Kem for PM: What Theresa May Could Learn From The Love Island Contestants


by Rachel Johnson

In its 20 years of social domination, reality TV really has been responsible for producing some of the great superstars of the century.

Case in point:

No, but, seriously, who could imagine waking up tomorrow and existing in a universe where reality TV is no more? Forget the rise of Donald Trump from reality star to [insert your own expletive here, reader]; programmes which feign ‘reality’ are taking over the world. And much like their straw-haired, Wotsit-faced competitor, they don’t intend to stop any time soon. They’re affecting our priorities. Be honest now – which two word phenomenon would you rather have a chat about: NHS Cuts or Love Island?

For the past four years, I’ve been fascinated by the blurring lines between reality TV and politics, so much so that I’ve co-written and toured an interactive theatre show Losers (coming to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, folks). I’ve pretty much allowed reality TV to take over my life. And I’m not the only one.


When shows like Survivor and Big Brother first hit our screens, they were dismissed as the height of naffness and catering to the lowest common denominators: sex, celebrity and voyeurism. But these formats have evolved and endured. Particularly in the last couple of months (with the explosion in popularity of this year’s Love Island), current manifestations have become a force to be reckoned with.

They’re not high art, but they’re guilty pleasures that get millions of people tuning in and tweeting night after night. Information boards at this year’s Glasto even included a daily roundup of Love Island couplings.


So what could politicians learn from reality TV producers about engaging and capturing the hearts of millions of Brits who feel a lot more invested in Kem than Theresa? Plenty.

The figures suggest reality TV may well be more “important” than politics to people of a certain age: while participation in the UK general elections seems to be in terminal decline (from an 83% turnout in 1950 to 68.7% in 2017, even with the “Corbyn effect” bumping the figures up slightly compared to past years), millions are still picking up their phones and sometimes even paying money to vote for reality contestants. And while 18-24 year olds bucked the trend at the last GE with a stronger turnout than ever (Theresa’s “fields of wheat” revelation alone must have compelled at least a few to take action), politicians could definitely be doing far more to engage first time and young voters.

Reality TV, on the other hand, is hitting all the right places to be seen by young people. Endless streams of bitesize, video content dominate social media and online news (who hasn’t been tempted to share a Love Island meme this summer, please?). Doesn’t voting on paper at a polling station seems an archaic way to do things when you can just tweet RuPaul with #TeamTrinity (yes, I did, and I won’t RuPaulogise for it)? See, voting can be sexy.

Truth is that Dermot O’Leary awkwardly consoling a sobbing, mildly delusional contestant on The X Factor – or two old people making our hearts go fuzzy on First Dates – sometimes seems a bit more “real” than what the politicians are getting up to in Westminster. Let’s be honest, most of us would only watch PMQs if they featured it on Googlebox – and that might be a dangerous thing.

Fame = power. We all know that. Countless individuals have forged successful and long-lasting careers off the back of brief reality TV appearances. Look at Rylan Clark (a reported net worth of £4.6 million) or Geordie Shore’s Gaz (3.3m Instagram followers). Money and vast social media followings put these new ‘stars’ in powerful positions. And Trump – having risen to mega fame presenting the US Apprentice, and now the most powerful man in the world – has clearly opened the floodgates for the possibility that reality TV stars could gain actual political power. Does that mean furious old boot “Sirallun” could be our next PM? (Sorry…LORD Sugar). Where would that end?

I think we’d all agree puppy-in-a-man-suit Joey Essex or even Love Island’s husky-eyed Chris Hughes wouldn’t be best placed to take over Downing Street. Fingers crossed, they don’t want to either. But recent events in the US may suggest they might have a shot, if they were so inclined.

The blurred lines of the politics/entertainment worlds is creating a fascinating (and potentially) dangerous paradigm. With The Rock and Kanye West (both of whom, while performers in their own right, have had their profile hugely boosted by reality TV) threatening political campaigns next, who knows where it will end.


We might (and Christ, I hope we do) have a long way to go before those horrors await us – but returning to my more palpable suggestion: what would happen to voting numbers if we could do it through an app? And if policies were explained in formats and language that we found digestible? Young people aren’t stupid – simply not enough is being done to explain the importance and relevance of politics years before they’re able to vote. I can honestly say I had a comprehensive knowledge of Big Brother by the age of 12 – and thanks to some actual effort on my part, I’ve finally wrapped my head around manifestos. But only aged 25.

Ideally we won’t ever see Kem translate his Love Island victory into being the man to negotiate Brexit or … whatever comes after that (#Brentry)? Whether we like it or not though, reality TV has a massive impact on what we do and the world around us – and the individuals concerned, often not the most trust-worthy or rational, are accumulating a vast amount of power.

Want to get young people into politics then? Simple. Stick the entire Tory cabinet on a plane to Mallorca, and film them lounging around in their skivvies and occasionally having se… ugh, perhaps not. But at least make them do a bloody Bushtucker trial.

The dark side of reality TV is explored in Losers, performed at the Underbelly Cowgate at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 3-27 (not 14) at 11.20pm.

Find Rachel Johnson on Twitter and Instagram 

Images via ITV

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