In many ways, 26-year-old Megan Barton-Hanson is a typical British reality star. Like most Love Island alumni, she graduated directly into an ecosystem of Instagram #ads, brand collabs and celebrity editions of other reality shows that, with enough vigilance, can sustain a career for a lifetime. While she may slot easily into that universe as a glamorous Essex girl – all brows, lips and sponcon – it’s far from the full picture. Megan Barton-Hanson is a reality star, but there is no other reality star like Megan Barton-Hanson.
Born to a working class family in Southend, Megan sky-rocketed to fame the second she strode into the villa in 2018. With a soft pink swimsuit and a bold red lip, she looked like a Bond girl sent on a mission to disrupt the dynamic and assassinate men with eye contact. And disrupt she did, snogging everyone, getting bored and then pieing them off, turning her head with a look that has since become cultural shorthand for being a messy bitch who lives for drama. She created a blueprint for unimpressed, vocally horny women on an otherwise oddly conservative show, and is now beloved for it. At the time, though, she was vilified.
“The show isn’t scripted, but you are typecast,” Megan tells me over a G&T in Soho one freezing afternoon in December. Even after a busy day running around, trying to cram everything in during an infrequent visit to London, she looks like she’s just stepped straight out of hair and make-up. Though she’s dripping in casual luxury – blonde waves pulled back into a ponytail, above two mighty gold hoop earrings; gothic font nameplate necklace dangling over a black hoodie – she talks in such an unguarded way it’s like hanging out with a close, if unfathomably hot, friend.
“So when they do interviews and meet different people, I was obviously the narrative of the ‘ex-stripper, man-eater, she’ll go for what she wants’, and that was all people saw,” she continues. “Everyone always says to me, ‘Walking into the villa, you were so confident,’ but my bottom lip was trembling. I was so nervous. The more I do interviews, it allows people to see the real me. And there is a vulnerable side.”
No one who goes on reality TV emerges unscathed, but Megan had a particularly rough ride. In addition to the media spotlight that accompanies a show as massive as Love Island, her background as a stripper made her fair game in the eyes of the tabloids. Her career in the sex industry, her cosmetic surgery, her previous relationships – every aspect of her life was dug up and splashed around as a “scandal”, ascribing stigma to things Megan had spoken about on the show with pride and confidence. Meanwhile, viewers trashed her on social media for “bed-hopping” and not coming off as enough of a “girl’s girl”.
But the “muggy” narrative was short-lived. Goodwill towards Megan snowballed throughout the series, carrying her all the way to the final. Her two months on TV made such a strong impression that the details remain valuable media currency – her days-long flirtation with Eyal Booker resurfaced in headlines recently following an alleged DM from Scott Disick – but, as she says herself, “It’s been two years now and people still refer back to Love Island. It’s such a small part of who I am.”
Following our boozy lunch, I can tell you that Megan is someone who has been loving brunch lately, since curfew set the clocks to Banter Savings Time and brought drinking forward by approximately five hours (“I’m all about maximising the day, and before you know it you’re tucked up in bed by 6 o’clock and fresh the next day, ready to start again”).
Megan is also obsessed with POSE – the Ryan Murphy series about New York ball culture in the 1980s – and is listening to a lot of 80s music while working out or doing chores around the house. Unsurprisingly, as someone who holds getting tipsy and causing trouble across Soho’s sticky dance floors in high regard, she’s spent much of this year pining for a proper night out (“I know, if I ever saw myself back, I’d die or cringe at the absolute dad wedding dancing, but I enjoy it and I miss it terribly”).
Like the rest of us, Megan is someone with a lot of downtime right now, though it might not seem that way to onlookers. The viral clip of Aitch saying “life is busy, ya get me” comes to mind when I hear her current schedule. The day of our interview, she’s shuttled into the city from her home in Essex with every intention to do “the absolute most”, which in this case means: meetings, recording the latest episode of her hit new podcast You Come First, more meetings, getting a series of ear piercings, then eventual downtime at some mad-looking restaurant in South Kensington where your “substantial meal” comes with a side of acrobats.
For all the work and play, Megan is one of the many people trying to ride out the pandemic while living alone.
“I’ve been trying to stay busy,” she says. “I cook for myself and really take care of myself. For a long time, I felt like I needed a partner to do certain things, whether that’s going to the cinema or having a nice meal, but lockdown has forced you to enjoy your own company.”
Fortunately for Megan, she’s excellent company – effortlessly charismatic, a little bit shy and imbibed with that dry, almost accidental sense of humour specific to Essex (after arriving late, she apologises and explains “when we got on the road there was, like, a fire engine pure extinguishing a car on the motorway”). She throws her head back when she laughs and doles out personal anecdotes like a cousin you just bumped into in Big Sainsbury’s, not a household name with an Instagram following well over half the population of Wales.
This, obviously, is why people like her – especially young women in the UK, where loudly bisexual celebrities with a background in the sex industry are hardly commonplace.
Shortly after coming off Love Island, Megan began speaking out on… well, pretty much everything. On World Mental Health Day in 2018, her Insta grid of glamour shots and happy-go-lucky selfies was interrupted by an emotional illustration and a long personal caption detailing her struggle with anxiety and depression. A month later, she took part in an anti-bullying campaign for Glamour UK, speaking about her own experiences as a public figure, as well as in her personal life.
“I had a really tough time at school, because I was badly slut-shamed and there was no one I could really look up to in the media or the public eye. That’s why I’m so outspoken now,” she tells me, explaining that she fell out with her friendship group after she started stripping. She points to Cardi B, Amber Rose and Lily Allen as examples of women she feels have helped push the narrative forward on women’s sexuality – a cause that Megan herself is now known for.
In candid Q&As on Instagram, she talks directly to her 1.7 million followers – mainly women asking for advice about things like sexual pleasure, what toys to get, how to come out, how to approach women or what to do if they’re in a rut with their partner. Megan’s voice resonates with a particular audience. Not just the non-partisan girls and gays who make up the bulk of reality TV viewership, but the sex-positive, sexually fluid millennial and Gen Z audiences desperate for real representation beyond the “none of my business” approach so often taken by mainstream British celebrities.
This is where the “slashie” economy has benefited modern figures like Megan, who don’t really fit into any of the prescribed Famous Person boxes. Where reality stars of the 2000s and early 2010s were more beholden to traditional structures and the tabloid gossip model, Megan has been able to carve out her own lane somewhere between an influencer, a celebrity and a Cock Destroyer.
Back in March she launched an OnlyFans, which she describes as a “nice creative outlet” to collaborate with photographers and make-up artists since her departure from glamour modelling and stripping – though she’s quick to point out it’s not quite the same. “I just love the whole sisterhood and sense of community,” she says of working in a club. “Everyone sticks together. As corny as it sounds, it’s kind of like the girls against the customers.”
OnlyFans was a shrewd move for Megan, who already had a PhD in Looking Iconic In Underwear. If she hadn’t been on Love Island, she tells me, she would probably “have stuck with the sex industry one way or another, whether it was camming or OnlyFans”, so joining the site felt like a logical next step. It’s been so successful that the earnings reportedly helped her buy and furnish her first house – or “bachelorette pad”, as she calls it – in October.
But it’s perhaps her most recent undertaking – You Come First, launched in mid-November – that finds her most in her element. Usually framed by the heavily edited lens of TV or magazines, the podcast is an opportunity for Megan to have more open conversations as she interviews key figures from each aspect of her life – from stripping (ft. dancer Lauren Lofthouse) and bisexuality (ft. TOWIE star and ex-girlfriend, Demi Sims) to OnlyFans (ft. model Scarlett Howard).
While this may feel like common ground to some, these topics rarely find their way onto British mainstream platforms without the presence of a devil’s advocate figure saying stuff like “isn’t bisexuality just being greedy, though”. On You Come First, the conversations are positive, educational and – perhaps most importantly – fun.
“I speak about all these topics anyway, so I might as well do it on a platform where I won’t be filtered or edited,” says Megan. “If [myself or Demi] spoke about bisexuality on a reality show, for example, it would be a tiny snippet, and it would be more focussed on us as people as opposed to giving advice to people who actually need to hear it.”
Despite having a huge LGBTQ+ audience, there are very few openly bisexual women in mainstream reality TV. The roll call is pretty much limited to Megan, Demi, Chloe Ferry (a recent addition – welcome, comrade) and the cast of Courtney Act’s series The Bi Life. As a result, there’s a lot of pressure on those who do take it upon themselves to speak publicly about their desires and relationships.
On the one side, there are the fans – people often turn towards the most visible spokesperson for guidance, like flowers to the sun, which almost always ends up leading to someone being shoved onto a pedestal, only to soon be accused of fakery. “That’s why I wanted to get Demi on [the podcast],” Megan explains. “I feel like, before her, there were no bisexual women on reality TV, and I felt like I was taking credit away from her. There’s been a few times where I’ve responded to questions like, ‘I dunno, ask Demi!’”
Then there’s the media side of things. Megan and Demi met on Celebs Go Dating – which is also where Megan first publicly expressed that she was interested in women – and every single headline about it was cynical, branding their first kiss “fake” and “unconvincing”.
“I was so worried [about coming out] because of how I was portrayed on Love Island and because I’d come from the sex industry. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, it’s just another sexual thing.’ When I went on Celebs Go Dating, I was genuinely looking for a partner,” she says, sounding hurt. “The fact that people took that away from me and said, ‘Oh, she’s just doing it for the headlines,’ couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’m sure I get on people’s nerves going on about how much I like girls, but I think it’s important!”
In the long-run, sticking to her guns has paid off. This year, the gap between “Megan The Love Island Character” and “Megan The Person” has been bridged by career moves which see her deviating from what she describes as the “sit down, shut up and act pretty to get this deal” mode of reality fame, and instead doing more of what she enjoys and what does best: chatting about sex, sticking up for women and being a legend, all while allowing her shy and vulnerable side – which came to light on Love Island and had previously been such a burden – to be a part of it.
“That’s why I was so nervous about going on Love Island,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be in a room with so many loud personalities, is there any point in me going on? Am I going to be overshadowed?’ I remember saying to my mum, ‘Imagine me, mum – I’m so shy, I bunked off drama class growing up because I hated speaking in a crowd. Imagine me shouting out I’VE GOT A TEXT! in front of a group of strangers.’ I was like, ‘Can I even shout that loud? Does my voice go to that decibel?’ But I do believe you really do learn and grow as a person by pushing yourself. It’s not until you get into that environment that you’re like, ‘Okay, I don’t need to be the loudest person, I have so much else to offer.’”
As our time together ends, Megan tells me there are several goals she has her sights on for the future – a second series of You Come First, her own TV show, a lingerie line – but she’s wary of talking them up too much, just in case. There’s that vulnerability again. And with that, she’s whisked off into the late-afternoon dark, “going out for dinner” clothes underneath her coat and hoodie, ready for anything.
Photographed and styled by Clara Casas in London, December, 2020.
Listen to You Come First on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.