Picture the archetypal Love Island contestant: beautiful, glamorous, exuding confidence. Then picture them again, when you’ve come to know them after a few days on the screen: vulnerable, temperamental, far more fragile than you might initially have suspected.
It’s not hard to see why viewers took presenter Caroline Flack – who has died aged 40 – to their hearts. She was a key factor in the show’s stratospheric success because she was, in many ways, no different to the show’s stars. It could almost have been Flack strutting into the villa herself, looking for love in the unmistakably rocky way the show liked to depict.
Love Island is – and maybe now we should really be saying was – a ludicrous concept. Many viewers tuned in, at least partly, to laugh at the whole affair. Countless presenters might have viewed themselves as above the whole thing. Yet Flack seemed to relate to the rollercoasting emotions of those in the villa with an earnestness at odds with the show itself. She seemed to be genuinely rooting for these people to find love. She was a fangirl as much as a frontwoman and her presenting gig seemed to be the perfect match.
Contestants rarely left the villa with a bad word to say about her. Former contestant Amy Hart once revealed how Flack had squeezed her hand to subtly hint that all was not well with her relationship, and that she might want to stop talking so effusively about it. Last night Kady McDermott, who starred in the show’s second series, posted a typical tribute when she wrote: “Caroline was nothing but kind to me and that’s how I will always remember her.”
As a sparky presenter on other shows such as the X Factor, Flack struck up a similar rapport with viewers and contestants. She wasn’t always the most seamless presenter – but what made her stand out was, perhaps, the relatable hint of a wilder, less PR-honed side. Her brief relationship with One Direction’s Harry Styles, who she met on the set of the X Factor while he was still a teenager, might not have caused as much fuss if the genders were reversed (at least not back in 2011) but she recounted being called a “pervert” in the street over their 14-year age gap, while the press had a field day.
Many viewers knew Flack had her demons. She had talked in interviews about winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2014 and being hit by depression, making it clear that fame was no antidote to unhappiness: “I felt ridiculous, being so sad when I’d just won the biggest show on telly,” she told an interviewer. On an Instagram post late last year, she wrote about her mental health: “The last few weeks I’ve been in a really weird place … I find it hard to talk about it … I guess it’s anxiety and pressure of life,” she posted alongside a photograph of herself, concluding: “Be nice to people. You never know what’s going on. Ever.”
Her forthcoming trial, for which she was accused of attacking her boyfriend Lewis Burton while he slept, was a shock. She was forced to step back from presenting Love Island’s inaugural winter edition and became a tabloid target. Her career looked as if it might have been over.
And now, harrowingly, there’s this – the kind of news that is tragic and stomach-churning but also anger-inducing. A few months ago, Flack had a bright future. Now she joins the list of young women hounded relentlessly by the media during a time of crisis which seems to have become too much for her to cope with.
You might hope lessons will be learned from this – that we should think again about how we treat those in the public eye going through crises; that the press should reflect on coverage so intrusive that some outlets are busy deleting their own articles since her death; that we should all perhaps listen to the words on one of Flack’s final social media posts: “In a world where we can be anything, be kind.” Past experience suggests that this is all, sadly, wishful thinking.