**Warning: contains spoilers for Make Me Famous**
Make Me Famous is fictional, I should say that right away. It isn’t based on any one real-life constructed reality television show. But it would also be remiss not to address what viewers themselves will also see: the clear parallels with ITV’s Love Island.
The film, written by presenter Reggie Yates, follows Billy (played by Grantchester’s Tom Brittney), a young man who found fame on reality dating show “Love or Lust”. One year on, he’s still basking in the afterglow of his ratings-grabbing appearance as the show’s resident heartbreaker and bad-boy.
However, brands are now turning their attention to the year’s latest crop of contestants – newer versions of Billy and his peers. While Billy’s fellow contestant and former flame, Michelle (Emma Rigby), has achieved long-lasting fame through her girl-next-door, ‘genuine’ image, Billy struggles to ‘rebrand’ himself and transform the public and media’s perception of him.
“I mean look, it’s loosely based on the idea of a Love Island type show, or a reality dating show,” Brittney told me over the phone. Later in the conversation, we talked about how Billy’s ‘celebrity value’ has a sell-by date, and how in real-life, the introduction of Winter Love Island has halved that shelf-life for each new crop of contestants. “Not to pick on one show in particular [but] now that these shows are more frequent and maybe they’re doing more than one a year, [a result] is that your 15 minutes of fame is potentially gonna be even shorter,” he said.
Yates’ film also delves into the impact that taking part in a reality TV show can have on a contestant’s long-term mental health (for those who haven’t seen Make Me Famous, look away now to avoid spoilers).
In the outside world, Billy is increasingly vulnerable to cruel social media comments, dwindling interest from brands, and a hurtful kiss-and-tell tabloid story. He also struggles with body image issues – as he reveals in a flashback to his initial interview with “Love or Lust” producers, he was an overweight child and bullied at school. He’s since reinvented himself, but the insecurities remain.
Close to the end of film, he attempts to die by suicide, taking an overdose while sitting alone in the penthouse flat he can no longer afford.
It’s a devastating scene, coincidentally filmed the day before the suicide of former Love Island presenter Caroline Flack in February 2020. “We just filmed the suicide scene the day before,” Brittney said, “and so I’d spent, you know, six hours sat there, letting the character contemplate killing himself, and then the next day, she did the same, and although it was a different scenario, it was still one of those things where it was just like, ‘My God’. It was really upsetting.”
For anyone who’s watched reality TV before, or bought into the on-screen ‘heroes and villains’ narratives, Make Me Famous is a sobering watch. It’s a reminder that there are real people behind these constructed characters; real people behind these seemingly perfect social media accounts. The contestant who cheats on their other-half is still real, and will eventually read the online comments about themselves.
The film is an indictment of all constructed reality TV, but it will also surely feel like a kick in the teeth for ITV executives, who this year have scrambled to find an international Love Island replacement in the midst of the lockdown.
Love Island has attracted particular criticism and scrutiny about its alleged lack of aftercare.
In 2019, former contestant Mike Thalassitis died by suicide at the age of 26. The previous June, contestant Sophie Gradon from the 2016 series also died by suicide aged 32.
Last year, ITV rolled out plans to better protect the contestants – with the caveat that the broadcaster can’t continue aftercare “indefinitely”. Former contestant Josh Denzel previously compared starring on Love Island to being thrown into the “lion’s den” in an interview with GQ.
The alleged lack of aftercare isn’t the only critique that the reality series has faced: it has also been accused of having a |diversity problem”” and exhibiting unconscious racial bias, in addition to an alleged lack of diverse body types. In Make Me Famous, the “Love or Lust” contestants we meet – Billy, Michelle, Helen (Tilly Keeper), and Pete – are all white and conform to Eurocentric beauty ideals.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – Make Me Famous is fictional, with efforts made by the filmmakers to to avoid any direct similarities with any one real-life case. But the parallels to Love Island, as cited by Tom Brittney, only serve to cast a brighter spotlight on the real-life show’s failings.
In Make Me Famous, the two “Love or Lust” producers fail to properly address Billy’s comments about his “weak” father (a deliberately ambiguous scene), or his clear issues about his body image.
“Not all producers of these shows are terrible people, but I still think that there are a few who really do have a lot to answer for, knowing they’re putting contestants on with mental health problems, or red flags they should have spotted earlier,” Brittney told me.
The BBC’s decision to air Make Me Famous on BBC One (in addition to BBC Three and iPlayer) clearly shows how important the broadcaster believes it is to get Yates’ message out to as many viewers as possible. Hopefully reality TV producers and broadcast executives will also be watching – but whether they take positive steps towards change remains to be seen.
If you have been affected by anything mentioned in this article, or you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can find support on Samaritans’ website here.
BBC Three’s Make Me Famous, starring Tom Brittney, is available to stream on BBC iPlayer from Wednesday 17th June. It will also be shown on BBC One at 9pm on Thursday 25th June.