Caroline Flack's death shows that being a famous woman remains a health hazard

Among all of her television success, Flack was known for one thing: being a public punching bag. 

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In her nearly 20-year-long career, Caroline Flack spoke to countless publications. A TV star, Strictly winner, and memoir author, she was prolific in her work and a prominent part of UK culture. But when searching for interviews for this piece, no clever keyword searches or date restrictions would yield any of these conversations. Instead I found hundreds of pages of brutal press coverage, from what she wore to how she looked to who she'd dated.  

Flack died of suicide on 15 February at just 40. She first rose to prominence in 2002 after playing the character Bubbles in Channel 4’s sketch show Bo’ Selecta!, before going on to host TMi on CBBC, and then The Xtra Factor in 2011 and The X Factor in 2013. In 2015 she began hosting ITV’s reality series Love Island. But among all of this television success, Flack was known for one thing: being a public punching bag. 

This began in 2011 when at the age of 31 she began dating the then 17-year-old Harry Styles. It has become a cliché to note that many men date much younger women and are subjected to little criticism for it. But Flack was bombarded with offensive tabloid headlines, while fans of Styles called her a “paedophile” and a “cradle snatcher”. In November 2011, she tweeted with almost comical nonchalance: “To clarify. I’m close friends with Harry… He’s one of the nicest people I know… I don’t deserve death threats. :) x”

The public hounding continued through Flack's life. When she became the presenter of Love Island, she was accused in the tabloids of trying to date cast members. Love Island also exposed her to professional criticism, with commentators and viewers (myself included) mocking her abilities as a presenter. Any woman in the public eye is a magnet for derision, but Caroline Flack became its postergirl. 

In the few months before her death, the public scrutiny of Flack intensified. In December 2019 she was charged with domestic assault against her boyfriend, tennis player Lewis Burton, and  was released on bail pending a trial (Burton denies that the assault ever happened). Flack subsequently stepped down from hosting the inaugural winter season of Love Island which premiered weeks after her assault charge was reported. For the first time in the show’s recent history, Flack would not be the public face of it. 

Over the two-month period between the alleged assault and her death, tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines made it their near-daily duty to ridicule Flack. After her death was reported, the Sun deleted several articles on her, including one published the day before her death that mocked the domestic assault charge. 

And in covering her death itself, news outlets, journalists, tabloids and other public figures have described her in stereotypically gendered terms: a “hopeless romantic who never found love”. 

The press speculation over her love life escalated during her time as Love Island host, but some have argued that the show and ITV are not the root cause of the notoriously bad mental health conditions its stars face. Flack’s friend Laura Whitmore, who replaced her as the presenter of Love Island, said on BBC Radio 5 Live on 16 February: “The problem isn’t the show – the problem is the outside world.” 

But Love Island's connection to this tragedy is hard to ignore. Flack is the third person in less than two years to have killed themselves after appearing on the show, following the deaths of the contestants Sophie Gradon in June 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in March 2019. ITV has increased its duty of care practices since these deaths, including more counselling and emotional support for contestants during and after their time on the show. But the producers still deliberately create a toxic environment within the Love Island villa, which feeds extreme reactions from viewers. In an episode aired on 12 February, just days before Flack's death, contestants played a game where they were forced to read misleading tabloid headlines about themselves and their fellow islanders. 

Celebrity deaths always prompt a response from the public, but the reaction to Flack’s suicide – the overwhelming sense of  shock and guilt – has been different. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the unrelenting scrutiny she was under. When someone has for nearly ten years been repeatedly pushed to the edge, how could we not have seen they might jump?  

Caroline Flack’s death illustrates an essential truth: that despite any progress, and despite what we might preach, celebrity culture makes being a woman in the public eye a health hazard.

The reasons why a person takes their own life can never be fully understood. But in the case of Caroline Flack, it is hard to look at a woman who was hounded and abused for simply living her life, and not see how an entire industry and culture is culpable for this tragedy.

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.

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics

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