There is a fact at the heart of reality TV that absolutely everybody knows and yet somehow absolutely nobody acknowledges: it’s not real. If you watch an hour of someone’s day that has been sculpted and sliced and squeezed in between advert breaks, then the reality of that reality has been lost. You don’t really know what happened on that day. You don’t really know why someone acted the way that they did.
Sometimes we glimpse how manufactured these shows are. In an interview with the tabloid magazine Closer in June, the 2020 Love Island contestant Shaughna Phillips claimed producers asked her to have a conversation with another female contestant over and over again until it became increasingly confrontational (initially, Phillips had tried to be “proper nice”). “Eventually I just done what they asked me to do,” Phillips said, and the other contestant “ended up crying”.
How misguided it is, then, to turn a single Love Island contestant into the poster boy for emotional abuse. When Adam Collard, a personal trainer, appeared on the show in 2018 aged 22, the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid said there were “clear warning signs” in his behaviour – viewers had accused him of gaslighting a fellow contestant, Rosie Williams (to gaslight means to make someone doubt reality). Now, Collard has returned to the Love Island villa for the current series and Women’s Aid has issued another warning, describing his 2018 actions as “emotional abuse.”
In a post-show Cosmopolitan interview, Rosie Williams said of her experience with Collard, “I wouldn’t personally label it emotional abuse.” She said: “Adam is 22… I don’t think he’s had a lot of serious relationships and he just dealt with it badly and has a lot of learning to do.”
It is clear that Women’s Aid means well – it has asked ITV to “recognise how serious this issue is” and “intervene if relationships become unhealthy or abusive”. Its first statement in 2018 was also an invitation to viewers, asking them to “recognise unhealthy behaviours in relationships and speak out against all forms of domestic abuse”. Reality TV can undoubtedly provoke important conversations and educate audiences – in the UK, Google searches for “gaslighting” spiked after the 2018 incident – but awareness has already been raised. There is no good reason to continue to single out Collard based on a four-year-old argument on a gameshow that rewards outrageous behaviour. While we can (and should) question producers’ motives for placing him back on the show, and we can (and should) demand that a greater duty of care is taken towards contestants, it is another thing entirely to turn a young man into the face of abuse.
In 2019 the footballer and former Love Island contestant Mike Thalassitis took his own life aged 26. While suicide is complicated and rarely has one cause, Thalassitis’ friend Sam Thompson said after his death that Thalassitis seemed troubled by the “muggy Mike” nickname he had been given for his supposedly villainous behaviour on the show. “Here was a guy that I think knew he wasn’t going to be able to get away from the stigma that other people had created for him,” Thompson wrote in an Instagram post.
According to the newly released Audible podcast Edge of Reality, more than 40 reality TV contestants globally have now died by suicide. While producers need to take greater care of contestants, so do viewers. It is irresponsible to stigmatise a single individual for their role as a cog in a system that encourages and profits from suffering.