This time last year, most of us were binging on Love Island’s fifth season – one of the only TV programmes that manages to unite all corners of the internet for an hour every evening.
When the pandemic paused the filming of the reality show staple, thousands of bored teens were at a loss – but instead of sulking, they’ve mobilised to make their own version of the show on TikTok.
Welcome to KG Island, the first TikTok reality show created by a 16-year-old from Leicester named Kieran Gray.
“Honestly at the start it was all a bit of fun, it was to entertain people in lockdown and I didn’t even think it was going to go anywhere. It’s gone a bit mad,” Kieran tells me over a Zoom call, where I’m joined by the rest of the cast.
The show began on the 20th of May and in the space of a few weeks, the KGIsland2020 group account hit 220,000 followers on TikTok and 60,000 followers on Instagram. The casting tapes have been watched by hundreds of thousands on the platform. Fans religiously tune into the livestream every night.
Most of the original show’s elements have been kept the same. The contestants are placed in three different Snapchat groups (the boys’ group, the girls’ group and the main villa), where they’re able to send voice notes over the course of the day. Some of these conversations get posted on the main account’s TikTok feed to keep viewers updated on the latest drama. There’s also an Instagram live every night that consists of group challenges, virtual dates and recouplings recorded on Zoom calls with contestants, and voting takes place in the comment sections.
“The difference is,” Kieran laughs, “it’s obviously not in a villa and we’re all in our bedrooms.”
The original cast had 16 contestants aged between 16 and 19, but this number fluctuates as people get voted out and new contestants replace them. Just like the real-life Love Island, all the contestants’ interactions with each other are unscripted and genuine, though hosts Liam Clear and Quentin Ager narrate the show and help Kieran organise and plan the content.
The Islanders are currently doing the Casa Amor challenge, where couples temporarily split up into two digital “villas” to prove their trust. The original cast spends a week getting to know new contestants while being forced to block their partners on all socials to stop communication.
“They’ll be talking to new people and see if they’re going to stick or twist and that might cause a bit of drama,” Liam explains. “We like to throw little twists to keep people entertained. Even the Islanders don’t know if they’re safe or not – only me, Kieran and Quentin do.”
The show is meant to go on for about eight weeks, but no end date has been confirmed. The group plans to meet up in an AirBnB once lockdown lifts and have a big party to celebrate. The prize? The winning couple doesn’t have to pay for the trip.
So what’s the point of KG Island? Are the TikTokers trying to find love?
For 18-year-old Jermaine, it’s about having fun. “My original intention coming on was for entertainment. Obviously lockdown is long and I thought I’d try it out and have some fun. The love side of things wasn’t my aim, if that happens that’s a bonus.”
Dawood from South London is growing his social media following, but isn’t opposed to finding love, either. Some contestants went from having virtually no TikTok followers to 300,000 in the space of two weeks of being on the show.
Love is also on the cards. Seventeen-year-old Poppy from Yorkshire, has been in a strong couple with 19-year-old Rhett from Worcester. “It starts off as a joke and then it all turns a bit real,” she says. The couple FaceTime each other on a daily basis and have spoken about meeting once lockdown lifts, though it hasn’t been easy. “It’s a lot of pressure because it feels like the whole of TikTok is watching and you get unnecessary comments and DMs all the time.”
Without a production team or therapists at their disposal, the whole experience can be daunting. Unlike the Love Island contestants, the KG Islanders have 24/7 access to the outside world where they’re able to see hateful messages. Some have left the show after finding it too overwhelming. “I was getting death threats and messages telling me to kill myself. I actually broke down last week about it, so it does get overwhelming,” Kieran reveals. “I think it’s about making sure we’re all there for everyone.”
Jermaine and Quentin, the only Black guys on the show, have also revealed they’ve been the target of racist abuse online. Jermaine said: “It can hurt a lot, but I don’t want it to get to me.”
Not only do the contestants seek support from each other, but they also rely on their families, who have been overwhelmingly supportive of the show. Poppy says: “My mum loves it. I was struggling a lot with mental health at the start of lockdown but I started doing TikTok as a joke and it’s really helped with my mental health.” Liam’s dad sometimes comes onto the livestreams and chats to people.
But some IRL friends have also dropped off as the contestants deal with new-found fame. Ella, 17 from Surrey, said: “A few of us haven’t heard from our friends recently. I think some ‘friends’ mistake the popularity for us doing well, but these things don't always correlate.”
Just like its ITV counterpart, KG Love Island is also dealing with the ongoing issue of the lack of diversity. So far, out of 30 contestants, six have been people of colour – something the cast is actively trying to address.
“When we started, I was the only person of colour in the group and the issue was raised on the third or fourth night. Someone made a video saying, if you want to be on KG Love Island, don’t be Black,” Dawood explains.
He said he has been trying to recruit a more diverse cast, but there haven’t been many applications. “It’s still overwhelmingly white, I can’t lie, but I think that’s the main demographic of the people watching the account.” It may also be down to the application process. A new contestant hoping to join the KG cast sends an audition tape, which is then screened by a live audience on TikTok to help the organisers make a decision.
The Islanders also have incoming brand deals in the pipeline with its first #ad for a phone case company. “We don’t know how it’s going to be promoted yet. When we talk about how the adverts will be distributed, then we can talk about money distribution as well,” Liam says.
KG Island has only been active for a few weeks, but fan pages and fandoms are already being created and requests for fan meet ups and brand deals aren't stopping. Are we about to witness the first wave of digital reality stars in the making?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.