When Laura Whitmore took over from Caroline Flack as the host of Love Island, no one could have predicted the tragic turn of events in store. She talks to Francesca Babb about the friend she loved and why we need to think before we tweet.
Four days after I first meet Laura Whitmore, my phone beeps with the sort of news alert that makes the ground beneath your feet feel shaky. The TV presenter Caroline Flack has taken her own life. For me – for people who didn’t know her personally – Caroline’s death at 40 was devastatingly sad.
For Laura, 34, the news was so much more complex. It was the death of her friend, one to whom she had days earlier in our interview credited with so much help in her career. It was Caroline, she says, who had paved the way for Laura as a fledgling presenter, and from Caroline that Laura took over the reins on this year’s Love Island, in circumstances that were not easy for either. Caroline had stepped down after being accused of assaulting her boyfriend, tennis player Lewis Burton. Laura had been approached about temporarily taking her place, knowing that what could be the opportunity of a lifetime for her was also weighted with understanding that her friend was battling demons beyond comprehension.
When Laura and I met, neither of us could have imagined the news that would emerge later that week. But Caroline was still there, ever present in our conversation, because you couldn’t talk about Love Island without talking about Caroline, its host for the previous five years. ‘When I got the call about meeting the [Love Island] producers, the first thing I said was, “Can I talk to Caroline?”’ Laura tells me in a quiet corner of the photo studio where we are shooting her YOU cover. ‘I don’t know her situation; it’s her business, but you [do] know someone else is going through a hard time. Part of the deal I made was that, before it went public, I’d be able to chat to her about it. She actually messaged me first [saying “I hope you do get it”], which was nice. I think she genuinely meant what she said.’
On her BBC Radio 5 Live show the day after Caroline’s death, Laura read out a speech she had written, hoping to give her friend ‘the respect that she deserved’. It is a tough but necessary listen. ‘Caroline loved love,’ she read out, her voice thick with emotion. ‘That’s all she wanted, which is why Love Island was so important to her – the show is about finding love, friendship, having a laugh. The problem wasn’t the show. The show to work on is loving, caring, safe and protective. The problem is the outside world is not. Anyone who’s ever compared one woman against another on Twitter, knocked someone because of their appearance, invaded someone else’s privacy, who’s made mean, unnecessary comments on an online forum needs to look at themselves.’
In spite of witnessing her friend’s treatment, the intense scrutiny was not something Laura was able to prepare herself for when it came to taking over, with only two weeks between being offered the position and heading to South Africa, where the show is filmed. Yes, she knew fame, she’d been presenting since she won a competition to host MTV in 2008, moving on to I’m A Celebrity’s spin-off show in 2011, which she fronted for five years, and she’d been a contestant in 2016’s Strictly Come Dancing. But Love Island is an altogether different beast. ‘It is the biggest show on the telly,’ she says, her Irish accent not dimmed by 12 years living in London. ‘But the presenting side of things I feel comfortable with. It’s the other things that I have to come to terms with. Suddenly there’s a photographer taking pictures of you picking up your dog’s sh*t in the park.’
Laura came to Love Island as a fan first of all. She was acting in a touring production of Peter James’s play Not Dead Enough, and after the performance finished each night, she and the rest of the cast would return to wherever they were staying and watch season three together. It was 2017, the same year that she met her boyfriend, Scottish comedian Iain Stirling, who has narrated Love Island since its first season. She loves it as much now as she did then. ‘I’ve had people say, “I’m really surprised you’d want to do a show like that,” and I’m, like, “Have you actually watched it?”’ she says.
‘All of us have been a Shaughna [Phillips, one of the recent contestants who had her heart broken], all of us have let a boy mess us around or, for guys, been Nas [Majeed], being knocked back because of his height. [The show] is universal, those are conversations that we all have. There are so many negative things in the news. This show is warm, safe and protected, even though there is negative talk around it.’
Much of the negative talk has been focused on the Love Island look – bodies pumped, lips filled, breasts enhanced. It is an uncommonly cellulite-free zone and presents one very specific standard of beauty that has the potential to be, well, toxic for those of us not of that standard. ‘We need to be really careful about judging people,’ Laura says when I bring up the show’s narrow aesthetic. ‘You get told off for having boobs that are too small, boobs that are too big, legs that are too skinny, legs that are too big. Yes, there are some girls there who have had work done, but that is their choice.’
That battle against judgment is something Laura keeps coming back to. It’s something she has experienced first-hand throughout her career. ‘I remember someone saying, “You’re so much smarter than I thought,”’ she tells me, rolling her eyes. ‘The assumption that if you’ve got blonde hair, you must be a certain type of person. I don’t want to bring up stories that I’ve put to bed, but years ago at the Baftas, people being, like, “Oh, you were out with that Hollywood star [Laura is referring to Leonardo DiCaprio, who she ended up at an afterparty with in 2016], you must have been throwing yourself at him.” Actually, no, I don’t do one-night stands. But people assume that because you’re the less famous one you would have taken the opportunity – it’s so grotty. Women get it harder. I was working my a*** off, always trying to be professional and respected. And then everything I did was, “Oh, she’s going out with him”. I found it all a bit embarrassing. I went to a convent school [Loreto Bray in County Wicklow, Ireland], I’d had one boyfriend before I came to London, so I was a bit prudish. I remember thinking, “My mum is going to read this.” Back then, I was of the mind that you shouldn’t say anything, you should keep your head down. Now, I’m like, “That’s bullsh*t.”’
Laura is brilliantly sassy, unapologetic and unafraid. She’s also funny, warm and open. Yes, there’s her presenting, but there’s also the writing and acting, both of which she combined in her first short film last year, Sadhbh, about a young mother struggling with the pressures of social media, which won her an award at 2019’s Irish Film London Awards. ‘There’s no reason why you can’t do it all,’ she says of her varied career. ‘[When Love Island was announced] people were saying, “But I thought you’d gone down the acting route?” [she did a sitcom in Ireland in 2018 called Finding Joy and last year was in the US miniseries Four Weddings and a Funeral]. James Corden does everything. But maybe it’s because I’m a woman and it’s harder for women – “You’re the blonde girl who does the red-carpet thing, what do you mean you’re doing this now?” Even doing BBC Radio 5 Live, a station that’s seen to be more political, or sport or male orientated, people are like, “Radio 1 would be a bit more you.” But as people, we have different strings to our bows and I think it’s important that we make use of what we can bring to the table.’
It’s her mother Carmel to whom Laura credits her work ethic. Her parents split after 12 years together, just before Laura was born, although she remains close to both. Being brought up by a single mother in Dublin, in a time when Irish girls weren’t really raised by single mothers, set the standard for Laura. ‘Mum worked full time. She bought her own house when I was two, which was a huge thing,’ she says. ‘I came from the mentality of you can do everything, but you have to work bloody hard. I was an only child – I used to say lonely child, because that is what I thought it was. It was just kind of… me.
‘I watched a lot of telly, I listened to a lot of music. I was in my room a lot by myself, or writing plays. I lived in that bubble. Other people’s mums were at the school gate to pick them up and mine wasn’t because she was working. I remember feeling sad about it but, looking back, it gave me a different work ethic.’
It’s probably the closeness of the relationship with her mum that has made Laura such a ‘woman’s woman’. ‘Emma Willis and Davina McCall and Caroline allowed other people to come through,’ she says. ‘We’re all striving for the same goal – equality – and to be the anchor on a show rather than the bit on the side. I remember being offered a job to be a “glamorous assistant” – I’m not doing that.’
When it comes to the important people in her life, it would be remiss not to mention Iain, with whom she lives in London and now works with on Love Island, albeit on different schedules. ‘Iain likes a lie-in, because he’s a comedian and he’s used to late nights,’ she says. ‘And when we’re in South Africa [filming Love Island] I make him get up at eight to go to Table Mountain or see the penguins, and he’s, like, I should be sleeping! So I do get to see him, but I’m not sure how happy he is about it!’ They met at the Children’s Baftas. ‘I knew him for a while before we got together – I remember thinking, “I didn’t know comedians were good looking,”’ she says. ‘He’s my type: funny, smart, kind, grows a good beard, but he had terrible dress sense, so I gave some of his clothes to a charity shop and replaced them with new ones – he didn’t notice!’
Laura became pregnant unexpectedly in 2018, a shock at first, which turned to devastation when they were told there was no heartbeat at their 12-week scan. A year after the miscarriage, she made the decision to write about it for Irish publication Hot Press. It is, as with all her writing, heartbreakingly honest. ‘I wasn’t going to write about that,’ she says. ‘I started writing about being Irish and living away, but I felt I needed to be more honest. I was scared, though. When you speak out about something, you can then become the face of it, and that’s not what I want to be defined as. I also didn’t want friends who have babies to think I’d be upset if I hold theirs – it’s not like that. So many women go through it. It’s happened to four close friends, and as women we hold so many secrets. So I wrote it, not necessarily thinking I would send it. The hardest thing was the number of women who contacted me afterwards, because I wanted to message everyone and I couldn’t.’
As our interview comes to an end, we’ve come back to where we started: Laura worrying about other women. Her message, loud and clear, is kindness, respect, caring for each other. ‘You don’t have to tear down someone to feel good about yourself,’ she said in her 5 Live dedication to Caroline. ‘So, to listeners: be kind. Only you are responsible for how you treat others.’ While the world of entertainment feels a little dark at the moment, Laura is a spark of light. Long may she keep shining.
Laura is supporting TKMaxx’s Give up Clothes for Good in support of Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People. Visit tkmaxx.com for more information