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17 March 2021updated 03 Aug 2021 11:56am

Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death suggests fame is a slow-working poison

Public approbation cannot, unlike a lover, be snared or pinned down. It is unreliable, fickle. It is a chimera.

By Rachel Cooke

In the first moments of Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death, the TV presenter’s twin sister Jody appeared before us, a gauze of grief across her face, her smile not really a smile at all. Why was she there? Why had she agreed to sit in front of a camera like this? It can’t only be that she wants so badly to talk about Caroline (my experience of bereavement is that the reluctance of other people to discuss your loss – an unwillingness born either of embarrassment or fear of contagion – is one of the hardest things about it). Perhaps it’s that she’s still trying to work things out, to get some purchase on what has happened. It’s only a year, after all, since her sister took her own life. “I don’t know,” she said quietly, pushed to explain how she thinks she might ever recover. In the same situation, Caroline might have burbled something painfully cheery about looking on the bright side. But Jody is at this point unable to dissemble. Lies, even white ones, involve effort. She doesn’t have the strength for anything but honesty.

The film, directed by Charlie Russell, flicked between the terrible, slow-motion days leading up to Flack’s death on 15 February 2020, at the age of 40, and her childhood. The family has lots of footage of the twins performing as little girls, and we saw them sing one of Kylie’s hits – “if I had to do it all again…” – in their matching navy dungarees. They looked so sweet and happy.

But Jody and her mother, Christine, are clear-sighted. They wanted it to be known that even when she was small, Caroline was either very up or very down. As soon as she began having boyfriends – the first, “Waltzer boy”, worked at a fair – it became apparent that she wasn’t, as they put it more than once, built for heartbreak. A pattern was established, to the point where friends began to dread the texts that said: “I’ve got a new boyfriend, and you’re really going to like him.” Though she longed to love, and to be loved, once the inevitable split came – the men were too often unsuitable – she would go into a spiral. Pills were taken. There was self-harm. The painted-on smile hid a depression she was determined to keep secret.

[see also: Oprah with Meghan and Harry is a masterclass in show business]

Her mother doesn’t believe it’s possible to apportion blame for her death. So many factors were in play. After she was accused of assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, in December 2019, it was like watching dominoes topple. The press circled. She lost her beloved job as the presenter of Love Island. The court would not allow her to contact Burton. She was covered in shame. It was all too much.

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But there is also, I think, the bigger question of fame. It floats over Flack’s adult life like some sinister, silvery airship. The problem, the documentary seemed to suggest, is that those who most badly want to be famous are all too often those least likely to be able to withstand it when it arrives. Public approbation cannot, unlike a lover, be snared or pinned down. It is unreliable, fickle. It is a chimera. Flack read her press, just as she looked at social media, especially during her ill-fated stint fronting The X Factor with Olly Murs; she was addicted to her phone.

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Yes, the kind of jokes made about her by, say, Graham Norton may seem cruel retrospectively, but he does what he does, just as she did what she did. If he trades in a pert, eye-rolling sarcasm that’s built, quite rightly in my view, on scepticism when it comes to celebrity, Flack’s currency was reality TV and red carpets; there was nothing much below, no ballast.

She ran on a desperate need to be liked and a misplaced, almost childlike sincerity: in the documentary, a former Love Island producer noted with a slightly baffled smile that for Flack, the show wasn’t at all escapist nonsense; the contestants’ dramas and dilemmas were to her high stakes, the real thing. The point is that fame of a certain kind, for a certain kind of person, is toxic: a slow-working poison. This is an old story, and a sad one, but it’s also, I’m afraid, the nature of the beast. 

Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death 
Channel 4

[see also: Caroline Flack’s death shows that being a famous woman remains a health hazard]

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold