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20 March 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:07am

The curse of Love Island

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 15 June 2017, the then 24-year-old former Stevenage footballer Mike Thalassitis walked into Love Island’s Mallorcan villa and on to the screens of 2.24 million viewers.

The self-described “tall, dark and handsome” English-Cypriot north Londoner drew attention because of his good looks and willingness to provoke on the ITV reality dating show, which forces contestants to break up couples to avoid being ousted by a public vote.

Thalassitis’s arrival caused such drama that he was given the nickname “Muggy Mike” – to “mug someone off” in Love Island lingo means taking them for a fool. The former sportsman made such good television that, unusually, he returned to the villa later in the series, despite having been “dumped” from the island. 

Less than two years later, on the morning of 16 March, Mike Thalassitis was found dead in a park close to his home in Edmonton, north London. Police were called after “reports of a man found hanged”, according to a statement from Scotland Yard.

The 26-year-old had recently lost a close friend and was also grieving for his grandmother, who had died just days before, at the age of 94. He had been living with her as her full-time carer, while making plans to open a café in Loughton, Essex. Behind its shiny new shopfront, The Skillet sits dark and empty, except for some flowers propped against its front door in tribute.

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Speaking on ITV’s This Morning, with permission from the Thalassitis family, fellow islander Montana Brown revealed her friend owed a “big tax bill” and that “work wasn’t coming in” for him. She said “the buzz had kind of gone” from his celebrity life.

Thalassitis’s death follows that of Sophie Gradon, another former Love Island contestant, from the 2016 series, who was found dead aged 32 in her Northumberland home last June. She had suffered from depression and anxiety.

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While people take their own lives for a complex variety of reasons, other former Love Island stars believe the show provides inadequate psychological aftercare.

“Once you are done on the show you don’t get any support unless you’re number one,” tweeted Thalassitis’s co-star Dom Lever. “There should be ongoing support and also financial advice. Life after these shows isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” added another 2017 Love Island contestant, Jess Shears.

Malin Andersson, who appeared on the show in 2016, revealed that producers had offered her no help after it finished, not even when her mother and four-week-old baby died. “Hopefully going forward reality shows will help more with the aftermath of being on one because I can say it definitely didn’t happen after my series when lots of us needed it,” said 2016 contestant Kady McDermott. “People’s lives change overnight and no one can mentally be prepared for it.”

From The Great British Bake Off to The Voice, most British reality TV shows offer applicants a psychological assessment to gauge whether they are capable of participating and provide for their well-being throughout the process.

Love Island does the same, and, ITV says, it also provides ongoing support after the programme has ended. Last year’s stars Adam Collard and Rosie Williams have described sessions with a psychologist and regular calls from the casting team to monitor their responses to negative press and other challenges.

Yet this doesn’t seem to be enough. After appearing on Love Island, many contestants have revealed their mental-health struggles, with some even becoming ambassadors for public awareness campaigns. Chris Hughes, who was on the island with Mike Thalassitis, suffered during the programme, often weeping and spending long stretches in bed. He later teamed up with Topman and Calm for their #DontBottleItUp campaign on men’s mental health.

Unlike most other reality stars, Love Island contestants trade solely on their looks and ability to attract a partner. After the show, islanders can feel marginalised; last year’s series achieved a record 4.1 million viewers. Once the sponsorship deals run out and the next series eclipses their fame, they can end up back where they started.

At least candidates on BBC’s The Apprentice have semi-formed business plans, while X Factor contestants can go on to enjoy musical careers.

“It’s a problem with every reality TV programme, but mainly Love Island because of the dramatic rise and fall people have on the show,” says Joe Conaboy, who became depressed and felt suicidal after appearing on X Factor in 2013, at the age of 19. Eight months after the show, he was back working as a waiter. “I know how it feels going from something to nothing really fast, but we at least had a record contract and played music after we left.”

Love Island stars are haunted by their on-screen identity – even if money and success don’t follow. Thalassitis decried his stubborn reputation as a heartbreaker during his next TV outing, Celebs Go Dating, remarking that audiences see him as a “vile person”. “It seems [as though] everyone’s out to get you,” he said last February. “At the end of the day… it’s a TV show.”

This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency