For 26-year-old Niall Aslam, reminiscing about the audition process is deeply painful. For he was selected as a contestant for the 2018 series but his nine days in the Majorcan villa where Love Island is filmed became a personal nightmare
An alluring advert for contestants for the next series of ITV’s Love Island reads: ‘We are looking for vibrant singles who want to head to the sun, in search of love.’
It goes on to say that the lucky, chosen few ‘will spend time in a villa, getting to know one another – but to remain in paradise they must win the hearts of the public and their fellow islanders who ultimately decide their fate’.
Not surprisingly, thousands of fame-hungry twentysomethings with Instagram-perfect bodies have applied. ITV insists the series will go ahead, even if it is subject to adjustments to comply with Covid restrictions.
Next week, there will be final auditions to take part in Britain’s most popular summer TV series in which ‘six girls and six guys pair up for love’.
When the format first aired, ITV bosses titillated: ‘How raunchy will it get? It depends on them.’
For 26-year-old Niall Aslam, reminiscing about the audition process is deeply painful.
For he was selected as a contestant for the 2018 series but his nine days in the Majorcan villa where Love Island is filmed became a personal nightmare, and he was flown back to Britain where he was placed in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with psychosis.
His experience – combined with the suicide of the show’s presenter, Caroline Flack, and the fact that two contestants have also taken their own lives – has raised serious questions about how ITV chiefs handle the mental health of those appearing on screen, particularly young men and women not used to fame and most likely unable to deal with becoming targets of malevolent online trolling.
Indeed, the parents of one of the contestants who took their own life has described the series as a ‘Machiavellian project that profits from the trauma and humiliation of the contestants’.
Last year, it was estimated that the show earned ITV £77 million from commercial tie-ups with firms such as Samsung, Uber Eats and Superdrug.
Niall says he feels as if ITV ‘washed its hands’ of him and he spent more than a year depressed and then struggled to work since he appeared on the show.
He hopes that by telling The Mail on Sunday about his experience, people will think twice about wanting to join Love Island for a summer of sun, sangria and sex.
ITV implemented new duty-of-care measures after 40-year-old Ms Flack’s death, but for Niall, the first Love Island contestant to lay bare the mental trauma that the show can put contestants through, these are insufficient.
He says: ‘I was ITV’s performing monkey – made to do things I didn’t want to. It ended in me being desperately ill.’
For 26-year-old Niall Aslam, reminiscing about the audition process is deeply painful. For he was selected as a contestant for the 2018 series but his nine days in the Majorcan villa where Love Island is filmed became a personal nightmare, and he was flown back to Britain where he was placed in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with psychosis
Niall was studying for a degree in social work at Coventry University when he was first approached by Love Island producers.
Suffering from Asperger’s, a form of autism, he shared his full medical records with the show’s medical staff, who deemed him fit to fly to Love Island.
Happy to join in ITV’s saucy pre-broadcast publicity, he said he was looking for ‘love and a fit girl’, adding that he wasn’t going to be shy about it, even though there would be 73 cameras capturing the antics of the contestants.
When Niall was unveiled to ITV viewers, however, they weren’t told that he suffered from Asperger’s. And despite the production team being aware, he says they did not make any adjustments for him. For example, he says they ignored his request for simple food because, as he explained to them, his tastebuds are ‘simple’. As a result, he says he didn’t eat for three or four days and lost half a stone. He also struggled to sleep.
What’s more, Niall found the pressure of being directed by production staff – standard practice in reality TV shows – difficult to deal with. They had decided he was going to be portrayed as the ‘funny one’ of the group – and he says they constantly urged him to act up to entertain viewers.
‘I felt they were very reliant on me for humour. I was under pressure to perform,’ he recalls. In particular, he felt manipulated over a storyline involving a love triangle.
‘Perhaps I was naive but the programme is pitched as contestants going into the villa to find the person of their dreams – not, as actually happened, being put with someone who the production team wants you to be with.’
After a week in the villa and a single consultation with the on-site psychologist, Niall felt uneasy and segregated himself from the rest of the group.
‘I had one psychological test, which I thought was strange given my Asperger’s.
‘It was shortly afterwards that things started to get to me.’
He began talking to himself and worrying about insects getting into the hot-tub and dying.
‘I started to become very stressed and the producers got worried. I was known as the ‘rainbow fish’. They said to me, ‘Everything’s OK with our rainbow fish.’ ‘
On Day Nine, Niall found himself being led to the hideaway villa contestants normally go for dates. There, he was met by the series counsellor and executive producers.
He was then put in a car – not knowing, he claims, where he was being taken. His told The Mail on Sunday mind was racing so fast that he even thought he might have won the show and was being prepared for some kind of victory celebration.
Niall’s story will not be included in the raunchy clips from previous shows that will undoubtedly herald the beginning of this year’s series of Love Island. But every contestant should heed his advice. Niall is pictured third from left in the light blue trunks
‘They kept asking me if I trusted them. My head was going a million miles per hour. It was at that point – as I realised later – that I had lost my head.’ In fact, Niall was being driven to a doctor in Palma, the Majorcan capital. But he says he wasn’t given any treatment and was returned to the set.
With no ITV doctor on site, the production team contacted Harley Street doctor Sophia Khalique in London, who then worked for the show. It was at this point he was given Xanax for his anxiety.
Next, Niall’s mother Maureen was phoned by Love Island’s producers, who told her they had organised a plane ticket and that she must fly immediately to Majorca.
They explained that her son was acting in a peculiar manner but said they did not feel able to divulge any more.
She says they told her it had to remain a secret because they didn’t want the public to know what was happening with her son, whose disappearance from the show was already making headlines.
From the home she still shares with Niall in Coventry, Maureen takes up the story: ‘When I got to Niall, he was a totally different son to the boy I knew before he went on to Love Island two weeks before. It was heartbreaking.’
At this point, ITV contacted Niall’s GP and he, too, was asked to fly to Majorca. When he said that was impossible, Maureen says the production team decided to put Niall on a flight back to the UK, hiring a private jet to do so.
Once back in Britain, he was taken to the £1,000-a-night Nightingale psychiatric hospital in Central London, where ITV paid for his care.
With millions of Love Island viewers desperate to know why Niall had disappeared from the show, later, ITV staff, along with his mum – who was being put up in a hotel near the hospital – helped him issue a statement on his Instagram account.
It said: ‘For far too long, I have suffered in silence and not acknowledged a fact about my life, which going into the villa has led me to accept. When I was young, I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a fact that has never been shared outside of my family.’
The message included Niall’s thanks to ITV for its help and support. Today, he says: ‘I was told to talk about the aftercare ITV had given me. But there I was, sitting in a psychiatric hospital.’
He adds: ‘Now, it all feels like such a cover-up.’
He spent two weeks in hospital at ITV’s cost before going home. However, his mother then struggled to find him a local psychiatric doctor and says she was given little help by ITV to find one.
‘Niall was so depressed,’ she says. ‘He’d sit in the garden just staring. I would be scared every time I went into his bedroom as I didn’t know what I would find in there. He had a year of hell.’
Niall says he regressed and became ‘childlike’ – watching only Harry Potter movies and The Lord Of The Rings. In December that year, he felt strong enough to talk publicly about his experience and agreed to appear on ITV’s Loose Women chat show.
He says he was fully aware that ITV bosses would prefer him to tell viewers that he had been given supportive and proper aftercare following his withdrawal from the Love Island villa.
Still deeply stressed by the whole experience, he and his mother requested a meeting with senior ITV staff, including Richard Cowles, Love Island boss and director of entertainment at ITV Studios. He also wanted a meeting with Dr Khalique.
‘My mum asked them if they understood what they had done to me. I also asked why I hadn’t been invited for the Christmas reunion special with all the other contestants. One of the producers replied, ‘It’s our show and we can invite who we want.’ ‘
When Niall told Dr Khalique how stressed he had been at being made to do things in front of the cameras that he hadn’t want to do, he claims she replied: ‘It is a TV show. It’s a TV show you had seen before and TV shows are made to entertain people, right, and they decide who you are going to be with.’
Upset by this meeting, Niall submitted an official request to ITV in the hope of finding out what the production team had said about him in private. ITV’s reply to this ‘data access report request’ revealed that on the sixth day in the Love Island villa, they had become so concerned about Niall that Dr Khalique wrote to a psychologist called Marcie Ferros and three producers to say they should ensure he was evicted at the next opportunity – two days later. (So much, incidentally, for evictions being solely the choice of viewers.)
Dr Khalique had written: ‘Please send me anything you want me to look at if he does not settle in the next 24 hours he is probably better out a there will risk him becoming full blown manic [sic]… Hopefully this can be done at the next boy exit (Tuesday?)’
After Niall left the villa, there were widespread concerns that someone with autism should have been exposed to the ridicule and sexual rejection that is all part of Love Island.
Since December 2018, Niall says he’s heard from ITV just twice – when 2017 contestant Mike Thalassitis took his life in March 2019, and after Caroline Flack’s death. He felt it was another exercise in ‘damage limitation’.
Niall’s story will not be included in the raunchy clips from previous shows that will undoubtedly herald the beginning of this year’s series of Love Island. But every contestant should heed his advice.
‘The production team forget they are dealing with real people with real feelings,’ he says.
‘It shouldn’t be treated as a human zoo just to boost viewing figures and to make money.’
Last night, an ITV spokesman said: ‘We fully supported Niall during and after he left Love Island and in line with his and his family’s wishes. Our medical suppliers are contracted to look after the health and wellbeing of our Islanders. They have no input into the editorial side of the show.
‘All Islanders are free to make their own decisions regarding who they couple up with and the public vote or format decides who leaves the island, not producers.’