On the supermarket shelves yesterday, there was the usual jostling for attention, hoping to catch the eye of the celebrity-obsessed (but that’s all of us, right?).
Glossy mags catering for this need stick photos of the stars on their front covers, using only first names because of course we know them so well. But they’re almost always looking miserable and the headlines explain why: “Coleen’s regret: Rebekah’s got everything I want … Katie’s ‘fake’ rehab return … Holly fears for Phil … Is Cheryl behind Liam’s split with Maya? … Lucy hits back at ‘bitter’ body shamers … Karen’s health scare: I thought I was dying.”
One familiar name was missing, these editions having been printed before the tragic death of Caroline Flack. Later this week, expect fulsome tributes to the TV star. Many of the dramas in the showbiz whirl are over-heated for our delectation and some may not even be real. This one sadly is.
Last night, after the briefest of pauses, Love Island returned to our screens and the ITV show was promising its own tribute to their former presenter, who was sacked before Christmas after allegedly attacking her boyfriend. But should the programme be continuing at all? If it does I can imagine the memory of Flack haunting it. And if that doesn’t happen, and the contestants carry on competing in the Olympics of self-absorption, taking obliviousness to events in the real world to world-championship level, that will simply be hideous.
If Love Island’s only crime had been to crank up anxiety about body image – in men as well as women – that would be bad enough. But in 2018 ex-contestant Sophie Gradon killed herself and in 2019 another from the show, Mike Thalassitis, took his own life. Gradon’s boyfriend, Aaron Armstrong, killed himself just five days after her funeral. And they say Strictly Come Dancing has a curse.
Reality TV can expose its participants to molten levels of scrutiny, criticism and loathing for which they’re woefully ill-prepared but presenters like Flack, just because they’ve sought a career in television from further back, can be no less vulnerable and she obviously was. ITV has been slammed for not doing enough to support Flack, with Amanda Holden claiming she was “thrown to the dogs”.
Everyone’s a critic
The tabloids’ lively interest in the private lives of celebrities is a wobbly pillar of the entire red-top concept. Magazines based on the National Inquirer model of prurience in the public interest are a newer platform. And then there’s social media.
Here, everyone’s a journalist, a critic, a pop psychologist, judge-and-jury. Here, you can sit in your underpants at 3.28am and with the orangey residue from a jumbo bag of Dorritos under your fingernails tap out the most vile and hateful abuse. Possibly you’re ennobled by the term “keyboard warrior” but your weapon is a pitchfork and you’re merely another numskull member of the Twitter lynch-mob.
Why be like this? Maybe, according to a real psychologist on Good Morning Britain yesterday, you are “disempowered and disenfranchised” and you crave the attention. You want your message – and maybe you’re the author of the one to Flack which read: “You’re an ugly witch – die” – to be the most popular of the day.
Your post won’t get as many retweets if you lovebomb the celebrity. Negative works best. It’s why those magazines don’t have headlines like “Coleen and Rebekah now BFF. Joint holidays and book club planned”. If this were true it probably wouldn’t get published, or certainly wouldn’t make the glum cover lines.
We want celebrities to be unhappy or at least strangely unfulfilled despite their fame and wealth and glamorous other halves. And we think they must have made a deal with the devil where, if they’ve sought and subsequently achieved a red-carpet lifestyle, they must expect it to be crapped on every now and again.
The tabloids are in on this. To them, Flack was catnip – a gorgeous, vivacious woman whose day-job was presiding over the romantic entanglements of creosoted pneumatic millennials. Using logic exclusive to their world, the redtops could be intrigued by Flack’s romantic entanglements. They hoped she wouldn’t still be married to the school sweetheart she fell for when she was 16, and she wasn’t. Encounters with Prince Harry and Harry Styles seemed to have been dreamed up by showbiz editors on slow Tuesdays, but they weren’t.
‘We’ve had enough’
Was Flack, though, entitled to a private life which was exactly that? Apparently not. Maybe she didn’t go potholing with her dates, preferring glitzy nightclubs. But what gave you the right to slag off her appearance or the fact she was older than some of her boyfriends?
The tabloids are accused of feeding the vicious online abuse of the kind dished out to Flack and which her friend Laura Whitmore, who succeeded her on Love Island, believes contributed to her death. “To the newspapers who create clickbait, who demonise and tear down success, we’ve had enough,” Whitmore said. Tabloids might argue that the public haven’t had enough titillation, that part-time moralists always surface at moments like this, complaining about the coverage they were happy to pore over before tragedy struck. But there have been calls for a new press crackdown and the proposed “Caroline’s law” would outlaw excessive media intrusion.
There’s one thing which should definitely be outlawed: the idea that celebrities, by virtue of being such, are somehow immune to abuse and fair game. They have flaws and are fragile, just like everyone else, but trolling dehumanises them.
Flack’s death raises many issues. How can the internet become a safer, less damning place? If tabloids say it’s market forces which demand racy gossip, are we going to change? Meanwhile, ITV: scrap Love Island for good.