What It Really Costs to Go On ‘Love Island’

An appearance on the UK's biggest reality show can lead to a lucrative career, but not every contestant makes it to influencer stardom.

19 August 2021, 8:30am

As spectators, we’re well versed in the Love Island routine.

Islanders enter the villa, and the sexiest, funniest and most beloved emerge to fanfare and entirely new careers, if they want them. Love Island – like Big Brother before it – turns ordinary people into national darlings or villains by putting them out in front of the public on a nightly basis. Barbers, cabin crew, waitresses, grid girls, beauty therapists and scientists have all been plucked from obscurity by the show, and become, as if overnight, in-demand celebrities. 

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Where Love Island differs from Big Brother, however, is that it exists alongside Instagram and the cultural infrastructure that surrounds social media, meaning Islanders exit the show not only to a new celebrity status, but to inflated and easily monetisable followings. It’s for this reason that Love Island has gained a reputation as an “influencer factory” in recent years, with contestants entering as unknowns and leaving with heaving inboxes and PrettyLittleThing deals.

We know these post-show possibilities well: the rising Insta followings, the brands circling, the TV careers for some. What we know less about – despite the fact that this career path is now so well-established – is how it feels to be in the thick of it.

What’s it like to quit your day job, walk into a Spanish villa and leave with a million Instagram followers? How do you deal with overnight fame and the papers suddenly knowing your name? Or, on the other hand, what happens when you roll the dice on Love Island and things don’t work out quite as you expected?

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In 2019, Shaughna Phillips was happy. She had no plans to leave her role as a democratic services officer for Lambeth Council, and hoped one day to take on a more senior position. She also didn’t mind that her glamorous appearance sometimes led to colleagues underestimating her, because she was confident in her ability to outsmart them all. 

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She’d never really envisioned herself as a reality star, but when Love Island producers approached her through Instagram, she stopped to consider the career opportunities she’d seen previous contestants on the UK’s biggest reality TV show go on to gain.

“I’ve been to university, I’d had good jobs, but it would still have been a real struggle for me to have got anywhere in the world that I wanted to go with the money I was on,” Shaughna tells me. “London is so hard. I don’t even know how I’d have been able to live on my own without a partner, because my wage would not have allowed it. So that was definitely in my mind.”

Also on her mind was the huge risk that Love Island posed to her pre-show career. “Because I worked in a political environment, they couldn’t keep me on while being on the TV show,” she explains. “So I knew I’d potentially be leaving my job. Regardless of how much I earned, that security was something I was very happy to have – so not having that was very daunting.” 

Nevertheless, Shaughna decided to go for it, and flew to South Africa to take part in Love Island season six, the first winter series. While she didn’t make it to the final – she left on day 33 of 44 – her quick wit and everywoman relatability made her the breakout star of the season. Shaughna left the villa to around a million Instagram followers, went on to front clothing collections for In The Style, and has made further TV appearances on shows like Celebs Go Dating and The Real Full Monty: On Ice.

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Shaughna’s post-villa career trajectory is exactly what comes to mind when we think about the types of opportunities Love Island can bring – but it hasn’t always been this way. The show began in earnest in 2015, as a reboot of Celebrity Love Island, which had aired on ITV between 2005 and 2006. Almost a decade later, producers decided to revitalise the format, replacing the likes of Paul Danan and Calum Best with civilian singles looking for love, limelight and a two-month holiday free of charge. 

The first two seasons of the show had a relatively small cult following, averaging 570,000 and 1.47 million viewers per episode. By season three, the show began to pick up real steam, and made recognisable TV regulars of Kem Cetinay, Chris Hughes and Olivia Attwood. To date, the show’s most-watched season was its fifth, which aired in 2019 and averaged 5.7 million viewers per episode.

Cara Delahoyde-Massey won season two with her now-husband – and the father of their two children – Nathan Massey. She says the expectation of success following the show nowadays is a far cry from what she experienced: “We used to have chats and be like, ‘We’ll probably do a couple of PAs and then we’ll all just be going back to our normal jobs.’ Everyone goes in there now with the feeling that they’re gonna come out and be a Kardashian.”

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Jess Hayes, who won season one alongside Max Morley, agrees. “A lot of people go on there for instant fame and Instagram followers,” she says. “Whereas I think, the first few [seasons], we didn’t do that, because we didn’t know that’s what we were going to get.”

Jess Hayes, who appeared on season one of 'Love Island'. Photo: Jess Hayes

One big change since Jess and Cara’s seasons is that the show’s sponsors now also provide clothing for the Islanders, somewhat notoriously. The increased brand involvement over the years is indicative of the way Love Island has become a complicit part of the ecosystem it birthed. In encouraging the Islanders to advertise clothes like walking grid posts, they’re primed for the potential influencing careers ahead of them – although, another way of looking at it is that it also sets up the expectation of these kind of careers, of which there is no guarantee.

“When we went, we took our own stuff,” says Jess. “I think we randomly got a little ASOS order halfway through, and picked some bits because we were all running out. Now it’s sponsored, they get all their clothes from ISAWITFIRST. There was none of that!” 

Under the current arrangement, ISAWITFIRST – which took over the Love Island sponsorship from Missguided in 2019 – provides the original cast of Islanders with a gift voucher to load up on garments before they head out to film. “You can go on a spree,” says Shaughna, noting that she made two orders worth £600 and £300 before she left the UK (though in typical fashion, one of them was lost by Yodel. Love Island contestants: just like us).

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Once Islanders are in the villa, the show’s sponsor will continue sending them clothes – a process that started around season four, in 2018. Laura Anderson, an original Islander that year, recalls: “There was a Missguided drop every week or two, where they would send in loads of clothes. I remember [the producers] saying, ‘Last year, the girls didn’t get any of this!’”

Asked how the sponsorship arrangement works in practice, an ITV spokesperson said: “Ahead of the series the original Islanders choose some pieces from the brand and during the series the ISAWITFIRST product team and ITV work closely together to help select items for all of the Islanders, with input from the Islanders themselves, with clothing delivered throughout the series.”

Despite the free clothing, there can also be a significant cash outlay involved for contestants getting ready to appear on Love Island. While the biggest pre-show extravagance for season two’s Cara was a white suit from Zara (“I was like, ‘A white suit’s never going to go out of fashion!’” she remembers), more recent Islanders have invested far more cash in preparation, in order to make the most of the exposure.

Before she applied to Love Island, Jade Affleck – who entered in season six’s Casa Amor – worked in a jewellers owned by a family friend in her hometown of Yarm, North Yorkshire. She was told she’d be appearing six weeks before she was due to leave for the show, and began getting camera-ready right away. 

“For the full six weeks I had a personal trainer seven days a week,” Jade tells me by phone. She also paid for hair extensions and the special shampoo they require, a manicure and a pedicure, plus waxing, sun beds and new SPF-heavy makeup. Next was six weeks’ worth of clothes, which – unlike the original Islanders – she did not get a voucher to cover. “You don’t get given anything until you’re actually in there,” she says. “The only things I got given were a bikini, two dresses, some sunglasses and a cap.”

In total, Jade spent £3,500 before appearing on the show. “It was the most expensive thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

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George Day, who left his job in property sales to appear on Love Island (and, like Jade, entered in season’s six’s Casa Amor week) also prepped significantly. He trained and ate well, and because you’re not allowed to wear branded clothes on camera, spent about £700 on a new wardrobe to see him through. “Looking back though,” he says, “I didn’t even really get a chance to wear them, because I wasn’t in there long enough.”

All of this planning is understandable: most of us would want to look our best on TV, and on a show like Love Island, aesthetics could conceivably be linked to more post-show opportunities. But the spending is just one small part of the enormous leap of faith that many contestants take in order to appear on Love Island, in the hope of reaping the career benefits that could potentially follow.

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As Shaughna mentioned, most contestants have to leave their job and the security this represents – but some end up relinquishing more than others. Before applying to be on Love Island, Laura Anderson had been based in Dubai as a member of cabin crew for Emirates for eight years. She had just ten days between discovering she’d been chosen for the show and leaving to appear on it – and had some huge choices to make.

“It wasn’t just the job,” she says. “When you’re cabin crew, they pay for your rent, and you’re in Dubai on a visa with the company. It was like leaving my whole lifestyle. It was a big decision! And because I left it so late, I had to actually pay Emirates to leave, because I couldn’t do the 30-day notice. I gave up my flat and sold all my furniture.”

Laura knew that, due to Emirates’ conservative values, she wouldn’t be permitted to work for them again after appearing on TV “snogging and god knows what else”. Love Island had initially planned to insert her into the villa as a “bombshell” (the name given to contestants who enter the show after the first day), but if she was going to leave her entire life behind, Laura wanted to increase her chances of success. “I was begging them to be an original,” she says. “I wanted to make sure I was on there for as long as possible, so it would be worth it.”

Laura got her way, and started Love Island 2018 as an OG cast member, ultimately coming in third place with Paul Knops. Of Love Island’s 12 winners, only two – Greg O’Shea and Finley Tapp – entered after the first day. That statistic, plus the fact that a longer tenure means the best chance of exposure to the public, therefore bigger and better post-show followings and opportunities, explains why original cast status is the most sought after.

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Conversely, it’s probably fair to say that would-be contestants least want to be part of Casa Amor. A staple of the show’s format, this week sees half of the cast sent to a separate villa, and six new Islanders placed in both the original villa and the new one, all at once. The volume of newcomers means that those who enter at this point can see themselves dumped without securing as much airtime (and the benefits it brings) as other Islanders. 

George, who was dumped from the Island after one week in Casa Amor, remembers the conflicting emotions around his entry to the show. “You’re buzzing, but I know my opportunity’s not going to be as good going into Casa Amor as it would be if I was a bombshell,” he says. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but you have to quit your job, and you do burn bridges, because obviously you’re not going to not take that opportunity.”

The three Casa Amor Islanders I spoke with for this article – George, Jade and Jamie McCann, all of whom featured on season six – were told by ITV that they were prospective bombshells. However, as Jamie explains, this brings with it no guarantee of actually entering the show, or of when you might be called upon. “You’re kind of in limbo,” she says.

Jade, too, was primed to enter as a bombshell, watching the show at home and waiting for her call. “One day, I literally got up at eight and they were like, ‘Your taxi’s coming to take you to the airport at 12.’ I hadn’t even packed! I got told I was going in Casa Amor, and I just thought, ‘Right, I’m just gonna go, and if it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’”

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In general, those not cast as original Islanders tend to have a bumpier ride as they await their time on the show. Jamie was brought back and forth to South Africa by ITV in January of 2020, and remembers the experience as an exciting one: “I was actually flown out at the start of January, and then flown back home. I was away for, like, a week, and then I had to come back home and act normal,” she says. 

It was a fortnight before Jamie was sent for again, this time to enter Casa Amor. “When you go into Love Island, you go in a hotel and they take the phone off you, and you sit for a week before you even get put in,” says Jamie. “I got flown back out and went into lockdown again. It was crazy. It’s an experience you can’t even describe, because you’re all over the place.”

Jamie is keen to state, however, that ITV did keep her well-informed. “They don’t promise you anything – you might be used, you might not be used,” she says. “And to be fair to them, they phoned me every single day. It wasn’t like I was left to myself or anything, they constantly were checking up on you.” 

Jamie McCann, who appeared on season six of 'Love Island'. Photo: Jamie McCann

George says he was also kept updated by the show prior to appearing. “They keep in contact with you throughout the whole process, saying, ‘You could be flying out,’ and various other contracts and documents, what clothes you can wear, or any press stuff. They cleanse your social media, they go through the posts. They’re very much on the ball from that aspect.” (When approached for comment, ITV did not confirm or deny whether social media cleansing is part of their pre-show protocol.)

While Jade, Jamie and George played smaller roles on season six than other cast members, each has still reaped some benefit. Jamie saw a boosted Instagram following after the show, and has used the extra income from sponsored posts to fulfil her dream of attending drama school; Jade is now an equestrian model, fusing her lifelong personal passion for horse riding with a new career afforded to her by the show; and George balances modelling and menswear influencing with work in financial services. 

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These are just a few examples of how Love Island can change its contestants’ careers for the better, but the increased visibility that former Islanders enjoy also comes with new pressures and obvious downsides. Dealing with increased scrutiny on social media, and sudden press interest, immediately becomes part of their day-to-day. We know this; we’ve seen it happen. And as soon as we click ‘Follow’ on an Islander’s page, we’re part of it ourselves.

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When George flew home from Casa Amor, he wanted to know whether anyone would recognise him from Love Island. “On the day I came out, I thought, ‘Alright, let’s go to a shopping centre. Let’s just see.’ And it was mad, it was crazy.”

This type of attention is exciting, but can also become hard to bear when you’re frankly not used to it. An increased profile can bring with it a lot of stress, and the twin panopticons of social media and the traditional press remain two of the major stresses faced by people leaving the villa.

Since the tragic suicides of two former contestants, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon – as well as that of the show’s former host, Caroline Flack – Love Island has attempted to bolster its duty of care towards those who take part. Their support package for former Islanders now includes training on financial management and handling negativity on social media, as well as advice around retaining management.

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When I asked ITV about how its processes around encouraging the Islanders to take on management work, they directed me to the show’s duty of care statement, which notes: “We encourage Islanders to secure management to represent them after the show, and manage them should they choose to take part in other TV shows, advertising campaigns or other public appearance opportunities.”

Allegra Haines, founder and Director of the management company The Booking Project (which looks after former Islanders Yewande Biala and Alexandra Cane), says ITV are “a pleasure to deal with” – and very hands on when it comes to securing management for former Islanders. “You pitch to ITV and they set up a meeting, and you talk to the talent about why you’d work well for them,” she says. “[ITV] really do have their best interests at heart. It’s a nice process.”

Allegra says the Islanders should be told to think about their finances immediately after exiting the show. “As soon as they leave the villa, they are their own limited company,” she explains. “We remind our talent of that, and we do everything we can to safeguard them – setting them up with an accountant, or making sure that they’ve got an accountant. Because we’ve all got taxes to pay. The brand is vanity, the limited company is sanity.” 

Allegra also likes to discuss long-term goals with her clients, to ensure that they can achieve longevity in their post-villa careers: “It’s about strategy, and listening to your client, not strong-arming them into things, not persuading them to do things,” she says. “There’ll be ups, there’ll be downs. It’s about recognising what the downs were, why they happened, and making sure they never happen again.”

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There is, then, inevitably another arguably more important side to management. “It’s all well and good getting deals, but there is a welfare element as well,” says Allegra. “A lot of these guys and girls are 21, 22, 23 years old. It’s incredible what they’ve got to be resilient about, and often they’re not resilient. As an agency, we like to think of ourselves as a support network as well as a revenue generator.” 

Back in 2015, when the first batch of Islanders left Love Island, nobody was asking viewers to “be kind”. Celebrity media was harsher, and ITV didn’t have any involvement in setting contestants up with a post-show support network, in part because the channel itself didn’t know what a phenomenon it had on its hands.  

“We weren’t really guided that well, because it was the first one and it was so new,” says Jess. “We were thrown in at the deep end, and left to our own devices, which was hard. You’d go out, then you’d wake up the next morning with pure anxiety, thinking, ‘What’s going to be on the Daily Mail today? What are people going to be saying?’”

When asked about the support available to Islanders in season one, ITV again pointed me towards its current duty of care, which reads: “These measures are regularly reviewed and evolve in line with the increasing popularity of the show and the level of social media and media attention around the Islanders.”

Jess Hayes / Photo: Jess Hayes

Due to an increased public awareness around the effect negative press and social media comments can have on mental health, TV stars are now supposedly treated better than they once were.

Of course, you can buy into that as much as you like (if you want my two cents, the overtly vicious British press hasn’t changed, it’s just become more passive-aggressive in tone, having undergone a linguistic Facebook Mum-ificiation in line with how tabloids are now partially consumed), but it’s still the case that some of this year’s Islanders have been subjected to onslaughts on social media, including death threats, as a result of their (heavily edited) actions on the show. Others, like Kaz Kamwi, have received racist abuse. And while Love Island has issued warnings about social media activity to viewers, it has still chased and engineered extreme reactions from its contestants – an apparent “have your cake and eat it” attitude.

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For Shaughna, the press interest grew more intense as she became more well-known after the show. She finds the mainstream press’ obsession with women’s appearances especially frustrating. “Even now, I’ve seen headlines about Shannon [Singh] from this season’s Love Island, Faye [Winter] and Chloe [Burrows] – how they’re unrecognisable from images that have been found. I’ve not seen one headline about any boy that looks unrecognisable, and these headlines know what they’re doing,” she says.

“When these girls come out and see them, they’re not gonna go, ‘Oh, they’re saying I look nice now.’ They’re gonna think, ‘There’s a problem with me.’ And then once they start getting work done, or editing their pictures, there’ll then be headlines about ‘Caught out having this done in secret’. Why do you think that is? It’s a catch-22.”

The attention around Shaughna’s post-villa experience was compounded by the fact that the UK went into lockdown weeks after the end of her season.

“There were so many people at home, just waiting to criticise your every move,” says Shaughna, who currently has 1.5 million Instagram followers. “People were harsh on us! Every single move we made was criticised. It was quite difficult to deal with at first, but you do learn. So many people say, ‘Oh, there’s young girls watching you!’ And I hate putting that responsibility on influencers, but there is a bit of that that you do need to remember.”

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Cara, who is followed by 1.1 million people on Instagram, has also felt the pressure of social media. “I got myself in such a state, where I was trying to compete with all the young girls that were coming out,” she says. “I was getting so stressed out having to put makeup on, having to do these photos, and to other people it sounds ridiculous, but the pressure of seeing all these other beautiful girls – you think, ‘Oh my god, I’ve had kids, I don’t look like that anymore.’”

Things changed when Cara figured out how to make social media work for her. One day she came to the realisation that her audience, which had largely followed her since her Love Island days, was likely now in a similar position to her. “And that was it,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna wear loads of makeup, I’m just going to be myself. If my kids are naughty one day, I’m going to tell people.’ I took the pressure off me to be this perfect mum and have this perfect life.”

Cara says the change has helped her enjoy social media more, and she now uses her account to share her real life, post sponsored content and promote her children’s embroidery business. “I just decided one day to not put a front on anymore,” she says. She sounds genuinely relieved.

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Everyone’s post-Love Island career is different. While some go onto a social media career, others return to traditional jobs.

Reflecting on his decision to head back to the workplace, George says, “I’ll be 100 with you: I felt pressure to make sure I succeed, or to make sure that I earn a living from social media, or to get on another TV show. I was scared to go back to work, thinking, ‘Will people think I’ve failed?’ That was probably the first two months.’”

He says he’d tell former Islanders in a similar position to not be afraid to return to a ‘normal’ job: “At the end of the day, you’ve been lucky enough to do that opportunity, and no one really can say anything.” 

George's promotional photo for 'Love Island' / Photo: George Day

Some of the other Islanders would offer different advice. “Enjoy yourself, enjoy it while you can, invest your money,” says Jess. “Don’t blow it all on partying, because people are quite prone to doing that. You come out, you’re in the clubs, you get papped and it’s just that lifestyle.”

Laura, who has been in contact with the family and friends of some of this year’s Islanders to offer guidance, says, “Realistically, your first year or two is usually where you’re going to get your biggest opportunities. Some people get a little bit too big for their boots, and they’ll turn things down. Then you’ll see them do the same thing three years later and get way less money. So I just think, take it for what it is. You never know when it’s all going to end.”

Laura is right that reality TV fame is a fickle friend, but the opportunities for longevity offered by social media are helping more and more former contestants remain in the spotlight, even if doing so can be a difficult and unenviable task. Looking back at season six, Shaughna tells me that most of her Love Island friends are “still riding the social media wave”. 

As we end our conversation, I ask her whether, in ten years, she thinks she might have moved on to something different. “Completely,” she replies. “And my children will never have social media for as long as I live!”

Tagged:

reality tv, itv, Love Island, Live, Laugh, Love Island

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