Love Island is the show we all hate to love. My first introduction to the villa (as a viewer, not a contestant, sorry to disappoint you) was in 2017. I was hooked from the off. I’d always been a big fan of reality TV – I love the drama – but hearing “I’ve got a text” gave me endorphins I’d never experienced before.
The season that I’d stumbled upon was the third one, a fan favourite, featuring both a Black man (Marcel Somerville) and a mixed-race woman (Montana Brown). The lack of women with my own skin tone didn’t really phase me. But when I started season four, which had Samira Mighty, the show’s first Black female contestant, in the villa from day one, I was intrigued. Representation in the UK is so limited, it was nice to see someone who looked like me on TV.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before my unease about Samira’s experience in the villa began to manifest. For weeks, we saw her being turned down by people she was interested in, leaving her in a frustrating friendship couple with – who else? – Dr Alex. It was heartbreaking watching her constantly being dismissed.
During a heartfelt conversation with fellow housemates Megan and Dani, she broke down in tears. The boy she was interested in – Frankie – had eyes for Megan. Samira told her: “I’m just me and you’re you.” Megan went on to call Samira “strong” – a label Black women are all too familiar with. When Samira and Frankie did end up in the hideaway, the footage wasn’t even shown.
Then in season five, we were introduced to Yewande Biala. She was beautiful and smart and held her own. Surely someone would show interest in her? Yet Yewande encountered the same issues Samira did. Important to note here that the season featured another mixed-race contestant, Amber Gill, who actually went on to win (if you ask Black Twitter, we’d say this had a lot to do with us).
It’s also necessary to highlight that the experiences of mixed-race women on and off the island are different to those of darker-skinned women, as Yewande wrote about candidly in the Independent. “The effects of colourism in our society can be devastating,” she said in her essay. “As a dark-skinned black woman, I grew up with feelings of hatred towards my skin.”
Season five also prompted me to write an article for Gal-Dem, saying that I didn’t want to see any more Black women on Love Island. Two years on, I’m not sure if my sentiment has really shifted.
We all know one of the greatest joys of watching Love Island is following along on Twitter. Sharing the conversation with the rest of Black Twitter makes any episode 10 times more enjoyable. And when we see one of our own on TV, we get super invested. This comes out in our funny commentary, and endless memes, but it can make the show a triggering watch.
Put simply, it’s painful watching Black women being rejected time and time again. As I wrote for Gal-Dem: “For many black girls (especially the ones who grew up in predominantly white areas), Samira’s time on Love Island was a throwback to our own awkward and uncomfortable dating experiences”.
Adwoa Owusu, 23-year-old project coordinator from Birmingham and major Love Island fan, believes that representation among the contestants matters, but says we should be careful how much we expect from it.
“We have to recognise that seeing a Black person on Love Island is just that,” says Owusu. “I don’t make the assumption that myself and the Black female representation are going to have the same personalities or opinions.” That’s not to say she doesn’t want Black women on the show. “Racial representation is important because it’s mad that in the 21st century, any reality TV show refuses to reflect that this little island is not made up solely of Caucasians.”
“Black women love, too … The premise of the show is to make a connection and we do that.”
– Stacey, 24, Love Island viewer
We all acknowledge that power of representation, but is it enough to cast Black women? I think the issue here is inclusion and not diversity. It feels like Black women are cast to hit a quota rather than being given a fair chance at being adored like their white counterparts. And we know that reality TV can do better: just watch Love Island US, Too Hot Too Handle and Are You The One?
“Black women love, too,” says Stacey, a 24-year-old creative producer and designer from Bristol, who preferred not to give her surname. “The premise of the show is to make a connection and we do that. But representation needs to be done right because what we’re seeing now is men claiming their type is anything but a Black woman and that is not an equal playing field.”
Keen to hear first-hand what villa life is like for Black women, I spoke to former contestant, Priscilla Anyabu, who made her entrance in season six, coupling up with Mike Boateng, one of that summer’s original housemates, in Casa Amor.
Anyabu tells me that, even before entering the villa. she was “100% cautious” about the way she’d be treated as a Black woman on the island. “I had to have it in my head that I might not get picked, and be comfortable with that,” she says – concerns that are valid given we’ve seen nearly every Black woman on the show not being picked from lineups or ending up the last option.
And she had another concern, too, in a show whose production values don’t seem particularly set up for Black women. “I was also cautious about how my hair and make-up would look as the lights aren’t meant for you. I could look good in the villa but this might not come out on camera,” she reveals.
“I had to have it in my head that I might not get picked, and be comfortable with that.”
– Priscilla Anyabu, Love Island contestant
Despite these misgivings, Anyabu describes her experience on Love Island as “lucky”. Mike had been in an on-off couple with Leanne (before she got the ‘ick’), and also coupled up with Jess and Sophie. But he and Priscilla found a genuine connection. The pair just missed out on the final, but forged a long-term relationship back home, only calling it quits earlier this summer.
Compared to other contestants, Anyabu considers herself fortunate that the person she was interested in was actually attracted to Black women. “I don’t think anyone other than Micheal was attracted to me, but I set myself up for that so I wasn’t disheartened,” she tells me. “However, as much as you can prepare yourself mentally and emotionally, it’s still going to hurt.”
Fast forward to this season, when Kaz Kamwi was announced in the launch lineup. Twitter was besides itself. I was excited, but nervous. I didn’t want to see another Black woman being rejected – and, just like Samira and Yewande before her, Kaz wasn’t automatically picked by the boys on opening night.
Yet, I had some hope it might be different. Before long, we even had two Black women in the villa at the same time, when Rachel Finni arrived as the show’s first Black female bombshell. Kaz’s story this season has differed to Rachel’s short-lived run, perhaps because she was an OG contestant, but it’s notable that both women struggled to couple up – at least initially.
“The whole dating dynamic with Kaz actually stressed me out at first,” Owusu says of this year’s viewing experience. “Obviously, when I’m watching it, I have very few critical opinions and I’m just there to zone out and enjoy.”
While it’s made it hard to experience the show as pure entertainment, there have been many positives to seeing Kaz in the villa. She’s absolutely held her own, stayed the course of the series, and has remained authentically herself.
It’s easy to hide in white spaces for fear of being labelled “aggressive” or “difficult”, but Kaz hasn’t done that. As Black Ballad founder Tobi Oredein writes: “What makes Kaz’s journey such a breath of fresh air is that she is a main character in this series of Love Island like no other darker-skinned black woman has been and it has been a joy to witness.”
Even just watching a Black woman going to bed in her bonnet has made me smile – and Owusu says the same. “Seeing Kaz this season has been great. She’s comfortable in her bonnet and glasses,” she tells me. “I know this shouldn’t be worth writing home about, but when you are in a space that is dominated by whiteness, and you know you’re on national TV, I can imagine it can feel quite daunting to be the totality of yourself.”
“I was anxious at first,” says Stacey, “because historically we are left with the Black woman being undesired, picked last and it essentially is us rewatching our trauma on a big screen. However it was great to see Tyler (post-Casa Amor) showing interest in her. That was special.”
It also contrasted markedly with Rachel’s experience on the show, she adds. ”I knew Brad didn’t like her because from the beginning. These men have stated their types and their description described everything but a Black woman.”
Rarely have we seen a woman on Love Island communicate as effectively as Kaz. Even when her emotions have been high, she’s maintained her poise. And we can’t mention Kaz without speaking about Liberty. Their bond is the epitome of a strong female friendship, and they’re the show’s true winners in my eyes.
Priscilla Anyabu has been rooting for Kaz, too, she says – as she did for Rachel before she was eliminated. “I root for anybody Black, to be honest, that’s just me, but it has been hard to watch,” she adds – particularly when Anyabu knows first-hand the challenges of life on the dating show.
Whatever the outcome of Monday night’s final, there’s no doubt Black women will continue to be part of Love Island – even if some people suggest this season’s chaotic season should be the show’s last. But what can producers do to ensure Black women have an equal chance of finding love in the villa?
The die-hard fans believe the show’s makers must take on responsibility. “When it comes to casting, honestly, I think unconscious bias training should be held with everybody beforehand,” says Stacey – and Owusu agrees.
“The producers have to be fair,” she says. They clearly push narratives based on biases – whether those biases are their own or how they think the audience will perceive each contestant. I think they should also make sure they have all the appropriate wellbeing support for Black women. As someone who has to spend a lot of time in majority-white spaces, I can only imagine all the micro-aggressions that Kaz puts up with from cast and crew.”
Anyabu also thinks it starts with casting. “If you look at the places they’re getting these men from, the demographic aren’t attracted to Black women. People can lie and say they’re attracted to Black women, but I think there should be more research [into contestants] and not taken at face value.”
As to whether Black women should continue to put themselves up for the show, she says it’s a difficult question. “I don’t want my sisters going through trauma but we need to take up more space on TV and have more representation,” Anyabu says. “I’m really divided on this, but it’s not for the faint-hearted at all.”
It seems as though Kaz and Tyler have a good shot of winning this year’s show – with all the prize money, fame and lucrative brand deals that go with that. And who is to stop our Kaz from shining in that light? But ultimately, my hesitations around Black women appearing on Love Island are as much to do with the viewing experience for Black women as any one contestant’s time on screen.
This year especially, it’s felt as though we’ve been hyperaware of the treatment of Kaz and Rachel, both inside and outside the villa. Some of the social media commentary around Kaz has been overtly racist. When Faye screamed at Teddy for almost a whole episode she was “troubled” and “misunderstood”. When Kaz stands up for herself for a hot minute, she’s “angry” and “full of attitude”.
I try to take Love Island for what it is, a reality TV show, but that’s hard to do when you’re seeing yourself – and when the “reality” in question is somehow both a distortion and reflection of your own experience as a Black woman.
White people can switch off at the end of an episode or season, but for Black women, the racism and misogyny lives on, both on Twitter and out in the world. Perhaps my view has changed. Maybe I do want to see Black women on Love Island, but I also want Black women (on and off the island) to feel desired.