Leaving the dating show was supposed to be a joyous moment for the former contestant, but instead she was greeted with hostility and the message that she was unmarketable. Now a debut author, she opens up about the racism in influencer culture, finding her voice and why Tinder is better than Raya
First things first, I tell Love Island alumnus Yewande Biala, I’m admitting to a prejudice. I tell her that when news of her first book, Reclaiming: Essays on Finding Yourself, One Piece at a Time, first surfaced, I was expecting a very glossy, slightly lightweight tome full of very beautiful pictures and ‘live your best life’ sloganeering. In the end, I was very, very wrong. Biala laughs sweetly, but she’s having none of it.
“Jesus Christ, why would you think that?” she says. “I went to university for five years. After five years of university, you’d think I’d have some type of head on my shoulders.”
As it happens, Biala’s book is a compelling, informative and smart read. By turns polemical and personal, the book is a snapshot of an Irish woman who has had extraordinary experiences in life, but also a look at the wider challenges that women and men of 26-year-old Biala’s age routinely face. Dating, sexism, grief, body image, depression, social media, religion, identity… it’s all here, served with a hefty pinch of sass.
The book is dedicated to Biala’s sister, Ayobami, who died as a young child and when Biala herself was three years old. Biala writes with acuity of the singular grief of losing a sibling, close in age, of whom she now has little memory.
“I wrote the book for her, but I also wrote the book for my old self, and for my future self, and for anyone who, like me, is a bit discombobulated, a bit lost, and needs direction or even a friendly voice to listen or speak to,” Biala says.
The book is called Reclaiming because Biala wanted to wrest back a little control of her own narrative.
“You come out of a show like Love Island and in the public eye — a lot of us get media training and told what to say and what not to say,” she explains. “When there’s a story [about you, the advice is], ‘Don’t say anything, don’t react to it, just pretend it’s not there.’ Along the way, you kind of lose your voice, because you’re not allowed to stand up for yourself anymore. You’re not allowed to speak out on certain issues, whether they’re political or personal. You’re drowned out by everyone speaking over you. So, this is me introducing myself again.”
I first met Biala in 2019 in the offices of Virgin Media Ireland. She had recently emerged from that year’s series of Love Island as an audience favourite. Sleek, beautiful and glossy, Biala’s phone pinged regularly during our interview, and she spent time in between interviews furiously sending emails while wolfing down a McDonald’s. She exuded the effortless confidence of a woman going places.
Yet, as she details in Reclaiming, her attempts to establish a long-lasting career in this new industry (previously, she had worked in the biotechnology sector, thanks to her master’s in pharmaceutical quality assurance) initially stalled.
“Coming out of the biggest dating show in the UK was supposed to be one of the most joyful moments of my life. Instead, I was greeted with hostility and rejection,” she writes. “Constantly overlooked and ignored, it was a taste of what was to come, and I was terrified. My first point of action was to find a manager… I was always initially greeted with a welcoming tone, but this drastically changed as the conversation progressed and would usually end with, ‘We’re not looking to sign anyone new, sorry.’ I scrolled through Instagram with a very discouraged heart watching the rest of the islanders with lower [social media] engagement and followers announce their signings.”
I ask her about this now. “I know, for me, it was really a struggle,” Biala reflects. “I think it’s down to being marketable and sellable. And the way to make loads of money from you is to get those brand deals for you, and to be marketable to brands. And the image now — it’s kind of changed, but has it really? — is the pretty, blonde, skinny, blue-eyed girls. If you look at certain brands, they’re the kind of girls they tend to do collections with, and with a contestant like me, I wasn’t marketable to them. I think that’s why I struggled. I was so new to the world of media that I just never thought it would be an issue. I thought if you had followers and people liked you, you would be grand.”
Biala writes with arresting candour about what she describes as the “systemic racism built into influencer culture”, going so far as to detail a conversation she had with another (white) influencer about what they were both being paid for brand collaborations.
“The thing is, after the second wave of Black Lives Matter in 2020, there was a real cultural shift in terms of representation,” Biala observes. “Whether any of it was actually genuine is another question. But I think there are many activists who are working to dismantle systemic racism in the beauty industry, and also the influencer market. All we can do is keep campaigning and championing for change.”
In the months after Love Island, Biala became more and more outspoken about the racism and colourism she has experienced, becoming a voice of authority on both issues.
Biala writes that she has “suffered at the wrong end of colourism” (prejudice/discrimination against people with a darker skin tone, often within the same ethnic/racial group). She details a moment from her teens, when she went to Dublin’s Moore Street with a friend in a bid to find skin-lightening/bleaching cream. “I guess we were both at the age where attention from young men was imperative to the way we saw ourselves,” she writes. “There were only so many rejections you could handle, only so much ‘I think you’re fit, but my type is actually light-skinned’ or ‘I think you’d be so much prettier if you were a few shades lighter’ a person could take.”
On which, Biala says: “I think I’ve heard that so many times in my life that I think I’ve nearly normalised it. When you’re 13 and a fella says they don’t fancy you because you’re not light enough, what can you do? You just get on with it. There are still people who say to my face that they don’t date black women.”
Love Island has weathered a number of racism accusations as recently as this summer. Addressing previous years’ cries of tokenism, this year’s line-up is certainly more diverse than it has ever been. Initially, the contestants of colour were matched together as couples, via a public vote at the beginning of the series, prompting cries that they were being ‘segregated’. Not long after, four black contestants — Ikenna Ekwonna, Amber Beckford, Afia Tonkmor and Remi Lambert — were among the first to exit the series. “Is no one questioning why a white person hasn’t left yet? Y’all really see black people as undesirable and it shows absolutely disgusting,” tweeted one viewer.
What does Biala see when she watches the show, knowing its inner workings as intimately as she does?
“I think the best way to answer that is, I’ve seen the uproar on social media, and I’ve seen a lot of people being shocked at it. My question is, ‘Why are you shocked?’ Love Island is an actual mirror representation of the society that we live in, so why the f**k are you shocked? The outside world is racist. As a dark-skinned woman, I’m the last preference for anyone. I never get picked first. You’re only shocked because you’re seeing it on TV.”
In January 2021, Biala wrote about the experience of racial renaming, noting that mispronouncing, changing, or not bothering to learn the correct pronunciation of names — as a fellow Love Island contestant reportedly did — can be another form of racism. “Pronouncing it is key to my identity,” she wrote at the time. In her book, she notes that growing up in Enfield, Co Meath, she dreaded the daily roll call at school. At one point, someone suggested that the youngster “go with” her middle name, Elizabeth, as it would simply be “easier for everyone”. Within Biala’s Nigerian culture, names were historically given based on circumstances the child was born into.
“When you were born, your grandmother — my mum — died, so you never got to meet her, but she came back to me, through you,” Biala’s mother, Biliki, told her as a child. “That’s why they called you Yewande, meaning ‘mother has returned’. The elders and the people in the compound all gave you your pre-ordained name. Because you were a girl, you were always going to be called Yewande. Your [other] name is Ànìké, meaning birthed to be pampered. A panegyric name your aunt gave you, she would sing praises of her hopes for you. It was a way to imprint you with your complex historical, social and spiritual identities.”
“I think it’s really important to say that it’s not even about unintentional mispronunciation of names,” Biala now says. “I think with ethnic names or names from an ethnic minority, there’s that dismissal. It’s not that people don’t know how to pronounce it, it’s more that people don’t even bother. Last week, I was out with friends. I was speaking to this man from Cork in the pub, and he was like, ‘Wow, that’s a bit of a tongue-twister.’ I’m just thinking to myself, ‘My name isn’t really that long.’ I get over it, but what people fail to understand is that there’s so much power in a name, especially within ethnic minorities, or cultural names, because more than ever, they really do mean something so powerful.”
Biala certainly has plenty to say, and the courage of her convictions to say it, but even she admits that getting it all down in writing was an occasional struggle.
“I think, as a first-time writer, I was so lost, and there were some chapters that I just didn’t want to write,” Biala admits. “I think I felt I was struggling to write because I hadn’t fully healed from it. Even to talk about things like mental health, body or religion, I felt like I had to be so open. The mental-health chapter was one of the hardest to write, because you’re trying to relive the moment so vividly and confront your own issues.”
It was, interestingly enough, Biala’s steadfast dedication to her science career that prompted her to seek out an adventure in 2019, and she soon found herself auditioning for Love Island. Biala went to university at 16 and graduated with a first-class degree in biotechnology, and went straight to work in the sector. After hearing her friends and colleagues talk about their J-1 visas and backpacking years, she realised she didn’t want to let life pass her by.
“I was petrified of growing old and just not having anything to look back on,” she says. “I think that’s probably one of my biggest fears — just not living. I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to. I definitely felt there was more to life than this, and I wanted to do something so different, so memorable. And what’s more different and memorable than this?”
During her time on Love Island, Biala turned the head of fellow islander Danny Williams, and things looked promising for the couple, until a bombshell (a contestant parachuted in to stir up the action and break up existing couples) arrived in the form of Arabella Chi. Williams, despite professing his feelings for Biala only hours previously, broke up with the Dubliner, noting that he had even stronger feelings for the newcomer. Biala won a new legion of fans when, true to form, she called Williams out for lying to her.
Biala has also written in her book about the quagmire of Generation-Z dating; for anyone who met their significant other offline, it all probably makes for arresting reading.
“I think what I called it was the ‘Disney complex’ in the book,” she explains. “We, or maybe I, don’t know how to date, because I live in this Disney fantasy world, where I am so fixed on gender roles. In the society we’re in, even though we are moving out of [gender] boxes, we are still convinced that men and women have to do certain things in relationships. We expect every relationship we get into to be all roses, and no one really wants to work on a relationship. We’ve seen too many Disney fairytales and movies.”
It had recently been reported that Biala had been accepted onto the ultra-exclusive celebrity dating app, Raya. Suffice to say that what happens on Raya stays on there.
“I’d actually say Tinder is probably better,” she smiles. “I think the issue with Raya is that there’s just not any diversity. I feel like I just don’t really trust anyone anymore [while dating] — I can’t tell if you’ve just seen me on TV or you actually fancy me, so if I do meet someone, it’s more [through] a friend of a friend. Yeah, it’s hard.”
For now, Biala is keeping her energies focused on her media career, and her activism.
“I’m just taking it as it comes — I’m reminding myself every day that I’m still young… well, young-ish,” she says. “I think I’d love to explore a fiction book next if I decide to write another book. But no one ever tells you how hard it is to write a book! I think I’ll just not think about that for the rest of the year.”
Reclaiming: Essays On Finding Yourself, One Piece At a Time by Yewande Biala is out now via Coronet