Caroline Flack was the only choice to host Love Island. The C-suite wanted the “Bridget Jones of TV”: “It has to be Caroline Flack,” ITV Studios Entertainment head Angela Jain told a colleague, according to someone with knowledge of the exchange. “Not only because she’s a great presenter, but her love life is always a fucking mess.”
Jain disputes that characterization, but Flack, a former X-Factor host who’d dated the two most famous Harrys in England, Prince and Styles, embodied the reality show’s contradictions: dystopian and romantic, intimate and viewed by millions, highly produced in a way that fosters genuine human feelings. It was 2015 when Jain—whose review includes commissioning new series, acquiring the rights to foreign hits, and publicly answering for any perceived misdeeds of ITV—set out to overhaul the tepidly received Celebrity Love Island, a 12-person British popularity contest and ostensible matchmaker that disappeared after two seasons. With then 36-year-old Flack as a new recruit, the network decided to reboot the show with civilians who were unguarded enough to actually find love, and maybe even become Love Island–minted celebrities themselves. The plan worked.
Each season, a rotating roster of a dozen or so extremely attractive UK residents are sequestered in a Majorcan villa for eight weeks, fighting to find partners and win the hearts of the voting public under ever-watching cameras. After character introductions in which breasts are jostled and shirts ripped off, cast members are immediately humbled. The women stand in a row in compulsory bikinis, and the men come out one by one. Any woman who “fancies” a man steps forward, and he chooses a mate. Sometimes no one takes a step, like a sexually humiliating version of not getting picked for dodgeball.
The show is broadcast worldwide nearly in real time, with one-hour episodes airing six days a week during its yearly run. (The eighth season arrives June 6 on the UK’s ITV2, with an American premiere expected to follow a few weeks later; as this issue went to press, Hulu had yet to finalize a new deal for US distribution.) Challenges like a sculpting contest in which couples try to accurately re-create the male partner’s erection out of modeling clay somehow produces connections sincere enough that people have sex and begin marrow-deep, years-long relationships on television. Like its chaste predecessor TheBachelors, the unhinged pandemic-era successor Love Is Blind, and a hollow US version, Love Island serves up love stories that audiences are meant to fall in love with. It just does so better than any of its competitors: Seven years in, the show is an international, BAFTA-winning phenomenon that has produced marriages, children, and enough Instagram sponcon to provide intergenerational wealth.
Flack was more than just the consummate, universally known host. “She’s obviously been a huge part of the show’s success,” says Jain, speaking from London weeks before production began on season seven. “What she did so uniquely and so brilliantly was ella she was just able to talk to all of the islanders, all of the time, in a way that ella just felt very real. She was just somebody who brought her very authentic self to work.”
Flack’s slow-motion entrances were a harbinger of doom, letting the cast know in her creaky trill that people were about to be “dumped from the villa.” But when the cameras were off, Flack would stick around to encourage the contestants, perhaps because of her own acquaintance with the pains of public scrutiny. As her former colleague de ella recounts, “Caroline’s endless terrible choices in boyfriends and things falling apart” were all slavishly documented by British tabloids.
On the season four premiere of Love Island, an effervescent Flack arrived with an engagement ring, which the islanders oohed over. The next season, Flack’s diamond was gone. Though her success grew as the show’s de ella did—she was able to renegotiate her contract every season—at 40, her colleague says, “She was desperate. Desperate to settle down, desperate to find the right person. It just didn’t happen. I don’t think she had the emotional makeup to deal with a grown-up relationship.” Love Island made Flack’s fame, and the attendant interest in her personal life, explode. It was the perfect match.