me that lie deep, deep down on the web, knowing that they’d be splashed online for millions of people to criticise and point out the exact things that I already hate about myself. I’ve actually been approached by the ITV2 casting team before, and whilst the allure of instant money making opportunities no doubt plants a seed in your mind, you can’t help but ignore the harsh reality that once you’re in a show as popular as Love Island, you become public property, opening yourself up to your entire life- before, during and after the show- being up for criticism and judgement. That’s not something that your average gym receptionist, hairdresser or even doctor can mentally cope with.
And then comes the months after the show ends. When the personal appearances dry up, when no one wants a picture with you anymore, when the free gifts stop coming, you’re yesterday’s news. You can’t go back to your normal job because everyone knows you as the one who had sex on the tele. Your co-workers think you think you’re better than them. Your boss can’t be bothered with the hassle of people taking pictures of you at work. You’re at a complete and utter crossroads. But the one absolutely manic fucking thing to deal with which is thrown in the mix here is that once you’ve stopped reaping the financial benefits from this and the work dries up, you still have your followers. Millions of followers on social media. A currency which is useless in paying your mortgage, but actively feeds your ego and pets your ever-growing insecurities. You’re a someone, but you’re no one. It means nothing, but it means everything. I have dealt with this on an extremely minor level considering what these reality contestants deal with, but the allure of having hundreds of thousands of followers and feeling pressure to live up to this fake life that comes with it, posting content to make your life look overly exciting whilst you’re desperately trying to figure out how you’re going to pay your bills next month. I’ve been out on my birthday in a nightclub when a guy approached me saying I “think you’re someone special because you have 90,000 followers on Instagram”, who proceeded to push me down some stairs and follow me crying out of the club as I begged him to leave me alone, an event which ended in a physical alteration, fake rumours being spread about me, facebook posts claiming I said things I didn’t, and me eventually having to threaten legal action if the slander continued. Being ‘Instagram famous’ is such a new concept, that no-one knows what the right thing to do is or how to cope, it can be a fucking lonely place.
Seeing the senseless loss of young lives is heartbreaking for us all. There has been calls for the production companies to do more in supporting those who come out of reality tv show’s and have their lives turned upside down, and whilst I absolutely believe that they need to do more in supporting and preparing them for what lies ahead, the reality is that they cannot check up on their contestants from one, two, three years ago regularly. However we, as the viewing public who make these individuals famous through engaging in conversations online, watching the show and buying their merch’ have a duty and responsibility as human beings to not say nasty shit to people online. This is something so simple that we could all do that would really change people’s lives. Life is already tough enough and we’re all dealing with our own issues in private, that one tweet could be the straw that breaks the camels back. I fear this won’t be the last time something as tragic as this happens as we continue to make ‘normal’ people famous. I can’t help but worry about how Influencers in years to come will cope when Instagram disappears, when followers lose their currency, when they have to go back to ‘regular’ jobs but no-one will hire them as the online foot-print they’ve left behind is being used against them years later. We need to realise that we are in an extremely rare and unique social experiment that we’ve never experienced before, meaning no-one has the right answers, me included. If we want to keep reaping the benefits of reality tv and social media, we need to take responsibility with how we engage with it and remember that behind the glamorous tv show which provides us with sixty-minutes of night-time entertainment, or glossy Instagram posts of filtered Individuals, there are real people, with real lives, and real problems to deal with.
If you are struggling with your mental health or just want someone to talk to call the Samaritans on their free, 24 hour contact line 116 123, or if writing it down is more your thing, send them an email to firstname.lastname@example.org You don’t have to be suicidal to contact them. You don’t have to wait until it’s too late.
My thoughts and respects go out to the families and friends of both Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon.