'The rule was no sex on TV, and she did that within a week' - What it’s like to watch your child on Love Island
Back in June, before the UK had been allowed to imagine they could win the World Cup and the notion of a heatwave was still a sunny one, a simpler controversy occupied our small screens. Adam, the Adonis-like personal trainer from Newcastle, had betrayed a Welsh solicitor called Rosie with Zara, a civil servant from Essex.
Eventually, Adam tore himself away from Zara to dump Rosie in front of his other Love Island housemates with a smile.
ITV2’s Love Island, in which dozens of buffed and bronzed twentysomethings are systematically put into a villa in Majorca with the intention to copulate, has become the much-reviled watercooler hit of a summer in which watercoolers are much needed. But whether you love or loathe the reality television show, it’s not difficult to spare a thought for those unwilling participants: the contestants’ parents.
This year, much fuss was made of actor and surprising royal descendant Danny Dyer, whose 20-year-old daughter Dani was going into the villa. Before going in, the younger Dyer explained that her father had “given his blessing to have sex,” because “he wants to put me at ease. He said, ‘Whatever you want to do, go do it’”. Dyer's mother, Joanne Mas, later contested this to the Mirror. But the parents needn’t have worried – Dani has stuck to her promise that she wouldn’t have sex on television, despite being in the show’s oldest couples.
But Dyer at least knew what he was getting himself in for – not all parents are as lucky. “I’d not watched Love Island at all, and I had no idea what it was about,” admits Sue Davies, a mental health nurse and mother of Amber Davies, who won last year’s show after falling in love with Kem Cetinay, a hairdresser from Essex. “We never really thought much of her getting through the audition process,” Davies says, “You don’t think these things happen to someone you actually know, we just live in a small market town in North Wales.”
Amber’s success arrived as Love Island blossomed into a national phenomenon from yet another low-budget reality TV show. High-minded editorials on the production popped up in broadsheet newspapers as ratings doubled to an average 2.5 million per night. Jeremy Corbyn announced he was backing Marcel to win. When contestants left the villa, they were no longer sent sheepishly back to their hometowns, but bombarded with social media partnerships worth up to £2 million a year – a sum that dwarfs the £50,000 prize money split between the winning couple. This year, the show became the most-watched on ITV2 ever, and counted former chancellor George Osborne among its fans.
For a parent, it’s surreal, to say the least. “We had no idea how big it was,” Davies says. “And as for the opportunities she’s had after, well they have been amazing, it’s changed all our lives massively.”
But that’s the aftermath – before the relative fame and riches, there’s the not-small matter of watching your offspring say, compete to break watermelons with their behinds. “I must admit I cringe at some bits,” says Gill Baxter, whose son Scott Timlin – better known as “Scotty T” – came to fame as a voracious ladies’ man on Geordie Shore. Since appearing on the show in 2012, he’s become a veritable veteran of reality TV, appearing on Ex on the Beach and winning Celebrity Big Brother in 2016.
Perhaps Baxter is used to it after six years, but she seems remarkably au fait with the regularity with which her son has sex on TV: “Well you know, if it was a daughter it would be totally different to me,” she admits. “But I’ve only got one son. It’s difficult, I seem to be able to turn a blind eye to it and turn it off, but he’s old enough now to know what to do.”
“The rule was no sex on TV, and she obviously did that within the first week,” Davies says of Amber. “But nothing gets shown. People would say, ‘Oh she’s had sex on TV,’ but you don’t see anything.” If anything, Davies was more disappointed with her daughter picking up smoking during her time on Love Island. And she’s not alone: the show received more Ofcom complaints about smoking than sex last year, causing the introduction of an on-screen cigarette ban ahead of the 2018 series. “She’s not been brought up in a smoking environment,” Davies stressed. “In some ways that was the only time I felt, “Please don’t do that, I don’t want you to.” But she’s 21, she can make her own decisions.”
That’s not that Davies didn’t try to put measures in place: “I Googled a little bit and I just remember thinking, ‘Ooh, do I really want her to do that?’ Gosh, we had some rules. I said, ‘Listen, go on there, hold your head up high, remember your morals.’ Both girls left home at 16, I’ve had to be quite a modern and liberated mum and after seeing things on TV I just had to think, you know, I hope she remembered where she was.”
Figen Cetinay, the mother of Davies’ Love Island boyfriend Kem, was less impressed with their nocturnal antics. “I don’t like the sex or hearing bad language,” she told The Sun at the time. “He’s been brought up to respect others, including women. Over the weeks I’ve been watching him on TV, I’ve got to know another side of Kem. He has such a fun side to him. We don’t usually see that at home.”
For Cheryl Hakeney, whose daughter Zara lost her Miss GB title after having sex on Love Island in 2016, her offspring’s actions were alarming: “I'm really surprised by Zara's behaviour – it's definitely out of character,” she said during the show’s second season.
The sex is one thing – and as producers have repeatedly stated, there’s not as much of it shown on Love Island as actually happens within the villa. But it’s maybe more challenging for a parent to witness their child endure the slings and arrows of dating fortune – and how their behaviour can be transformed through an editing suite.
This year, a more critical eye has been cast upon the producers behind the scenes of Love Island following the untimely death of one of the show’s former contestants. When Sophie Gradon, a 32-year-old model from Newcastle, was found dead in June, other former stars went public with criticisms of how they had been treated both by the public and the production company following their release from the villa. While both Baxter and Davies maintain that they were kept informed by the production companies behind Geordie Shore and Love Island, respectively, they do admit it can be difficult to transition to reality after appearing on the show.
“[Amber] was only on a weekly contract, so there was a week after she left for media stuff and then no more connection to Love Island after that, that was pretty hard, they just have to get on with it,” Davies explains. “I’m familiar with mental health but there’s not a lot of families out there who can give that support. And they need that additional service to make sure they get right support when they come out.”
There’s also the fact that contestants don’t know how they’ve been portrayed on the outside world. “On the programme they do go out a lot and they party a lot and that’s sort of expected in a way,” Baxter says of Geordie Shore. “It looks like they do that all the time, but they only film it for so many hours before putting together all the worst-looking bits. People don’t see behind the scenes.”
Amber, meanwhile, didn’t always look likely to win Love Island: on the small screen, at least, her behaviour seemed stroppy and clingy for her first few weeks in the villa. “The first two or three weeks for us were really difficult. The editing of the show had really portrayed her in as very difficult and young. They absolutely slated her on AfterSun the first week and that was absolutely traumatic,” Davies says. “I wanted to get her out. I hoped that people would see her for who she was. I knew the real Amber and she was genuine, truthful, kind and supportive. Instead, she was coming across controlling.”
And, with a viewing public of millions keen to make their own heroes and villains on social media, trolling is rarely far away. “I was a bit nervous,” Baxter says of Scotty going into Geordie Shore. “You immediately think, ‘Oh what if he gets all these negative comments?’ and that would hurt him, cos he is sensitive. Social media it’s not nice, quite cruel. But actually, it wasn’t like that. Quite the opposite, he’s one of the lucky ones in that respect.”
Scotty, it transpired, actually proved a major hit, not least because in comparison to Geordie Shore co-star Gaz Beadle he seemed compassionate and charming. On Love Island, however, Amber was less fortunate. Now picking up on the acting ambitions she left behind to enter the villa (she passed up a role in the touring production of Hairspray), Amber still attracts egregious comments online, a year after she left Love Island.
“I’ve seen trolling about my daughter and I’ve had to really bite my tongue about things,” Davies admits. “I do a lot of blocking, I don’t do a lot of reading, it can be heartbreaking – they’ve no idea who my daughter is.”
What’s possibly surprising about the parents whose children have had their lives changed by reality TV is the unwavering support they have. Baxter is especially proud of Scott for his efforts in Big Brother: “It’s so difficult being shut in a house with all those people. I think he did really well, he kept calm.”
Nicola Toffolo, mother of Made in Chelsea star and I’m A Celeb victor Georgia (aka Toff), was brimming with pride for her daughter last November: “I want her to go all the way. I am extremely proud of her, she is someone who lights up the screen, she is having fun, she is really enjoying herself and making people laugh,” she told The Mirror.
Rosemary Mitchell, mother of Johnny, who was painted as a love rat on last year’s Love Island before a stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house, stood by her son: “Jonny has always been kind and considerate to friends and girlfriends alike,” she told The Mail. “Love Island is a stage and everyone there performed.”
Last summer, Davies found it “quite difficult initially” to watch Love Island. But she soon got sucked in, realising that “if I didn’t watch it I didn’t see her.” A year on, and the whole family’s life has changed. While Amber has positioned herself as a Love Island commentator this summer, appearing on Lorraine to discuss the show and giving her verdict over Twitter each night, Davies has settled back into a reality TV-free existence. Apart from, that is, watching re-runs of last summer’s show. “I really enjoyed it,” she says, “I loved watching her on TV. I even watch it back now. I am so incredibly proud of her, of what she’s done, how she’s been able to grow up.”
Because while Amber may be a Love Island winner to the rest of the public, she’s still Amber to Davies. “She’s my daughter,” she says. “Of course I’m going to back her.”