Season Six of Love Island came to an end on Sunday night. After 43 daily episodes full of fighting, flirtation, and under-the-covers fondling, the winners of the reality contest were finally revealed as Finley Tapp and Paige Turley. One is a semi-professional football player. The other is a former flame of singer Lewis Capaldi. Together they will split their $64,500 prize and enjoy roughly six months of lucrative Instagram sponsorship deals before they split up, wear out the last vestiges of their celebrity, and cede the spotlight to two other swimwear-clad innocents.
But in truth, Tapp and Turley won’t experience the same level of exposure as previous Love Island winners have. Even the BBC News story about this year’s finale didn’t mention their names until the eighth sentence. And this is because Season Six of Love Island will be remembered for only one thing: the tragic death of its former host, Caroline Flack.
A 40-year-old Londoner with a seemingly bottomless appetite for life, Flack was a woman so vivacious that the idea of her killing herself seemed unthinkable until the moment it happened, at which point it took on a horrible air of inevitability. Her professional accomplishments were impressive enough. She was a commentator for the semi-finals of Eurovision. She hosted a revival of the British version of American Gladiators. She hosted The X Factor. She won Strictly Come Dancing.
Flack was a woman so vivacious that the idea of her killing herself seemed unthinkable until the moment it happened, at which point it took on a horrible air of inevitability.
But throughout it all, Flack’s career achievements were always overshadowed by her colorful personal life. She dated Prince Harry. She dated Harry Styles when she was 31 and he was 17. She was forever being linked to various contestants and co-hosts. But then, last December, Flack was arrested, and things began to unravel. Accused of bludgeoning her boyfriend Lewis Burton’s head with a lamp while he slept, she pleaded not guilty to assault charges at a magistrates’ hearing. She was released on bail, on the condition that she did not contact Burton—who did not support the prosecution—and a trial date was set for March. But the pressure was too much. Finding herself under increasing scrutiny from the press and public, Flack took her own life on February 15.
The repercussions were immediate. The Crown Prosecution Service—which decides whether or not a suspect should face criminal charges—was accused of instigating a show trial. The tabloid press, which had splashed an image of Flack’s bloodstained bed across its front pages in the weeks following her arrest, was accused of insensitivity. The Surjury, Flack’s upcoming series where people who wanted cosmetic surgery had to plead their case to a group of strangers, was quietly shelved. But nothing bore the brunt of her death like Love Island.
Since 2015, Love Island has occupied a peculiar spot in the hearts of the British public. It originally started life a decade earlier as Celebrity Love Island, a reality show where vaguely recognizable faces—models, soap stars, Steve-O from Jackass—were sent to Fiji in the blind hope that some of them might get drunk and knock boots. It did not catch on, gaining a reputation for being equally boring and tawdry.
The tabloid press, which had splashed an image of Flack’s bloodstained bed across its front pages in the weeks following her arrest, was accused of insensitivity.
The reason for Celebrity Love Island’s failure was that the celebrities had too much to lose. By doing something as squalid as being filmed reaching second base with an unemployed former EastEnders actor, they risked junking their careers, and therefore understandably kept their powder dry.
But in 2015, producers realized that members of the public, especially members of the public eager to attain the celebrity status of an unemployed former EastEnders actor, would have no such hang-ups. And so Love Island was born.
Filling the vacuum left by the waning Big Brother, Love Island had a deceptively simple premise. From the cheaper-than-Fiji base of Majorca, contestants were paired up with members of the opposite sex. As the series rumbled on, the contestants were repeatedly forced to “re-couple” with new partners again and again. If you were left single, you were out. If the public voted against you in large enough quantities, you were also out. Whoever was left standing at the end received a $64,500 prize that could either be kept or shared with a partner.
Airing in the dog days of summer, this new iteration of the series caught on like never before. The show began setting ITV2 viewership records, won a BAFTA, and—uniquely for this sort of show—attracted much examination from the broadsheet press. The aesthetic of the show, full of stick-thin bikini models and aggressively toned himbos, was blamed for a growing state of body dysmorphia among young Brits. The behavior of some contestants, ranging from ghosting to gaslighting, has prompted renewed investigation into what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior in a relationship. There were moments where Love Island’s reach felt oppressive, as if it existed at the very epicenter of British culture.
Flack’s career achievements were always overshadowed by her colorful personal life. She dated Prince Harry. She dated Harry Styles when she was 31 and he was 17.
But behind the scenes, problems began to mount. There were rumors that each new consignment of Island-ers was being dumped back into the world without a responsible level of psychological aftercare. This was apparently confirmed in 2018 when Sophie Gradon, a contestant from the second season, killed herself. Prior to appearing on the show, she had been diagnosed with depression and low self-esteem. Shortly before she died, she complained about the intense cyberbullying she had experienced following her appearance on the show. “It was horrific,” she told Radio Aire three months before her death. “They are commenting on the way you look, the way you talk.”
Then, last year, another suicide. This time it was Mike Thalassitis, a 2017 contestant who had earned the pejorative nickname “Muggy Mike” on social media for his apparently disingenuous behavior. Thalassitis’s death prompted Love Island producers to vow to do more in their duty of care to the contestants. All Island-ers would receive a minimum of eight therapy sessions after the show, ITV said, and there would be heightened psychological and medical assessments, plus training on how to cope with social media following their time on the series.
Which is good on paper, were it not for the fact that one well-known Love Island challenge—the Online Buzz game—still refused to die. A breathtakingly irresponsible segment where the contestants were shown vicious tweets written about them, the Online Buzz game felt like proof that ITV can’t quite give up exploitative behavior. This year, the game was amended so that Island-ers were shown news headlines rather than tweets. But given that many of the headlines were written about tweets, it didn’t really alter anyone’s perception of the show.
But now that Caroline Flack has become the third figure associated with Love Island to kill herself, the future of the series is up in the air. Flack’s death is especially hard to overcome because her fingerprints were all over Love Island. She didn’t have an awful lot to do on the show—in truth it has little need for a host—but her flirty, fun personality gave it a focal point. And although she didn’t present the newest series, since ITV canned her in the wake of her arrest, her death has only amplified calls for Love Island to be shelved.
Flack’s former fiancé, Andrew Brady, has demanded a government investigation into Love Island’s practices. Sophie Gradon’s mother has called the show a “theatre of cruelty.” The Financial Times has questioned whether advertisers and investors will want to align themselves with the “dark undertones” that the series has acquired. And a cancellation would not be entirely unprecedented; late last year Dutch broadcaster RTL announced it would no longer air “sexual seduction” shows like Love Island, in response to claims that they encouraged sexual harassment.
So far, though, Love Island looks to have survived the bumps. When Flack died, ITV responded by canceling a clip show, allowing several other hosts to pay tribute to her on their own shows and then running a tribute during Sunday’s Love Island finale. And, at least for now, that seems to have done the trick. Not many shows can shake off the stink of three suicides, but this just speaks to Love Island’s charm, dubious as it may be.
Stuart Heritage is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIl based in Kent, U.K.