On Feb. 15, news broke that former Love Island host Caroline Flack had killed herself. The TV presenter had been a regular fixture of U.K. tabloids, and was expected to appear at trial in March after pleading not guilty last year to assaulting her boyfriend with a lamp. Although we will likely never know the exact reasons Flack killed herself, actor and comedian Russell Brand fumed over the way the British press had treated her. “I am angry because I have watched this play out before with vulnerable people in the public eye,” Brand wrote, “and I would like to slay with some righteous sword the salacious, foaming, incessant poking, trolling judgment that chased her to the grave.”
“I know there is no single ‘media’ or ‘social media,’” Brand added. “I know they are complex machines that comprise, by their nature, millions of participants. But our systems operate in accordance with values and the way these values are set and the consequences of these values are obviously in serious need of reevaluation.”
The British tabloid media is notoriously vicious, but Flack’s death nonetheless seems to capture the inescapable, toxic relationship reality stars can form with the media. A reckoning, or at least some minor changes to the formula, feel overdue—but when will they materialize?
Last May in the U.K., Parliament’s culture and media committee announced that it would explore what kinds of support British reality shows should provide their participants. As committee chair Damian Collins told Variety in May, these programs put “people who might be vulnerable on to a public stage at a point in their lives when they are unable to foresee the consequences, either for themselves or their families.”
“This kind of TV featuring members of the public attracts viewing figures in the millions,” Collins added, “but in return for ratings, the broadcasters must demonstrate their duty of care to the people whose personal lives are being exposed.”
Like early writers for the first person industrial complex, reality personalities can gain notoriety most easily through personal exposure. (This applies for hosts and judges as well; remember the long-running speculation regarding whether Paula Abdul had ever dated her American Idol colleague Simon Cowell?) And even that fame comes without all the institutional support that mainstream fame can grant.
Reality contestants in particular can be particularly vulnerable to suicide. In 2016, the New York Post reported that 21 former reality participants, all seemingly from the U.S., had taken their own lives. The list included Bachelor Nation alums Alexa “Lex” McAllister, Gia Allemand, and Julien Hug, as well as Real Housewives of Beverly Hills husband Russell Armstrong. Last March, British tabloid The Sun reported that dozens of reality stars have taken their own lives across the globe. After multiple contestant suicides, Love Island itself instituted new therapy protocols last summer.
But across the genre more broadly, the churn continues apace, as reality series audition new personalities as tabloid fodder. On Monday night’s Bachelor episode, the tension surrounding Victoria Fuller, the season’s clearest villain, finally exploded—culminating weeks of gossip and very bad PR for the medical sales rep from Virginia Beach. Reality television, we know, is a curated narrative—especially on a show as overtly produced as The Bachelor. And producers openly toyed with Victoria F. from early in the season, regardless of what they seemed to find out about her later. But where does the edit end and the real Victoria begin? And what on Earth is anyone supposed to think about that racist-sounding fish conservation campaign?
As we wait to see what answer, if any, the entertainment industry provides for this problem, perhaps the best advice to follow comes from Flack herself. “Be nice to people,” she wrote last October. “You never know what’s going on. Ever.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741