Articles - 24th May 2019

Invisible Cages and The Human Zoo

Words by Caroline Kelly

What do a man accused of cheating on his fiancée and two ridiculously attractive people frolicking in the sun have in common?

The answer is, tragically, the deaths of all three by apparent suicide. And why? Because quite simply being part of the human zoo that is reality TV became too much.

Now, admittedly that might be something of an over-simplification and yes, there may have been underlying mental health issues exacerbated by their TV appearances. But to underplay the impact starring in reality TV made on their lives would be to create a dangerous precedent.

Let’s dignify these tragic deaths by putting some names to them. First, there was Sophie Gradon, a 32-year-old former marketing manager and model who, in 2016 appeared on ITV’s Love Island as a contestant.

Sophie had been diagnosed with depression and low self-esteem back in 2013 and was found hanged in her parents’ living room in 2018, by her boyfriend Aaron Armstrong and his brother. Just 20 days later, Aaron went on to take his own life.

One year on, one further suicide. This time Mike Thalassitis, who appeared on the show a year later and took his own life earlier this year by hanging, at the age of just 26.

Finally, there is Steven Dymond, a 63-year-old who appeared on the Jeremy Kyle Show to answer accusations that he had cheated on his then-fiancée. Just a week later he was found dead in the room he was renting. While the formal results of the post-mortem have yet to be released, an inquest heard that morphine tablets, sleeping pills and letters to his family were found next to his body.

Predictably, both Kyle himself and the makers of Love Island expressed their devastation at the deaths but while the Jeremy Kyle show was axed in the wake of Steven Dymond’s death, Love Island is making a return in June. For the normal viewing public, the question that remains is why, after two deaths, has this programme not been axed and how will it prevent further deaths?

Because, after all, the makers would surely have been aware of Sophie’s history of depression, so did that really make her an ideal candidate for this type of programme, judged as contestants are on their looks, personalities and behaviour? Adored and ridiculed in equal measure.

Not much is known about the state of Mike’s mental health, but whether he had a pre-existing condition, or the pressure of stardom became too much for him, it’s clear that the constant attention and fame that once seemed so attractive very quickly became decidedly unattractive.

So what, if anything, will the makers of Love Island and the like do to properly screen potential contestants and eliminate those who might find their vulnerabilities exploited for our entertainment?

Well if Health Secretary Matt Hancock has anything to do with it, we may well see more solid lines when it comes to regulating psychological screening before, during and after filming. Hancock called on producers to exercise their duty of care to contestants as they became famous. But calling for and insisting on are poles apart when it comes to real changes being put in place.

Love Island execs defended their position with a statement read out on 5 Live: “Care for our islanders is a process the show takes very seriously and is a continuous process for all those taking part in the show. We ensure that all of our contributors are able to access psychological support before, during and after appearing on the show.

“The programme will always provide ongoing support when needed and where appropriate. We also discuss at length with all of our islanders before and after the show how their lives might change, and they have access to support and advice to help with this.”

But the fact is that the human bear-baiting that was the Jeremy Kyle Show may simply have run its course. Bored of looking at poor, mainly white, working-class families airing their chaotic lives in public, we the consumers demand better looking, younger and more exotic flesh.

Of course, we’re horrified by the suicides of these vulnerable and desperate people but that only appears to have added to the demand for more of those same shows that led to their deaths. Don’t believe it? According to the i newspaper, this year’s series is predicted to take viewing figures over the 5million mark, up more than a million from the last time around.

And although Love Island execs talk the talk will they provide the level of support needed for this level of fame and, an aside, will they answer the questions about the massive lack of diversity – a question for another place and time.

But for now, if you enjoyed the Hunger Games and you like your reality TV shows with a dose of danger, don’t underestimate how much of that danger those trapped in the human zoo are putting themselves in.

Finally, a note to the freelancing community. If you’re feeling isolated, vulnerable and alone and get a distinct impression that you’re flying solo, please know that there are people out there to support you. Don’t feel like there’s nowhere to go if you need advice. We’re all human beings, not caricatures of human beings, so let’s treat each with the support and respect we deserve.

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