As my long-suffering editors can testify, I am Love Island’s biggest fan – but despite having spent the last five summers glued to my screen instead of actually going out and having a social life, I wasn’t convinced that having an additional series in the winter months was a good idea.
I was hoping that the show, which has been long lambasted for its lack of body diversity, would try something new for its first ever winter launch – and was left feeling a little cold when the press pack showed more of the same, with Love Island’s only new dynamic offering being blonde and beautiful twins alongside the usual buffed and bronzed Islanders.
But no matter what your preconceptions are, when ITV offers you a press trip to South Africa to the launch of Love Island, you say yes and book your 15 hour flight to Cape Town before your editor asks: "How much?"
Meeting our Islanders for the first time is an operation with military-levels of precision. Each of our cast members are passed between press rooms with the help of a minder who watches to make sure the coast is clear. The now visibly-nervous Islander, facing four jet-lagged journalists, is joined by ITV publicists, who are all hoping none of us drop the ‘C’ word (that’s Caroline, by the way).
We first met the boys, who took us all totally by surprise by being almost the opposite of what we expected. Callum, the confident scaffolder with the cheeky chappy Manchester charm was palpably uncomfortable when faced with the media, avoiding our gazes and giving short, clipped answers as any previous bravado melted away.
Similarly, current hot favourite Connor lacked the chat his VT promised. Swaggering into our conference room with his shirt unbuttoned, we were expecting someone more ballsy and charismatic than what we actually got, which was basically a nice-but-dim version of Jack Fincham from series four.
The only moment of gold during our chat was when he revealed he was invited to start knitting with a grandma during a butler in the buff party. “I usually wore boxers, but you got an extra £20 if you did it with your bum out,” he said, straight-faced.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. A pack of press is undoubtedly going to make the uninitiated nervous, and as perverse as it sounds, it was almost nice to see someone so clearly uncomfortable and not super-polished – compared to the Molly-Maes and Curtises of last year, only six of our line-up of 12 were scouted, with the rest being totally average Joes who tried their luck on the application process.
The other three boys had a lot more to say for themselves, with Mike set to really establish himself as this year’s early favourite thanks to his easy, unaffected charm, making us all melt even as he told us that he ‘accidentally’ had two girlfriends at once.
“I just forgot to tell one that I dumped her,” he said with a winning grin so infectious even I was willing to laugh off his two-timing.
Nas is also set to be popular amongst viewers with his unabashed confidence; striding into the room and giving us each a hug, he wasn’t afraid to tell us what he thought.
“That’s a bit of a basic question,” he said to a journalist who asked him about his most outrageous moments, before turning to me as I quickly scribbled down a note – “You’re really going to write down everything I say, right?”
More like this
Nas was possibly only so cheeky to us journos as he may be more attuned to seek fame post-Love Island, having already come up with a catchphrase that he hopes will be coming to a Primark t-shirt near you. But he was so damn likeable that it almost didn’t matter, with one won-over writer begging: “You can’t leave without giving us a hug goodbye too!”
The only thing that may see him leave the show early is his rather diminutive stature – by far the smallest and slightest Islander, the girls may favour the Callums and Connors in the villa.
The biggest surprise from the day was from posh toff Ollie, who I feared would be a nightmare combination of Max Branning and every boy I’ve ever rejected from Exeter University. But despite his cocky preening and god-awful flexing press pack, Ollie was more tongue-in-cheek about his prescribed lord-of-the-manor posing, raising an eyebrow and laughing about his background.
He may stir things up with the boys in the villa as he’s clearly used to being a leader and getting his own way, but if viewers manage to see past the posturing he may become very popular with the public.
But no matter how much we liked the boys, the girls far outstripped them in terms of personality. Petite Shaughna instantly flipped expectations on their head – despite looking and sounding a little bit like Dani Dyer, she’s more like series three Camilla – only more likely to punch you in the face during a fight.
“She seemed so sweet, just like a little lamb you want to hold,” Shaughna said. “I think I’m definitely more lairy.”
Siannise (pronounced like Shanice) is set to win hearts with her broad, This Countryesque accent, stunning good looks and all round innocence – a person born to be a meme if I ever did see. She’s almost too sweet, which may become grating after a while.
“I just like to think I’ll cheer everyone up with my Bristolian-ness,” she said. “I’m going in as a normal girl and I would like other girls to look at me and think ‘she’s just like me'.’
Siannese may find herself fighting with Paige for who has the thickest accent, speaking with such a strong Scottish brogue she joked she might need subtitles. While she’s best known as being Lewis Capaldi’s ex-girlfriend, she’s enough of a personality in her own right to step out of his shadow, cheekily asking the journalists "So can you tell me anything about the show?” before being ushered out of the room by the PRs.
Leanne was similarly as curious and definitely the most fiery of the new Islanders, rolling her eyes over sensitive guys as she feared her banter may be “too strong”.
“A boy will be like, 'Really? Like, you're so rude,' and I'm like, ‘Everyone I'm joking!'” she said. “I do talk a lot of rubbish.” Consider her this year’s Amber, with Anna’s eye-rolling sass and Yewande’s likeability thrown in for good measure.
With Shaughna, Siannese and Leanne having such big personalities, the quieter Sophie, who was noticeably more subdued during the interviews, may find herself drowned out and forgotten in the villa – while twins Jess and Eve only really stand out because there’s two of them.
Because it’s such a mix in the villa this year, it’s hard to couple any of our Islanders up with each other, and if I’m honest it almost doesn’t matter whether our couples really fit together. Love Island has not actually been about love for quite some time; instead, our Islanders have to crack on with the viewing public in order for us to take them into our hearts like we have with Maura, Ovie and Amber from series five.
But will our new cast match up to last year’s offerings? We’re going to have to tune in every single night to find out – and I can’t bloody wait.
Love Island launches Sunday 12th January and continues weeknights and Sundays at 9pm on ITV2