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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Do reality TV stars need support in fame game?

Life after starring in reality TV is never the same again, writes Sheena McGinley

Mike Thalassitis had starred in the 10th series of the MTV show, which will not air. (Ian West/PA)
Mike Thalassitis had starred in the 10th series of the MTV show, which will not air. (Ian West/PA)
Mike Thalassitis (Ian West/PA)
Megan McKenna in ‘complete shock’ over ex-partner Mike Thalassitis’ death (Ian West/PA)
Sophie Gradon appeared on Love Island (ITV/PA)
Sophie Gradon was a Love Island contestant in 2016 (Joel Anderson/ITV)

Sheena McGinley

Back in 2000, when things got weird, contestants on the very first Big Brother used to jovially sing "It's only a game show, it's only a game show!" to each other. These were less pressurised times, literally a lifetime ago. Society has changed immeasurably since then...

In the last two decades, since smartphones and a plethora of social media platforms became the norm, we're constantly "on", 24/7, preened, primped, perfected and game face ready…. All. The. Time.

Human beings are not designed for that. For aeons, we have been in two states - relaxation peppered with short bursts of "high alert". Since the emergence of technology, we've become overstimulated and over saturated. It's exhausting. Now, imagine what it's like for a young reality TV contestant today...

Last Saturday, 26-year-old Mike Thalassitis took his own life in a park near his North London home. Hours prior, he'd been seen happily socialising with TOWIE stars, excitedly discussing his imminent restaurant opening. He was in the 2017 run of Love Island and was nicknamed Muggy Mike. The last picture he posted on Instagram was a topless gym selfie.

Up until a few days ago, he was thought to be the second Love Island star to take their own life in the last nine months. Thirty two-year-old Sophie Gradon, from the 2016 show, was found dead last June by boyfriend Aaron Armstrong at her house in Newcastle. However, her inquest, which had been due to begin today, has been postponed to allow more time for police investigations to continue, and her family insist that she did not kill herself. New lines of enquiry have emerged which may support this belief.

Weeks after Sophie's passing, boyfriend Armstrong was also found dead at home and it is believed that his death was through suicide.

At the risk of uttering a gross understatement, suicide is an extremely complex subject, with often indeterminable pre-existing and emerging conditions playing a role.

However, with basic questions now being raised regarding just how much support is offered to contestants of such TV shows, both prior and post air, I asked psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley what practical advice she would give someone who was considering seeking instant "fame and fortune" via a reality TV show.

"I would ask them to look inward; booking some sessions with a counsellor or psychotherapist would be very helpful for someone who has an intense desire for fame... Although a desire for fame is understandable for someone with a burning message that they wish to impart, seeking fame just for fame itself indicates deeper feelings of inadequacy."

Also, timing is everything, with O'Malley adding that "dubious decisions" can be made if one is experiencing a "particularly vulnerable time" in their life.

"If a person has recently experienced trauma or has just left a traumatic situation, they are more vulnerable than others and they might instinctively seek out more high drama... In truth, it is healthier to seek quiet reflection after traumatic events."

Unfortunately, TV production companies have been known to target vulnerable potential contestants in the quest for good telly. UK-based behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings has worked alongside production companies during the contestant selection process and had this to say on Tuesday's The Last Word: "Most of the production companies I've worked with have been absolutely brilliant, I've never heard of a single complaint from a contestant on any one of their shows. However, there are some who are more concerned about the entertainment factor over the vulnerability of their contestants. The moment a series is over, particularly a very big series like Love Island, they're on to the next series."

In the wake of Thalassitis's death, past contestants have been recounting their own post-show experiences. 2018's "villain", Megan Barton Hanson wrote: "His friends have talked about the gap between 'Muggy' Mike and the person he was in private and I think that's the same for most reality stars. Even if you embrace your larger-than-life public persona, like Mike did, it's rarely a true reflection of who you are... When I came out of the villa, ITV sat down with me and went through everything that had happened to make sure I was prepared, but really - how can you be?... I'm told that I'm stupid, that I've no right to feel sad about anything. It's as if, once people see a big 'reality-star' tick next to your name, they don't think you're human any more."

2016 contestant Olivia Buckland said of life after Love Island: "I was in constant contact with the producers for a very long time. I got offered psychological tests when I got out. I got offered counselling when I got out. I got a list of agencies... in my experience, I can't say that there is any more that could have been done for me. But, I did come out with (now husband) Alex next to me, so that was also a massive support."

It's one thing to be offered services, or given "a list of agencies", but perhaps some form of ongoing post-show assessment should be mandatory? Often times, those who need the most guidance don't realise they do.

The appetite for Roman gladitorial-type reality shows isn't going anywhere. As long as there's a massive audience waiting to watch, a line of contestants willing to lay themselves bare in a bid to hit the elusive jackpot, and money to be made by TV companies via advertising, they will continue. We are all complicit.

Therefore, in order for this type of show to carry on in good conscience, are there red flags that should be checked by TV production companies to source suitable candidates for such a level of exposure?

O'Malley highlights that "the desire for chaos isn't healthy and TV production companies should assess each participant with an independent psychological evaluation before they are deemed fit to participate. Others who shouldn't partake in reality TV shows are those who, for many different reasons, have an intense need for approval and experience horror at negative feedback... A certain level of psychological resilience is needed if a person is to enter into this crazy, unfair and highly emotional world."

Love Island bosses have now vowed to change their policy in order to offer support to all contestants before, during and after their time on the show, as well as social media and finance management training, following the deaths of Mike and Sophie.

In a lengthy message from producers, published on Tuesday, the ITV2 show confirmed they would change policies towards the mental care of all contestants, after many former stars hit out at them for the lack of aftercare specifically.

Stella O'Malley's new book, Fragile: Why we feel more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed than ever, and what we can do about it will be released by Gill Books in early April


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