(Content Note: Contains discussion of suicide)
Last summer, my roommates and I spent hours upon hours watching Love Island. It’s a hugely popular UK dating show that isolates an ever-rotating group of 10 or so singles for the length of the summer in a villa in Spain. We voraciously binged Love Island’s hour-long episodes, speeding through multiple seasons, becoming intimate with the intricacies of each contestant and their varied relationships with one another. While I was becoming deeply emotionally involved with the show’s narratives, I also became aware of an unsettling piece of information.
Two of Love Island’s former contestants have died by suicide since appearing on the show: Sophie from the second season, and Mike from the third season. Sophie was the oldest contestant on her season of the show, a model and former beauty queen. Mike was one of the villains of season three, sent in to “stir the pot.’’ For the most part, Sophie and Mike behaved similarly to other islanders: they gossiped, lounged by the pool, had arguments, and participated in the producer’s carefully designed games and challenges. While the rest of the islanders’ moments of sadness and confessions seemed fairly inconsequential, Sophie and Mike’s pain seemed enduring. I was left feeling deeply disturbed and read a slew of articles about their deaths, attempting to understand if their decision to end their lives could be linked back to Love Island.
I found out that stories like Sophie’s and Mike’s aren’t that uncommon in the world of reality dating shows. Love Island’s former host, Caroline Flack, ended her life in early 2020. Three former contestants of the Bachelor franchise have died by suicide. Across the entire genre, 38 former reality tv stars have ended their lives. Many discourses that surround this issue focus on the shows themselves and the producer’s failings to provide aftercare. Other conversations concentrate on the intense trolling that happens to reality stars over social media. Still others point towards the tabloids and their invasive articles.
What the above explanations don’t consider is how these harsh realities — the manipulative and self-serving producers, the trolling, the tabloids — all rely on the commodification of the stars themselves. There is a special precariousness that happens when these reality stars become influencers, marketing themselves through social media and thus increasing their value as a product. Suicide is an extreme and tragic outcome of this process, and most reality tv stars do not end their lives. However, these stars experience a type of fame where their personhood gets commodified. , Not only does this process make healing and growing extremely difficult, but it can have long-term psychic effects. Importantly, this circumstance is not isolated to just reality stars or influencers; rather, it is an exaggerated example of our own experience, as we all navigate a stage of capitalism that demands not only our physical labor, but our full personhood
Reality Stars’ Unique Fame
There is no direct evidence linking these reality stars’ deaths to their time on the shows, but many have spoken about how strange and overwhelming their lives became post-production. Often, contestants experience instant fame and are faced with a sudden flood of public attention. Especially with shows like The Bachelor and Love Island, which have become nation-wide, communal viewing experiences in the US and UK respectively, contestants are regularly written about in the tabloids, their images and personal dramas widely dispersed.
Another equally impactful aspect of sudden fame comes through their social media platforms — namely Instagram. Some reality stars churned out by The Bachelor franchise experience as much as a 140,000% increase in followers, jumping from having small private accounts to having followers in the hundreds of thousands and even millions.
This level of fame wasn’t always the case with reality stars. Reality dating shows span back to the 1960s when ABC aired The Dating Game, where one bachelor or bachelorette would question three potential suitors hidden behind a wall. The Dating Game aired until the 1990s. Then, in the early 2000s reality TV hit its stride with dating series like The Bachelor and Rock of Love. Even with these shows gaining a sizable viewership, former contestants could easily slip into obscurity unless they managed to be cast in other reality shows.
In 2006, before Facebook and Instagram, one contestant from the first season of Flavor of Love began to market herself using Myspace as a platform. Becky Johnston, known by Flavor of Love fans as Becky Buckwild, was likely the first reality dating contestant to develop her brand identity and then profit from it over social media, selling Buckwild themed merchandise to her one million Myspace followers.
With the rise of platforms like Instagram and Twitter, the relationship between social media and television has become more entwined; thus, the move from reality tv star to influencer is almost expected. Most popular reality show contestants are able to quit their day jobs and become influencers, making money from marketing themselves through sponsored posts. The two careers are now symbiotic and feed into each other effortlessly.
Inside all of this, there is the matter of agency. Of course, anyone who goes on reality dating shows signs up for the public scrutiny that comes along with it. But many may not be ready for the level of fame or infamy they will be granted and the way it will play out. Let’s take Matt James as an example. He may have signed up to be the first Black bachelor, but it’s not clear if he was prepared for the way the producers would spin his story. He may not have been prepared to talk to his estranged father — a narrative arc that also reinforced racial stereotypes of the absent Black father. He certainly couldn’t have anticipated the woman he gave the rose to at the end of his season being outed as participating in racist Antebellum-themed parties.
Often, a reality star’s influence is taken into a realm that is beyond their control and beyond the boundaries of consent. They are made into a product and can easily be monetized (by themselves or others) to sell skin care products on instagram or be implicated in some of the most pressing concerns of their societies. While many aspects of this fame may be true for any popular celebrity, the impact can be deeper and more pervasive for a reality star because it is harder for them to disentangle their own sense of self from their brand identity, seeing as the two necessarily conflate.
Former reality stars have an increased agency in representation through their social media accounts compared to how their image may have been manipulated in post-production editing. This agency is important, but it doesn’t entirely change the fact that their image or brand, the one created on the show and further amplified or altered by social media’s whirlpool, will live with them as a second skin and potentially as a lucrative means of generating income. Not all reality dating stars are able to sustain themselves off of their social media alone. Especially when the mechanisms of social media were still being established, a star’s fame could dry up along with their sponsored posts. This fall from fame creates an even more uncertain post-show world for reality stars. But as the shows have become more popular and social media more present, it is not hard for many popular reality stars to maintain a following and continue to profit as an influencer.
The Labor of Celebrity [Commodifying Personhood]
Even though many reality stars may be able to make a living off of simply posting their leisure activities, being an influencer is still labor, and it is often all-encompassing labor. An influencer’s whole personhood and identity collides with the fact that they are products themselves. The Invisible Committee, an anonymous collective of French thinkers, in their book Now,speak to this idea of human capital by exploring how a worker used to be “the owner of [their labor] that [they] could alienate while remaining intact.” A reality star who becomes an influencer might find it extremely difficult to divorce their own personhood from their labor, seeing that their personhood — or the image of their personhood — is how they’re making money. According to The Invisible Committee, “people whose value fully coincides with what they are” become the new heroes of capitalism; this description certainly applies to reality stars and influencers.
At the center of shows like Love Island and The Bachelor are fallible humans with emotions, insecurities, and complicated motives. This essential humanness drives audience engagement and makes reality TV enticing — but this is also the aspect that capitalism measures, divides, and turns into profit to the point where a reality star’s whole being is placed under the microscopic view of a shifting market economy. This second self, the product and the laborer, can be amplified and transformed, living in the body as a grid of monetization. The overall effect of this commodification plays out differently in every individual, and some are perhaps more well equipped to deal with the scrutiny than others. Perhaps others are less able to consolidate the monetized self with the other self — the healing, growing, imperfect, unquantifiable self.
Managing Unavoidable Exploitation
Often when I watch reality dating shows, I experience the same sense of uneasiness as when I discovered Sophie and Mike’s fate. Despite the depth of my disturbance, I have found some solace in the fact that Sophie and Mike’s deaths led to a conversation about aftercare for reality TVstars. Love Island and many other reality dating shows have ramped up their fleet of psychiatrists and counselors available to contestants. However, it seems to me that the issue runs a lot deeper than a lack of aftercare. In fact, it’s also deeper than the manipulative and exploitative quality of the shows themselves. The problem, I think, is our relationship to the expanding tide of capitalism. As long as we are part of an economic system that seeks to profit from our own personhood, we will continue to witness this same type of emotional fallout.
The fact is, reality dating shows aren’t going to suddenly stop streaming, and Instagram isn’t going to suddenly stop being incredibly popular. We might not be able to control this, but we do have agency over our own engagement with this media. We have a lot more power than we sometimes realize as audience members. Already, audience engagement has shifted the course of many popular reality shows. Through continuing to hold producers accountable, we can ask for shows to not only provide after care to its contestants, but to also call into question the toxic elements of reality TV production, to allow contestants to consent to the intricacies of editing processes, and to question heternormativity through introducing more queer contestants and storylines.
As followers of reality stars’ Instagram accounts, we have to be vigilant about remembering their humanness and engaging with their content in a way that is as non-exploitative as possible. For example, we can start by noting that reality TV stars and influencers are just other humans engaging in the same changing landscape of labor, and we can increase empathy not only towards reality stars but also towards ourselves. A reality star’s relationship to social media is just an acute version of our own relationship to social media. Because of this similarity, we can look to reality stars to understand our own fraught connection to product-hood, labor, and self.Become a Patron!
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