‘I was worried Love Island would break my son’ Kem Cetinay and his mum Figen on mental health and reality TV

Kem Cetinay lost a decade of his life to crippling anxiety and depression – but despite his history of mental illness, the reality TV juggernaut signed him up to be a contestant. Here, he and his mother talk to Louise Gannon about how they both survived the experience.

When barber Kem Cetinay was scouted by researchers for ITV2’s Love Island, even the show’s psychiatrist questioned whether he was too high a risk for the sun-and-sex dating series that has become a TV phenomenon. His mother Figen was also terrified at the prospect of her vulnerable son – who had suffered almost a decade of mental health issues – appearing on the Big Brother-style show where, despite the dazzling smiles of the contestants, hearts can be broken and insecurities magnified by the constant threat of rejection.

Kem, just 20 at the time, was adamant that this was the perfect way to ‘test’ his mental health. ‘I felt I had to do it,’ he says. ‘I’d lost most of my teenage years to serious depression but I thought if I could cope with this then I would prove to myself how far I had come.’

Kem Cetinay and mum Figen
Jenny Brough

In the weeks leading up to the 2017 series, Figen admits, ‘I would beg him every day not to do it.’ The 52-year-old (who teaches at the London College of Contemporary Arts) had spent years nursing her son through issues sparked by her almost dying from septicaemia when he was 11. She recovered but her son’s anxiety and depression, she says, ‘almost left both me and Kem completely broken… so I was scared that any criticism of him on Love Island would bring all that back’.

It’s now two years since Kem triumphed in the 2017 series alongside his then girlfriend Amber Davies with whom he split the £50,000 prize. He and Figen laugh together as they prepare to launch a new men’s range Kem has designed for the high street chain Primark. Their bond is apparent even in the smallest glances. 

Figen has watched her son’s metamorphosis from a terrified – at times suicidal – boy who would lock himself in his bedroom for weeks at a time into a confident, successful young man. But the trauma they both went through is never far from their thoughts. So when one month ago it was announced that Mike Thalassitis, who was one of Kem’s fellow contestants on Love Island in 2017, had taken his life it was not just a massive blow but a dreadful reminder of what Kem refers to as ‘an epidemic’ of depression among young people today.

Kem Cetinay and mum Figen
Jenny Brough

He says Mike’s death still hasn’t sunk in: ‘I was so shocked. I heard about it before it hit the news because he didn’t live far from me. We had a lot in common. We were both from Cypriot families [Mike’s family are of Greek descent while Kem’s are Turkish]; both from Essex. I wish someone could have helped him. It’s incredibly sad.’

Recent media reports have questioned the morality of a show where young contestants are under 24-hour camera surveillance as they flirt and fondle, fall out and cheat. In June 2018 former Miss Great Britain and former Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon, 32 (who was in the 2016 show), was found dead at her home near Newcastle after months of anxiety and depression. Two weeks later her 25-year-old boyfriend Aaron Armstrong killed himself. 

The ensuing outcry focused heavily on the duty of care offered by the ITV2 show and raised questions about the exploitation of vulnerable young contestants with some calls for it to be axed. Not only do contestants have to cope with rejection, character assassinations or cheating partners on the show but they also have to face the reality of coming back to their normal lives and dealing with the aftermath without the army of producers, researchers and therapists to help them. Alex Miller, 28, who was on Love Island last summer, said that he considered suicide after the show, explaining he had struggled to return to his regular job as a structural glazier after leaving the villa, and that ‘reality fame’ is ‘not what it is cracked up to be’.

Kem Cetinay and mum Figen
Jenny Brough

For Kem it was a risk worth taking: ‘My mum was begging me not to do it but my brother [Izzy, 27] told her to trust me and so did my dad. Even the Love Island psychiatrist really questioned me because she was concerned about me. But I spoke to my therapist who had helped me through everything and she told me if I felt it was right then to do it.’ He acknowledges that if it wasn’t for his therapist and the emotional tool box she had given him, he would not have been able to cope when he entered the Love Island villa in Majorca. And he is the first to admit that not everyone has the mental resilience necessary to deal with the pressures of the show.

Figen has to pinch herself at times when she looks at her son, as she can never forget the teenage boy too depressed to leave his bedroom. ‘I used to sit outside with my phone because he wouldn’t talk to me. We had to communicate by text. His anxiety went on for eight years, swinging from fits of massive aggression to absolute silence. He couldn’t go on buses or trains, sit in a restaurant or even go to school. My husband [Kem’s father Niyazi, a pharmaceutical engineer] and I tried hypnotherapy, medication, psychiatrists, psychotherapists but nothing worked for Kem. 

‘In the end we found a local therapist who told me I needed therapy, too, to learn how to deal with what we were going through. Her method was CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy in which subjects attempt to ‘unwire’ their behaviour using different responses to deal with their issues] which slowly helped. By the time Kem was about 19 I had my son back.’ A year later, he signed up for Love Island.

Kem Cetinay and mum Figen
Jenny Brough

So how did someone with a recent history of long-standing, severe mental health problems get passed fit to be on reality TV? A spokesperson for ITV says, ‘The medical team contacts each Islander’s GP to check whether they feel that person is able to take part. We also work with both an independent GP and a psychological consultant, and we ask for full disclosure from potential cast members to these health professionals so that we can support them appropriately. Our duty of care is continuous and ongoing in three key stages: pre-filming, filming and aftercare.’ 

‘My mum was right to be worried about me,’ recalls Kem. ‘It is easy to be destroyed by a show like Love Island. But I wanted to do it to see if I was strong enough. I expected nothing. I even made sure I had barbering jobs booked in after the show was due to finish because it was important for me not to think that this was going to change my life.’

But it did. Love Island made Kem Cetinay. He was the lovable half of a sweet and sour romance with Welsh actress Amber, 22, that ended less than five months after they left the villa. During his eight weeks on the island he spent most of his time with Amber and farmer’s son Chris Hughes, 26, but he distinctly remembers cutting Mike’s hair. ‘Barbering was my way of getting to know the guys,’ he says. ‘Cutting hair can be quite an intimate thing. You can have fairly deep conversations. I did realise Mike wasn’t the talking kind. He was quite closed off. I thought of him as confident, which meant I fell into the same trap as most people. What I know is you cover up your issues deep-down by pretending to be cocky and arrogant – I’ve done the same thing so many times.’

Kem Cetinay and mum Figen
With his 2017 Love Island co-winner Amber Davies. Image: Jenny Brough

Does he think Love Island was responsible for Mike’s death? After all, they were happy to have Kem as a contestant despite his history. Kem shakes his head: ‘There is aftercare if you need it but you have to ask. The biggest issue is how to make people open to talking about the fact they have a problem and need help. There is no shame in admitting you feel scared, unhappy and lost – it happens to all of us.’ 

Kem describes himself as an easygoing, happy kid who spiralled into a depression when his mum was seriously ill. ‘She went into a coma and I remember sitting in a hospital waiting room and overhearing the doctors telling my dad they thought she only had 24 hours left. That terrified me and haunted me even after she recovered. Then I had my tonsils out; somehow the operation went wrong and I ended up with kidney failure, on a drip and unable to eat. I was having panic attacks and thinking the darkest things. I went on antidepressants, which turned me into a zombie and my dad got me off them after a week.’

When Kem was 16, his parents found the therapist who finally turned his life around. ‘She sat me in a room and asked me if I felt anxious about the door being shut,’ he says. ‘I told her I did and she got up and locked the door. I started having a panic attack and she sat with me and then when it was over she told me I was OK and I could see I was. I was used to just running away and she made me face everything. Get on a train, feel the panic, live with it, get through it.’

Kem admits he was stunned when he was approached by Love Island researchers who had seen the barbering videos he had put up on Instagram. But it was not his mental health that was his concern, but his rather endearing lack of belief in his own good looks. ‘When I was on the show I would speak to Amber or Chris if I felt down,’ he remembers. ‘Chris opened up about his own anxieties. It bonded us. He looked like a model yet he had his own insecurities. If you are young and good-looking people think you have no problems. You do. Everyone kept saying they were shocked about Mike because he was so good-looking. Why? Mental health issues can happen to anyone.’

Kem Cetinay and mum Figen
Kem lost most of his teenage years to long-term depression. Image: Jenny Brough

Kem says he is keen to be part of an advisory team to help programme makers be aware of potential issues. He says: ‘You come out of Love Island and you have to face all this criticism on social media, which is tough. It can really get to you and you have to learn to understand that it’s just rubbish from people you don’t know.’

Figen admits she was almost more worried about her son after Love Island had finished. Kem had never previously had a serious girlfriend. ‘That was why it was so shocking for me to see my son doing what he did on the show [he and Amber had sex]. I sat with a cushion in front of my face but I knew he was very much in love,’ she says. When Amber ended the relationship she was prepared for her son to fall to pieces. ‘But I didn’t,’ Kem says. ‘I went through the emotions and gave myself some time out but I was OK.’ He has not had a girlfriend since and remains single. Having reportedly earned £1.2 million, he has bought a four-bedroom semidetached house in Essex. He and Amber remain on good terms. 

He is still involved with the show, doing a podcast called Love Island: The Morning After where he has become something of an agony uncle for the contestants. ‘I know what they are facing. I always tell them to take a week out, switch off their phones and be with their families. Something might happen for some of them but others will be going back to their old jobs and normal lives and that has to be OK. And I give them all my number and tell them the most important thing is if there is a problem they need to talk. I just want to help.’ 

The Primark Man x Kem collection is available at all Primark stores from Thursday