‘De­pres­sion and anx­i­ety: the price I paid for re­al­ity TV fame’

Re­al­ity TV dom­i­nates our cul­tural land­scape, but af­ter the tragic re­cent death of for­mer Love Is­land con­tes­tant So­phie Gradon, for­mer Made In Chelsea star Ch­eska Hull re­veals the dark side of star­ring in one of the shows

Grazia (UK) - - Contents - WORDS HAN­NAH FLINT

When Ch­eska hull ap­peared in the first episode of Made In Chelsea, in 2011, she was the ebul­lient blonde so­cialite who or­gan­ised par­ties for her very posh crowd of friends. But three years later, de­spite try­ing her best to save face on-screen, she’d pri­vately be­come de­pressed, anx­ious and so with­drawn that she feared leav­ing the house. At her low­est ebb, she felt sui­ci­dal.

‘Most friends told me to just stop do­ing it,’ says Ch­eska. ‘But part of me was scared: am I ever go­ing to be em­ploy­able af­ter this? Will peo­ple laugh at me? I had a de­gree and an ed­u­ca­tion, but I didn’t know how I could get a se­ri­ous job af­ter the show.’

It’s a spi­ral that’s all too com­mon, and one that was thrown into sharp re­lief last month, when 2016 Love Is­land con­tes­tant So­phie Gradon was found dead, aged just 32. Only a few months ear­lier, she had re­vealed that on­line trolls had caused her to ‘de­scend into a dark place’ and warned that they were caus­ing ‘kids as young as nine [to take] their own lives’. Her co-star Zara Hol­land ad­mit­ted that the show had left her 

feel­ing ‘haunted and de­pressed’, hav­ing been stripped of her Miss Great Britain ti­tle for hav­ing sex on-screen. And that’s just in the UK: last week, a Rus­sian re­al­ity TV star took her own life af­ter fall­ing into de­pres­sion and mis­us­ing drugs, while in the US, in 2016 it was re­ported that 21 re­al­ity stars have com­mit­ted sui­cide in the last decade.

Be­fore ev­ery se­ries of Made In Chelsea, Ch­eska, 33, was given a psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sess­ment by Chan­nel 4 and was re­quired to speak to a ther­a­pist. Those want­ing to go on Love Is­land are also screened be­fore join­ing the show. Both Chan­nel 4 and ITV of­fer sup­port be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter film­ing. (An ITV spokesper­son for Love Is­land told Grazia last week, ‘ We take our duty of care very se­ri­ously and this is al­ways our top pri­or­ity.’) But de­spite care be­ing taken, there is often no way of know­ing ex­actly how some­one is go­ing to re­act to the level of scru­tiny they’re sub­jected to, par­tic­u­larly on so­cial me­dia.

‘I tell par­tic­i­pants that the gloves are off,’ says psy­chol­o­gist Jo Hem­mings, who works with re­al­ity TV par­tic­i­pants and pre­vi­ously car­ried out psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sess­ments for Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother. ‘It’s open sea­son: once you’ve been on a re­al­ity show, peo­ple can say what they like about you.

‘Some peo­ple are strong char­ac­ters and will re­cover from it, but oth­ers will be dis­traught at how peo­ple see them. It can be soul- de­stroy­ing.’ She is just as bru­tally hon­est about what to ex­pect when it’s over. ‘ I tell them there will be photo shoots, mag­a­zine in­ter­views and TV ap­pear­ances, but that it will only last a week. Many of them find it dif­fi­cult to grasp that life just goes on with­out any fur­ther fame. They’re in this twi­light world where they feel like they can’t go back to their old jobs and are just try­ing to catch up with fame.’

It’s a sim­i­lar story when peo­ple leave longer term shows such as Made In Chelsea and The Only Way Is Es­sex. On those shows, par­tic­i­pants can also strug­gle to draw a line be­tween the pro­gramme and their real lives. ‘ Some em­brace it, but oth­ers are left emo­tion­ally drained and feel they’ve lost sight of who they are,’ says Jo. ‘ It makes peo­ple highly vul­ner­a­ble and emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble.’

Ch­eska very much fell into the lat­ter group. ‘ When some­thing hap­pens in your pri­vate life, you deal with it, or park it,’ she tells Grazia. ‘But [with re­al­ity TV] you have to pre­pare your­self for everyone’s opin­ion six weeks af­ter film­ing, when the show airs. It can be re­ally drain­ing to be con­stantly pan­ick­ing like that.’

Three years af­ter leav­ing the show, Ch­eska’s found hap­pi­ness in Sal­combe, Devon, where she works for her fam­ily’s bou­tique, Amelia’s At­tic and now has a seven-month-old son, Char­lie. See­ing the news of So­phie’s death has re­minded her of how lucky she has been to ‘start a new life’. Be­fore she left Made In Chelsea, she had hit rock bot­tom, liv­ing in a con­stant state of panic over how she would be per­ceived. It was fu­elled by so­cial me­dia trolls who crit­i­cised ev­ery­thing from her ap­pear­ance to her ac­tions on the show. Of­fair, she was bat­tling a stalker who mes­saged her per­sis­tently for dates, and then threat­ened to kill her one Valen­tine’s Day. A long-term re­la­tion­ship, which she hoped would lead to mar­riage, ended – she claims due to the stress of the show. Then her de­pres­sion came to a head when the grief of her father’s sui­cide, which hap­pened dur­ing the first se­ries of Made In Chelsea, fi­nally caught up with her three years later.

‘De­pres­sion and anx­i­ety were the price I paid for re­al­ity TV fame,’ she says over lunch in Sal­combe. ‘I was feel­ing so low, and felt like I couldn’t film. I felt silly for it: I’d signed the con­tract, I knew what I was get­ting into. But there were days when I couldn’t even get out of bed. I would dread the thought of walk­ing down the street.

‘Sud­denly, I was think­ing about my dad’s death all the time, and was so low that I felt sui­ci­dal. Be­fore, I was on such a high that I couldn’t un­der­stand why he would do some­thing like that. But then I was in so much pain that I felt like I knew how he had felt.’

Even­tu­ally, Chan­nel 4 sent her to see an in­de­pen­dent ther­a­pist who, af­ter six ses­sions, took the de­ci­sion that she was un­fit to film. It was Ch­eska’s way out. ‘ Thank God she said I couldn’t go on, be­cause God knows what would have hap­pened oth­er­wise,’ she says. Af­ter So­phie’s death, she can’t help think­ing about some­thing she once told her mother dur­ing her de­pres­sion: ‘that some­thing aw­ful will hap­pen on re­al­ity TV’. Yet she’s not sure what can change: she asked for help from Chan­nel 4, and they gave it to her. But she hopes that by speak­ing out now, oth­ers will think care­fully be­fore go­ing on such shows.

‘ I was lucky that I had my mum and fam­ily telling me that, yes, I could sur­vive,’ she says. ‘But some peo­ple find it ad­dic­tive, they love the at­ten­tion. And when the fame stops, or no one on so­cial me­dia cares any more, it re­ally af­fects them.

‘I was des­per­ate to get out. Now, I feel like I can breathe again.’

I WAS SO LOW, I FELT I COULDN’T FILM. BUT I’D SIGNED A CON­TRACT

so­phie gradon (right, top) and on Love Is­land (left, be­low with Zara Hol­land, also above left, and bot­tom right). Ch­eska Hull (right); in her Made In Ch­eslea days (far right, far left and bot­tom left)

Ch­eska has carved out a new life for her­self away from the spot­light in Devon, with her baby son Char­lie

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