Deborah Gradon was torn between grief and fury when she heard a week ago that Love Island presenter Caroline Flack had taken her own life.
‘That poor girl was thrown to the wolves,’ she says.
‘ITV2 must have seen the vulnerability in her. They must have known what her career meant to her.
‘She was all over the place. They have access to the best clinical psychiatrists London has to offer. The question that haunts me is whether they could have done more to help her. I feel they owed Caroline and our daughter the same duty of care when they left the show.’
Deborah Gradon (pictured) was torn between grief and fury when she heard a week ago that Love Island presenter Caroline Flack had taken her own life
Deborah’s daughter is Sophie Gradon, the former Miss Great Britain who appeared in the second series of Love Island in 2016 and never recovered.
In June 2018 she was found hanged at the family’s home in rural Northumberland.
Sophie, 32, was Deborah and her husband Colin’s much-loved only child. They have never recovered. Deborah says they never will.
‘I could hardly breathe when I read about Caroline,’ she says.
‘I managed to walk through to the kitchen, where my husband asked what was wrong. I said, “Caroline Flack’s been found dead in her flat.” He just put his head in his hands and we both sat in stunned silence.
‘Then my phone started to bleep with messages from people… it catapulted me back into Hell — all those emotions we had after the loss of Sophie.’
Tearfully, 60-year-old Deborah continues: ‘I’d got to the stage where I could go out and speak to people, then something like this happens and you just want to go to bed and not get up. The only emotion you feel is the hollowness, the emptiness.
‘To lose your child is to suffer unspeakable loss. And too many parents have lost their children because of this three-ring circus.’
Sophie was the first person involved in the reality TV dating show to take her own life, after struggling with anxiety and depression.
Last year a second contestant, Mike Thalassitis, 26, was found hanged in a park in North London.
Deborah’s daughter is Sophie Gradon, the former Miss Great Britain who appeared in the second series of Love Island in 2016 (pictured) and never recovered
The Gradons hoped that what they call ‘the Machiavellian project that profits from the trauma and humiliation of the contestants’ would be held to account when the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set up its own inquiry into the deaths and that of Jeremy Kyle Show guest Steve Dymond — but that ended when Parliament was dissolved for the General Election in December and may never be picked up again.
‘I hoped we’d be called as parents,’ says Deborah.
‘I thought we’d be asked to give evidence about the mindset, the manipulation and how Sophie was.
‘When I heard about Caroline, I thought I’d find out where the Committee is with this now. Surely Caroline’s suicide has to add to it. But when I checked online, it said “status closed”.
‘You hope they will pick up the inquiry because there was no mention of reality TV.
‘I feel as if ITV has been allowed to wriggle off a very uncomfortable hook, and that the Government is sweeping this issue under the carpet.’
Colin, 62, nods agreement. The couple run a lucrative ground-maintenance business which paid for not just the stunning four-bedroom house where we meet, but a two-bedroom flat in Newcastle and a Range Rover for Sophie.
You know they would trade the lot in a heartbeat to have their beautiful daughter back.
‘We just exist,’ says Deborah.
‘The one person you live for isn’t here and you wonder why. Why? What’s the purpose of life? We won’t have any grandchildren. We’ve got no future. Everything we dreamt about is gone.’
Sophie was the first person involved in the reality TV dating show to take her own life, after struggling with anxiety and depression. Pictured: Sophie Gradon, aged 5, with mother Deborah and father Colin
Sophie’s parents hope to persuade the Government to enshrine in law tighter controls of reality TV shows. Pictured: Sophie Gradon, aged 7, on holiday
Deborah breaks down in tears, as Colin stands to make tea. His grief is less obvious but painful to witness nonetheless.
Sophie adored her father. Three days before her death, on Father’s Day, she posted a photograph on social media of her as a child canoeing with him. ‘Happy Father’s Day!’ she wrote. ‘My rock and my absolute world, always full of adventure!!! Dadda, I love you so much.’
‘They all want to be Insta-famous, don’t they? Hers is a generation of instant gratification and yes, we spoilt her,’ confesses Colin, who, as well as providing his daughter with a private education and an allowance, indulged her with holidays to Majorca, Ibiza, Dubai, Tenerife and elsewhere.
‘Not a day goes by when we don’t think, had we not spoilt her, might things be different? But when they’re growing up you do everything you possibly can for them, don’t you?
‘It’s not just giving them money and cars. It’s cuddling them and being there when times are hard. Spending time with them when they’re little. Reading bedtime stories, whatever. Yes, you spoil them.
‘She had her horses and dogs. She absolutely adored her dogs. She was at home looking after them while we were away in Norfolk when…’ He can’t bring himself to finish the sentence. ‘This one here is Sophie’s dog, Minnie. She’s a “puggle” — half pug, half beagle.
‘That’s another thing we couldn’t understand. Minnie has kidney problems, so if she didn’t get water she could have gone. Sophie left her to possibly die.
‘When the balance of the mind has been so torn that something as important as your little dog doesn’t mean anything to you, something pretty catastrophic has happened, hasn’t it?
‘We believe she was suffering with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder — and we know exactly when it kicked in: when she was bullied on Love Island.’
ITV, to borrow its own word, “enhanced” the psychological support it offered to contestants following the second Love Island suicide of Mike Thalassitis, 26, last year. Pictured: Sophie Gradon, aged 15
This is the Gradons’ first interview since their daughter’s suicide.
A dignified, deeply private couple, they speak in this emotional interview with raw honesty, in hope that it will persuade the Government to enshrine in law tighter controls of reality TV shows.
They particularly want to see a law that ensures programme-makers provide support for those who appear on such shows.
‘Can you imagine how the contestants on the island now will feel when the show’s over?’ says Deborah.
‘They don’t know what happened to Caroline, so they are running around in that villa smoking, laughing and drinking. When the show ends they’ll be taken into a side room one by one and told what happened to Caroline.’
Although Laura Whitmore is the presenter of this series (Caroline Flack stepped down when she was charged with assault), Deborah still believes the competitors had a right to know that someone associated with Love Island had died.
‘They should have been given the choice to stay on the show in light of what has happened, or go home. But the production team has taken away their ability to make that decision.’
After Sophie’s death, Deborah discovered messages her daughter had sent to a fellow Love Island contestant about their shared experiences.
‘I found some private messages she’d sent to someone she was in the villa with, on a phone she’d borrowed from me,’ says Deborah.
‘They were all about how the show had f****d with her head and made her ill. It gave me a great insight into her mind.’
Deborah said: ‘How many more families must be destroyed like this? There’s our family, there’s Mike’s family and now there’s Caroline’s family’
To show what she means, Deborah hands me the phone and I read some messages.
‘Hello Honey, it’s mental. I’ve been a bit s***** too. It’s a massive mindf*** but it must have been hard for you. How are you feeling now?’ reads one.
In another she writes: ‘I think a few of us found it really scary and difficult afterwards. I totally get where you’re coming from.’
Sophie had been approached to take part in Love Island via social media, and it was clear things weren’t right from the moment she got home from it.
‘She said to her mum, “I think I need some help, some counselling,”‘ says Colin.
‘We said phone ITV2, which she did. They offered her ten minutes over the phone on a Skype call. That was it. Their duty of care was really shocking. She shouldn’t have even been allowed on the show.’
Sophie was a vulnerable young woman who had suffered for many years with anxiety issues.
‘She was on medication,’ says Colin. ‘Her moods could swing from one extreme to another. It started after a friend died in a car crash when she was 17.
‘We didn’t want her to go on the show but we thought when they asked her if she was on any medication, that would put a stop to it. They did ask but just said they would make sure she got her medication.’
ITV, to borrow its own word, “enhanced” the psychological support it offered to contestants following the second Love Island suicide last year.
ITV say that pre- and aftercare measures are in place, including psychological and medical support for the islanders.
Nonetheless, clips from Love Island 2016 make difficult viewing now. As well as starting a relationship with barman Tom Powell, Sophie ‘coupled up’ with glamour model Katie Salmon, becoming Love Island’s first same-sex pairing. But as the show progressed, tensions with her fellow contestants mounted and Sophie was often in tears.
‘It was heartbreaking to watch,’ says Deborah. ‘At one stage nobody was speaking to her, so she was walking round the villa on her own. The production team played Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound Of Silence. What sort of message was that giving to the viewers? It’s the subliminal message, “it’s OK to bully. It’s OK to isolate”.
‘She asked to leave four times but somehow ended up staying. She knew she wanted to be out.
‘It didn’t feel right but she was making good TV, which was good for advertising. It was as simple as that: pounds, shillings and pence — blood money.
‘They tried to get her to couple up with Katie Salmon. She wasn’t interested. It was totally scripted and directed. Sophie didn’t want to do it. She was told they’d be the first same-sex female couple to have won a dating reality show and it would be huge, huge.
‘She said, “I’m not going to be a part of it. It’s a lie. I want to leave. I can’t do this any more.” The fourth time, they let her go.’
Sophie left the island to face vile abuse from internet trolls on an extraordinary scale. The cyber-bullying included comments such as ‘I f*****g hate you I wish you would die of cancer,’ and ‘Sophie is the ugliest girl in there. Her skin is s*** so are her eyelashes’.
For every bad thing that was said, there would be a hundred good things. But Sophie always focused on the bad.
Her parents noticed signs of anxiety as she began to struggle, spending much of the day in bed.
‘The appearances also began to tail off,’ says Deborah. ‘She came out in July and in the beginning she was invited to movie premieres in Leicester Square. By the October it would be an invitation to the opening of a local supermarket.
‘That devastated her. She took it as a personal slur. She thought she wasn’t good enough. Then a new lot of contestants came out in 2017 and she was yesterday’s fish-and-chip paper.’
Gradually, with the support of her family, Sophie appeared to be overcoming her mental health issues. She began to give talks about the evils of cyber-bullying and encouraged young people to use social media responsibly.
Her online following grew to 300,000 as she established herself as a respected influencer. The day she took her life, she had landed a £7,000-a-month contract for a shoe company.
‘She did a presentation to Leeds Education Authority the March before we lost her,’ says Deborah.
‘She was so eloquent and funny that the Q&A, which was supposed to be 25 minutes, went on for an hour.
‘I thought, “She’s through this”. Then, after we lost her, I read her speech again. She had put little pencil notes on it. One read: “Usually sat alone with alcohol because I genuinely believed I was a bad person and quite frankly didn’t want to be around.”
‘I thought, “My God, how could someone have that affect on you when you don’t know them?” but they got inside her head because she’d been battered by her experience on Love Island.’
Colin and Deborah were on holiday in Norfolk when Sophie took her life. They had texted each other and spoken the day before her body was discovered. Nothing seemed to be amiss.
‘I was messaging her and she was messaging back, exchanging script lines from Ab Fab,’ says Deborah. ‘She’d be Patsy and I’d be Eddie. “Are you shopping darling?” “Yes I’m shopping darling.” “Did you go by public transport?” “I think I did. Anybody can.” That sort of silliness.’
Next morning, a friend of Colin’s rang. ‘He said, “Are you sitting down?”‘ Colin says. Deborah continues: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I screamed.’
‘They are the worst words you’d ever want to hear in your life,’ says Colin, as he stands to make another a cup of tea.
‘My sister drove us back,’ says Deborah. ‘Then it all crumbled. Everything collapsed. I couldn’t accept it. I still can’t. There was no note. No letter we’re aware of.’
ITV2 made no contact and didn’t even send a sympathy card to Sophie’s parents.
‘You hear the music on TV promoting the show and it wrenches your gut,’ says Deborah. ‘I want Love Island taken off air. It’s a theatre of cruelty. Modern day bear-baiting has no place in today’s culture.
‘How many more families must be destroyed like this? There’s our family, there’s Mike’s family and now there’s Caroline’s family.’
Kevin Lygo, director of television at ITV, has said: ‘After Caroline stepped down from the show, ITV made it clear that the door was left open for her to return, and the Love Island production team remained in regular contact with her and continued to offer support over the last few months.’
But Deborah wonders if more could have been done.
‘Caroline was weary,’ she says. ‘She’d been beaten so many times by the negativity of trolling. She lost the courage to continue.
‘To think that a girl can be destroyed in the name of entertainment. The Government must tighten controls for these sorts of programmes — but we all have to take responsibility for this.’
- For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see www.samaritans.org for details.