It would be fair to say that this year has been a bit of a weird one for Laura Whitmore. “There have been highs and lows,” she says. “But we have had some really good days.” At the start of 2020, Whitmore landed what is arguably the biggest job in TV, hosting winter Love Island in Cape Town, South Africa. It was a dream gig for her – but it was bittersweet. Close friend Caroline Flack had stepped down from the role weeks earlier after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend.
With Flack’s blessing, Whitmore took the job, to rave reviews. But then, in February, came a blow nobody was expecting: Flack devastatingly took her own life. It was a huge knock for Whitmore and her ITV colleagues. So, after the Love Island final, everyone took a month off to grieve and regroup. During that time the country (and the world) found itself plunged into deeper turmoil as the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly took hold. It’s for that reason that on this particularly sunny March afternoon, I’m not interviewing Whitmore in person as planned, but instead over the phone. She’s sitting on the balcony of her north-London home with her dog, Mick, while I’m calling from my bedroom-cum-office in south London.
“I am OK. It’s a beautiful day and I have a cup of tea and I can’t complain given everything that’s going on at the moment. My friend called the other day and the first thing he said was, ‘What the f*ck is going on?’” she laughs. “We need to remember to have the good times because 2020 has been weird. I’ve had really bad lows, but I also have a wonderful boyfriend [she is dating comedian and Love Island voiceover artist Iain Stirling], wonderful family and I’ve had some great life experiences.
When we speak, it’s unclear whether another season of Love Island will go ahead this year, as TV productions have been put on hold worldwide. But the money is on Whitmore taking over the role permanently when it does eventually return to our screens. Reports have claimed she has been offered £1million to do so. This would have seemed unimaginable to Whitmore 12 years ago. Back then she was in her final year of a Broadcast Journalism degree in Dublin and doing a work placement at a local radio station, Newstalk, doing “all the shit jobs”.
But in 2008, Whitmore, who grew up in Bray, Ireland, spotted a competition to become the face of MTV NewsEurope. “I had no idea how to get to the big lights of London and a job like that.”A “terrible video of me waffling” was uploaded to MySpace and then she was invited to London for an audition, judged by Emma Willis, Alesha Dixon and DJ Trevor Nelson. No biggie. She won the competition and moved to London a month later. On her first day she was flown to LA to interview Chris Martin on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards. “I had this brilliant job but my lifestyle wasn’t one of an MTV presenter,” she says.
Whitmore was totally skint and didn’t get her first paycheque for three months. “I was on television every day but I didn’t have a hair and make-up artist – I didn’t have a stylist, I didn’t have any money... For me, the hardest part was feeling like I didn’t fit in. I went to LA and everybody looked like superstars. I was interviewing Katy Perry and I’m there all pale and pasty and doing my make-up myself, really badly. I definitely had insecurities about sticking out. When you’re younger, all you want to do is fit in, and then the older you get, you don’t want to fit in, you want to stand out.”
But Whitmore loved the work, and as her profile rose, she won bigger presenting gigs, including a co-hosting role on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! Now! with Joe Swash, and later, a slot on BBC Radio 5 Live. She also took part in the 2016 series of Strictly Come Dancing. However, Whitmore has found fame – and the paparazzi attention that comes with being in the public eye – incredibly tough at times. Especially so when she appeared on Strictly. She recalls paparazzi waiting outside her house and “upskirting” her on one occasion.
“I was home by myself. You feel threatened with all these guys outside your house. I had my dog and groceries and I remember someone getting a picture when my skirt blew up. It was printed in a newspaper. I didn’t say anything at the time because I felt embarrassed to make a big deal out of it. There were bigger things going on in the world than me complaining that someone had seen my pants, but it felt really intrusive.”
Another time she was so scared to leave her house for a meeting with her accountant that she called the police. “I said, ‘I feel a little bit threatened.’ And one of them said, ‘If you go outside and pose for a picture they said they’ll go away.’ I remember thinking, ‘I’m not posing for pictures outside my house because the day I do that is the day I enable it.’ I didn’t leave my house that day. I felt like, for all those great days of interviewing people and being paid to do something I love, this is what I have to accept...”
Which is why when Whitmore was approached about the Love Island job she was reluctant to take it at first. “I love the show, but when I was asked to do the series I remember thinking, ‘God, I love this, but f*cking hell this is going to be the paps again. I had purposely moved away from that and was trying to do things at work that would put me in a different light so that I wasn’t just the blonde girl in the dress – I wanted to show that I had a brain. [I thought] ‘Do I want to put myself up for that again?’”
She adds, “You do a show that big and people want to write about it and put it in tabloids and magazines. So I knew, yes, it’s got great parts to it, but it’s also got negative parts too.” As well as the inevitable paparazzi attention, there was the difficult circumstance of how it came about – the situation with her close friend Caroline Flack. The TV presenter – who had hosted the show and its spinoff, Love Island: Aftersun, for five years – had stepped down after being arrested and charged with the assault of her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, in December. She was awaiting trial.
Flack and Whitmore were mates. To make things even more complicated, Whitmore’s boyfriend, Iain Stirling, 32, is also part of the Love Island family. So she knew there would be double the scrutiny.
“Obviously you’re delighted that ITV trust you to do such a big show, but a friend of yours is also going through hell... Caroline had messaged me first to say, ‘I hope you get it’, which was really nice. You’re like, ‘Oh yay, I get to do this but, no, this isn’t how I want to get to do it. It was a really weird way to get a job.”
She adds, “I love doing live TV. I’d worked with most of the crew doing I’m A Celebrity... and MTV, so it just felt very comfortable. The show was the easiest thing. It was everything around it that I couldn’t cope with. When I got the call I was like, ‘I need to talk to Iain, I need to talk to Caroline...’ It’s a weird one because you think you should just jump at it.”
Whitmore’s stint on Love Island was a huge success. While Stirling, who she moved in with last year, was based in Cape Town for the six weeks the show aired, Laura would fly over for the live shows but filmed Aftersun back in London. But the week before the final, the news came that Flack had taken her own life. Whitmore learned of her death on Twitter before a friend called her. The news shook the TV industry and raised questions about Flack’s treatment by the media, and on social media, while she awaited trial.
“It still doesn’t sink in,” Whitmore says quietly. “You just forget that happened. It’ll never be OK and it’ll never be right. It did scare me because I always thought Caroline was really strong. She was so strong-willed and feisty and I remember thinking, ‘God, I wish I could be as strong as her.’ I felt like if people said things, it wouldn’t bother her. But obviously it did because everyone is human. I don’t want to speculate reasons because nobody will ever know. [But] it did frighten me.”
Whitmore hopes that what happened might make people think in future. “I hope now that people have had an insight into what she had to deal with. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve interviewed so many different people. I’ve been in a room with Britney Spears and she’s lovely. I remember thinking, ‘You’re just this vulnerable girl who got a lot of fame very fast.’ And seeing that, I think we do forget that what you say hurts people’s feelings. We can all learn from that. It’s like going back to school when we were younger in the playground. You could say something about someone in the yard and it really affects them. It just happens now on a bigger scale.”
Even when she was grieving, Whitmore couldn’t escape the paparazzi. A week after Flack passed away, she flew to Cape Town to film the final of the show, and Stirling met her at the airport. It was the first time they’d seen one another since the news broke. Understandably, it was emotional. But a pap was waiting at arrivals to trail them through the airport. Stirling filmed him and Whitmore uploaded it to her Instagram Stories.
“We saw him taking photos,” she explains. “Iain was getting upset and I said, ‘Let’s not talk to each other until we get into the car because I didn’t want a picture of that. He came right into our face and started asking questions about Caroline and I said, ‘You have your picture, just stop now.’ He said, ‘No, it’s a public place, I can do what I want.’ This guy, for 20 minutes, kept following us and I just wanted people to see what it’s like from the other side.
"I knew what would happen – there would be a picture of me online after being on a flight, upset, and then there would be comments about how I look and my personal relationship with a friend, and I just don’t want that.” How she handled that invasion of privacy appears, thankfully, to have worked.
“I was really surprised because, after that, a few of those photographers asked if they could take a picture [instead of just doing it without her consent]. Maybe it’s important that we call people out.”
Whitmore believes that to stop what happened to Flack happening again, our treatment of women in the media needs to change. “It’s a long time coming. The language I see used online is just disgusting. The problem is, it’s coming from a lot of people who are anonymous. I think the more successful you are, the more it brings the haters. It’s born from jealousy and sometimes people think if you knock somebody it can make you feel better... but it doesn’t.”
She adds, “How we talk about people should be monitored. The comment section on certain outlets should be banned. Some of the things people say are absolutely vile, so don’t allow a space for those kinds of people.”
She thinks change will happen, but slowly: “A few years ago it was OK to have a picture of my pants in the paper – a picture taken against my will and without my permission. It seems crazy that it was allowed, but now it’s not.”
In 2019, the Voyeurism (Offences) Act, AKA The Upskirting Bill, was passed. “We can change, [but] it’s going to be bit by bit.”
Whitmore says she hasn’t even thought about whether she will host the next series of Love Island, when it eventually happens. But she loved working on the show as a super-fan herself. “They do all their own hair and make-up,” she says.
“On Saturday, when there is no show on, their eyelashes and acrylic nails get redone. Apparently in the first series they left the villa to go to a salon to have their hair done but now, because the show is so big, they can’t, so they have a girl who comes in to do their roots and stuff.”
Going into the villa for the first time was a real highlight. “I’d never been there before. I’d been to the glamorous location of Iain’s voiceover booth and I was like, ‘This is no fun.’ The villa is a whole other ball game... I went into the dressing room and loved it. I always thought it must be really messy, and they had this blue carpet and it was stained with fake tan everywhere and I was like, ‘I knew it!’
Stirling and Whitmore don’t tend to talk about work because the comedian gets annoyed when Whitmore lets slip any behind-the-scenes gossip. “He doesn’t like knowing too much. He went mad one day because I said something he hadn’t seen yet. He wants his commentary to be what people at home are thinking.”
What was it like working with Iain in Cape Town? “We had separate rooms! He’s there the whole time and I was back and forth. He’d start at 1pm and be on site until 9pm. I would go into the villa after the public vote at 11pm and sometimes get back to my hotel at 5am.
“We’d obviously spend a lot of time together when we could, but there are a few couples that work on the show and they were like, ‘Have separate rooms!’ Can you imagine me just popping over every now and then, sharing a bedroom with him and being like, ‘Why is this room really messy? Why are your computer games here?’ We didn’t want to bring that into work life.”
Before Love Island started filming, Whitmore and Stirling decided they would make a little nod to the fact they are dating, when it felt right. Introducing her on the first episode of Aftersun, he said, “She’s the lady with the most handsome boyfriend in showbiz... It’s Laura Whitmore.”“We didn’t want to ham it up too much,” says Whitmore. “Iain put in a few little comments and, thankfully, he knows to be a little bit scared of me so he did run it by me.”
Until Love Island they’d always been a fairly private couple. “We’ve never even done a red carpet together,” she says. “We go to things separately – normally because he’s late – but we just made a decision not to do red carpets. Maybe that will change at some point.
Through the tumult and turns the last few months have taken, the one thing that remains constant is the strength of their relationship. “It’s just Iain, me and the dog in the house right now, and [Iain] is loving it because he gets to eat pasta and play computer games. He’s living his student life. I thought we would drive each other crazy. It’s really helping me think, ‘Actually, this is a good relationship!’ We like each other.
"We don’t spend a lot of time together normally. So I was a bit worried about being in the house with him so much but it’s been lovely. It’s a test. I saw a joke on Instagram that you have Casa Amor [on Love Island], and this is Casa Coronavirus. If you can get through this, you can get through everything.”
Wise words for all of us, if you ask me.
Laura’s BBC Radio 5 Live show airs 10am, every Sunday; her Castaway podcast is available to download on all major platforms, iTunes, Spotify, Acast.
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