L is for Love Island: How a show intended to be a mundane summer filler became a global phenomenon

The twelfth letter in the New Statesman’s A-Z of the decade.

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“I was coming back here to tell you I love you”, “Two days?!”, “What time’s your flight?”, “What was your thinking behind that?”, “I’m loyal babe”, “I’m a fuckboy whisperer”, “crack on”, “factor 50”, “mug”, “melt”, “graft”.

For millions of people across the country, at least one – and maybe all – of these phrases will likely cause a visceral reaction that hits like a ton of bricks: a bizarre mix of summer nostalgia, extreme anxiety, boredom, and an aggressive head song of staccato synth. These words may have existed before this decade, but then they were bereft of meaning. One simple product has given them a new lease of life, and made them culturally salient: Love Island, the reality dating show set in a Majorcan villa that became not just a popular programme but arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of the century.

Technically, Love Island was not born in this decade – what is commonly referred to as the “first season” was actually a 2015 reboot of a poorly received mid-Noughties run. And as such, when four and a half years ago ITV launched its now-Bafta-winning iteration, it was initially thought to just be a filler; something for ITV2, not even the broadcaster’s main channel, to run in the middle of the dead months of the summer.

The show ran for an hour a night, six nights a week; helmed by the charisma blackhole Caroline Flack and narrated by the deeply unfunny comedian Iain Stirling, both of whom it’s almost certain would not have been chosen had the producers known the heights it’d reach. It was meant to be relatively mundane, simple, and superficially glitzy, enough to keep a hundred thousand people dipping in and out when there was little else available to watch. But instead, after two seasons of moderately decent viewership, the 2017 islanders entered the villa as nobodies hoping to win £50,000 and came out full-on celebrities – with major brand deals, reality spin-off shows, and Instagram followings many A-listers would die for.

At the end of the 2010s, Love Island is no longer just a moneymaker that’s great for advertisers and an easy way to flog personalised water bottles, Love Island is its own incredibly lucrative industry. It escalated brands like BooHoo, Pretty Little Thing, Missguided, and In The Style from cheap, lesser-known clothing outlets to household names. One half of 2019’s winning couple, Amber Gill, infamously landed the biggest deal in Love Island history: a £1m ambassadorship with fashion company Miss Pap. Islanders have become not just highly-profitable spokespeople, but entirely unavoidable British personalities.

The show has also become an anchor for social discourse. In 2018, a bout of snobby tweets and think pieces were notoriously triggered when it was announced that more people had applied to go on that year’s show than had applied to go to Oxford University. Around the same time, the prominent and heavily vilified 2016 islander Sophie Gradon died by suicide – just nine months later, 2017 islander Mike Thalassitis (better known as “Muggy Mike”) also killed himself. A few days before Gradon’s death, the New Statesman’s Anoosh Chakelian wrote about anxiety on Love Island, and the number of islanders who were plagued by mental health problems as a result of the overnight fame and scrutiny they received after appearing on the show. In the 2019 season, producers made an effort to focus on a “duty of care”, giving contestants the opportunity to talk to therapists whenever they wanted and not pushing them to stay on the show when they wanted to leave (as had happened in previous seasons).

Although its extreme popularity feels near-ubiquitous, we’re only at the beginning of Love Island mania. More than six million people tuned in for the 3 July 2019 episode from the most recent season, and there was drama so extreme that several islanders names were the top Twitter trends worldwide. Released today, the 7th most searched question on Google this year was “What is a dead ting?”, a name that one islander called another in that same episode. This year also saw the launch of Love Island USA after the successful spin-off of Love Island Australia.

Fittingly the next decade will start with the first-ever Love Island doubleheader: a season in January 2020, set in South Africa, as well as the usual one over the summer. While it already feels like you can’t avoid stumbling across one of the year’s 40ish islanders on your Instagram feed, this year there will be nearly 80 of them spamming you.

All of this may make longtime viewers feel like we’ve reached the peak of Love Island (I even wrote this summer how 2019 had been our worst season yet). But to think that we are nearing the end of this cultural phenomenon is commercially naïve. Love Island is just getting started – its reign has only just begun.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.