What it’s really like when your daughter goes on Love Island: As the infamous show returns, two mothers reveal the shocking impact of taking part
- ITV published its Duty of Care charter in June 2019 which laid out its commitment to mental health
- As Love Island returns former contestant Savanna Darnell’s mum Karen, 56, explains how she had to pick up the pieces after it turned nightmarish
- Savanna has rebuilt her life and had therapy since appearing on the show
There is no such thing as the definitive modern parenting manual, but if there were, it would have to come with a chapter entitled: What to do when your daughter tells you she wants to go on Love Island.
Former contestant Savanna Darnell’s mum Karen Smallwood, who lives near Sheffield, could write it.
It would be too late for the current crop of Love Island parents — which includes footballer Michael Owen. His daughter Gemma is part of the 2022 line-up on the cult ITV dating show, which kicked off this week. Michael has reportedly left the country, quipping that he is living ‘every father’s nightmare’.
Karen’s number one piece of advice: don’t be in a hurry to be supportive.
Savanna Darnell (pictured) appeared on the show in 2018. She went in with high hopes; but soon learned for every influencer seemingly on track to make millions, there are an awful lot of young people for whom the dream never materialises
‘I took Savanna shopping for bikinis!’ she says. ‘But I was so naive; I didn’t know what could go wrong. We were swept along. If I knew then what I know now, we’d have had a very different conversation.’
Karen, 56, had to pick up the pieces when her eldest child’s Love Island dream turned nightmarish.
‘I wouldn’t wish that on any parent,’ she says. ‘She went from being this fun, bubbly girl to someone who didn’t want to get out of bed… From this confident, independent girl to one who had to move back in with her mum.’
Savanna appeared on the show in 2018. She went in with high hopes; but soon learned for every influencer seemingly on track to make millions, there are an awful lot of young people for whom the dream never materialises, leaving them feeling like failures — very public failures at that.
Savanna’s mother Karen Smallwood, 56, (pictured) advises parents not to be too eager to support their children wanting to appear on Love Island
Savanna’s story is even darker. Although she has rebuilt her life now, she admits that being on the show left her spiralling into depression, facing death threats from online ‘haters’.
Love Island has been accused in the past of playing hard and fast with contestants’ mental well-being.
After the shocking suicides of former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, ITV published its Duty of Care charter in June 2019 which laid out its commitment to mental health. Then, following the suicide of troubled former presenter Caroline Flack in February 2020, the show introduced further measures to ensure contestants — and their families — feel psychologically supported.
Karen’s experience illustrates exactly why this is needed, but does make you wonder how any support system can help when the show thrives on manufacturing conflict and controversy. Karen has been following the new series and fans’ comments with mounting alarm: ‘It’s horrific what people are saying about them. When they get out, they will read it all. Maybe they will be able to brush it all off, but how do you know?
‘I thought my daughter would be strong enough, but she wasn’t. I can’t tell you how horrible it is to walk into your child’s bedroom and discover they have been up all night crying because a stranger has said they are the ugliest ever contestant.’
She says Savanna thought her career had died before it had begun. ‘I felt helpless.’
The show’s application process is cloaked in mystery, but insiders say every year around 100,000 hopefuls apply. Recruiters are very active in approaching potential contestants themselves on social media.
This year, it has been reported that only three candidates came from the thousands who put themselves forward; the rest were wooed by the show’s recruitment team. This is what happened to Savanna, who was 22 when she appeared in 2018 — the series which catapulted Dr Alex George to fame, and gave a platform to Dani Dyer, daughter of actor Danny Dyer.
Until the show’s producers got in touch with her, Savanna had never considered applying; her mother had never even watched Love Island.
Karen with Savanna and Savanna’s sister Tia. Karen explains how the show’s treatment led to her daughter led to Savanna’s binge eating due to stress
Maybe what piqued programme makers’ interest was her famous dad — U.S. singer August Darnell (better known as Kid Creole, from the Eighties band Kid Creole and the Coconuts). He and Karen met when she was a besotted fan in the audience at Sheffield’s Lyceum in 1982. They were married for four years.
He has remained in Savanna’s life and she grew up believing a career in entertainment was entirely achievable.
At 16, Savanna moved to Nottingham to attend performing arts college. By 2018, she had not only graduated (‘with distinction’, says her mum) but had landed professional parts.
‘She’d been signed by a great agent, got a role in the Thriller tour, and been in Aladdin with Will Smith,’ says Karen. ‘It was all coming together. In February that year she could finally afford to rent a flat in London.’
Enter Love Island. In March 2018, Savanna called Karen, fizzing with excitement. She had been approached to ‘try out’ for the show. ‘They told her she was going to be one of the originals — or at least the first bombshell. I had no idea what it meant.’
The ‘originals’, or the first crop of contestants, go into the villa with an advantage because viewers get to know them best, and they have more time to form a successful couple. The addition of ‘bombshells’ shakes up the line-up and the action as things progress and is a vital quirk of the programme.
Savanna was asked to get ready to fly out to Mallorca. Karen took her shopping. ‘I bought her new trainers, bikinis, all the things she needed.’
But there had been a complication. Savanna had been approached by a ‘big celebrity talent agency’ who wanted to sign her ‘to look after her when she got out of Love Island’. She felt pressure to ditch the agent she’d had from college: ‘She went to see him and was in tears, but he was lovely about it.’
A few weeks later, Karen took her to the airport. ‘I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak to her because they take their phones off them. I was in tears but I was still excited for her.’
Savanna and Sam Bird kiss on Love Island Series 4. Having failed to be picked to go to the main villa, Savanna sobbed all the way home on the plane. Back at home Karen explains how the show left her marooned struggling with her mental health
It would be two weeks until filming started, but ten days in, Savanna returned to her mum’s: they didn’t need her yet. For the next two weeks she watched Love Island, with her mum and sister, from the sofa.
‘The programme people kept phoning asking, “What do you think of him? Who do you fancy?” — trying to assess where she would fit in the show.’
It was a fraught time and Savanna herself has said she was ‘starting to binge eat’ due to the stress: ‘I didn’t know what to do with my life because I was meant to be on standby… My mum was really worried about me.’
Then finally the call came. Savanna flew out again, more nervous than she had been to start with. She didn’t go into the main villa, but into Casa Amor (from where contestants can be ‘picked’ for promotion to the main villa — if they win the attention of a boy).
‘I was so nervous watching,’ Karen says. ‘It’s way worse than sending them off to school for the first time. I think she came across well, but she seemed so far away.’
One of the harsh realities of Love Island is that it is edited. The programme makers decide who gets airtime and who doesn’t. Karen feels strongly that her daughter wasn’t seen: ‘She was in for five days, but I barely saw her.’
Having failed to be picked to go to the main villa, Savanna sobbed all the way home on the plane.
‘I picked her up. She was disappointed obviously but at that point she seemed to be putting a brave face on it.
‘I did my best to be positive, “Oh well, you’ve done it. Let’s carry on with normal life.” But at that point she didn’t realise how little airtime she’d had. She kept asking, “Did you see this bit?” and I’d say, “No”.
For Arabella Chi (pictured) who entered the villa in 2019 has built a successful influencer career with 671,000 followers off the back of the show
‘It turns out she had had a connection with a boy — Wes Nelson. Not a sexual connection, but she had spent the night with him. They were up giggling and laughing and had to be told, “Go to sleep; lights out”. But it didn’t fit with the story they had planned for Wes.’
Wes could have taken Savanna to the main villa — ‘and he told her he was going to,’ says Karen.
ITV bosses say that due to time constraints it is not possible to show everything that happens. But what happened next is undeniably brutal.
‘Savanna had been offered counselling after she came out, but she said she didn’t need it. She thought she didn’t. But once she got back, she started to look online at what was being said about her.
‘On the second day, I came into the bedroom one morning and she was crying. She’d been up all night, scrolling through all the things that had been said about her, criticising her hair, saying she should just die. It was horrendous.’
Arabella’s mother Eunice Denny, 66, (pictured) admits to watching the show but says it’s difficult to watch your child on there. She explains how she didn’t like the way Arabella was treated by other contestants
Karen insisted Savanna call her new agent. ‘No one took her call. She phoned and messaged and no one would contact her. She had been ghosted. She was in shock, and so was I to be honest.
‘She’d given up work to do Love Island and she wasn’t earning, so she had to give up her flat. Yet there was no work for her.’
Love Island had left her marooned. Wasn’t she at least paid to be on the show? ‘No!’ says her mother. ‘She was paid £500 for the time she spent in the hotel beforehand, but that was it. Being on Love Island cost her, in so many ways.’
Savanna has now talked about how she ‘fell into a deep depression’ after Love Island. ‘She hid a lot of it from me,’ says Karen.
‘She just didn’t want to get out of bed. I was so worried about her, but I don’t think I realised the scale of it. She’s a good actress. She’s had therapy since — she sorted it out herself — and I think she needed it. But at the time she didn’t want to admit to anyone that it had affected her so badly.’
The key to rebuilding her life came when she was approached by her previous bosses on the Thriller stage show, and invited back.
She has clawed back a career since, and does have a sizeable following on Instagram — 80,000 followers. Surely as a direct result of being on the show?
‘I’d say she’s built that up despite being on the show,’ says Karen. ‘She’s worked really hard to get her confidence back.’
Of course there are those who clearly do benefit from it. Arabella Chi caused waves in the villa in 2019 and has built a successful influencer career with 671,000 followers.
Her mother Eunice Denny admits she watches it herself, saying: ‘It’s one of those Marmite shows, people either love it or hate it, don’t they? It’s a guilty pleasure.’
Arabella Chi chats with Danny Williams on Love Island Series 5. Like Karen, Eunice found the trolling and social media pile-ons difficult to navigate
That said, it’s a whole different matter seeing your daughter on the show. Eunice — who was a model herself (she appeared in her own bikini on 1970s show Sale Of The Century) says of the ‘blindfold kissing challenge’, ‘We were sat at home and I said to my husband Paul, “Are you OK with this?”. It’s not something every father would want to watch. He said “I’m treating it as if she’s an actress playing a role.” ’
Eunice, 66, now works as an events organiser, and started to watch it, she says, because clients were requesting Love Islanders to appear at their functions.
‘When Arabella told me she was going on it, of course I was apprehensive. It took me a little while to digest it, but I think my background in modelling probably helped both me and Paul. He was used to being backstage, seeing me get undressed with other people around.
‘What I found more difficult was watching Arabella being treated quite harshly by the rest of the group. Because she went in as a bombshell, different friendships and relationships had already been formed and I think the others were quite hard on her. That was difficult to watch, but she’s a strong cookie. She handled it well.’
Eunice says that she found the Love Island team to be supportive and that it was a positive experience for her and Arabella
Like Karen, Eunice found the trolling and social media pile-ons difficult to navigate. Arabella was slated when she picked contestant Danny Williams because the Love Island audience had become invested in his previous relationship with Yewande Biala.
‘Arabella got trolled because of that, and I have to say I found it terribly hard. People can say “don’t read it” but you can’t help yourself. I think I found it harder, as a mother, than Arabella herself would have done. It’s your flesh and blood. She got threats and you do find yourself worrying that they will be carried out.’
She did however find the Love Island production team to be supportive: ‘They were always on the end of the phone. I can’t speak for everyone, but my experience was very positive.’
A world away from Karen’s experience. And she warns that as a result she’d advise any prospective Love Islanders’ parents to think beyond the bikinis and the bling: ‘Don’t fall for the hype like we did.’
And if Karen’s younger daughter Tia wanted to go on Love Island some day? ‘Oh God. I’d want to say no, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? Once they are adults, you can’t stop them.’
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