Culture

UK Celebrity Culture Is Broken

The untimely death of Caroline Flack is an indictment of our expectations of famous people. Changes are needed from all corners.
17 February 2020, 2:05pm
caroline flack
Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

On Saturday, news broke that the TV presenter and former Love Island host Caroline Flack had died by suicide, aged 40. Flack had not been participating in the current season of Love Island – the first winter instalment of the show – as a result of an assault charge, for which she was due to stand trial on the 4th of March.

It is impossible to understand the personal struggles Caroline Flack was facing, and it's not really for commentators to attempt to discover or unpack those. Indeed, Samaritans guidelines for reporting on suicide explicitly state that it is bad practice to do so. But what can and should be discussed is the relentlessness of celebrity news culture in the UK, of which Flack was undoubtedly a victim, and of which Love Island has become increasingly emblematic.

Gossip reporting is notoriously invasive, but in the wake of Flack's death it's once again become startlingly clear how often it can resemble outright harassment – and how the celebrity culture that feeds it needs to be addressed.

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While the show is airing, I write a weekly Love Island column; 2020 is my third year doing so. This is to say: I pay close attention to the show, and this season more than ever I've felt a sense of the programme simply going through the motions, with little of the heart of previous years. It all feels especially cynical.

It's a well-trodden joke that the real but largely unspoken reason people appear on Love Island is to grow their Instagram following, model for a fast-fashion brand and maybe appear on TOWIE or Geordie Shore – but this season it feels like that joke has transcended the subtext, to become the show's defining characteristic. With a reduced, six-week runtime, two weeks shy of the usual eight, the conceit of Love Island – that is: that contestants appear on it in order to find love – has felt like nothing but a conceit.

The contestants have had less time to form relationships with each other, making the majority of interactions seem forced (of course with some exceptions). The fact this season has followed the summer edition so closely just adds to the conveyor belt feeling of it all – of ITV cashing in while they can. All the while, the rampant supply of clothes and beauty products into the villa continues to increase, underlining that the lifestyle the show promotes, regardless of who appears on it, is the most important takeaway.

I mention this because, for a few years now, Love Island has been one of UK celebrity culture's primary entry points. As the most-watched reality TV show in the country, it brings people into the public eye at a never-before-seen rate, with the last summer season spitting 36 people out to Instagram inboxes full of sponcon offers and Boohoo endorsement deals, but also torrents of social media abuse and tabloid headlines.

To its credit, after the high profile deaths of two previous contestants, Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019, the show has done more to guide people through this process. This year's host, Laura Whitmore, said on her radio show this past weekend that Love Island is a "loving and caring and safe and protected" place to work. The problem, she noted, is that the outside world is not.

Love Island is insulated from the outside world, but as it has grown it has also moved further and further from what made it so human – and watchable – in the first place. The programme is now essentially Instagram writ large – IGTV on actual TV – and by its very nature sets expectations of what a specific type of social media-led aspiration looks like. For the contestants who leave the villa without being offered the brand collabs or the Leicester Square premiere invites, it's easy to imagine a feeling of being left behind.

This isn't to say there should be no more Love Island, and calls for an end to the show in the wake of Flack's passing are unhelpful, knee-jerk reactions. But it might be useful to think of the ways in which the show, as an emblem of celebrity culture in the UK, currently contributes to unrealistic expectations of celebrity success.

The brand sponsorships, for example, are unnecessary and should stop (remember when the Islanders used to bring their own bikinis and smoke at the fire pit?), and changes to the way it operates could be influential in altering a celebrity culture that can be hurtful to vulnerable people who may feel like they are unable to measure up. This culture, after all, is the binding force in all of this, instrumental as it is in raising up Britain's celebrities – including Flack and those created by Love Island – and then tearing them down.

Tabloid attitudes are deeply embedded in British culture. Millennials grew up with papers like The Sun calling Big Brother’s Jade Goody a "fat pig", as if that were in any way normal or acceptable. As a result, all too often the public takes the tabloids' "anything goes" approach when sharing their unkind thoughts online.

It goes without saying that Flack's death should give pause to anyone firing off comments on Twitter, but it should also encourage proper legislation, where targeted tabloid harassment – regardless of what a person has or has not done – is treated with the same seriousness as when harassment is committed by an individual, either by regulators or the courts (although, as we know, harassment by individuals isn't treated nearly seriously enough either).

As of 11:50AM today (the 17th of February, 2020), there are 11 different stories about Flack's death on the TV and Showbiz page of The Sun's website. Since her death, the website has deleted at least one story related to Flack, but coverage of the assault allegations against her was near-daily.

Celebrity culture in the UK is in dire crisis. It rarely serves anyone – even celebrities who actively participate in it, by sharing stories with tabloids, are at the whims of those same titles. Instead, it often causes harm and distress on many levels. As participants in it, it is up to the public to be responsible in terms of what we say and what we consume, and changes within influential vehicles like Love Island could help when it comes to what we expect from and of celebrities.

Ultimately, however, as much as we might like, you can't regulate the trolls. What you can do is introduce real action against tabloids – legislation that brings those which hound people into line, or proper recommendations about what is appropriate. It is an indictment of our society that these haven't come sooner.

@hiyalauren