July 19th, 2020

Words by Claire Hardwick · Art by Lucy Comer

The villa became the place where my mind felt safest to zone out from the dangers of the outside world


I became a devoted “Love Island” viewer when season six premiered in January. Sometime during my post-grad haze, I put aside my personal vendetta for reality TV and joined my roommate on the couch as a group of British hotties coupled and uncoupled in the South African heat, their mating rituals as esoteric as the lions’ outside of the villa’s gates. I had heard of “Love Island” but wrote it off as being yet another reality show where the contestants search for “true love”. Shows like “The Bachelor”, while entertaining, possessed too much cringe to hold my attention beyond a hate watch. The storylines always felt contrived and pre-planned by some outdated Hollywood exec twiddling his fingers at his desk. And part of my trepidation sprouted from the sheer volume of “Love Island” content: Each season ranges from 30 to 50 hour-long episodes. So it was surprising that, against all odds, I found myself returning each night to watch the group of contestants compete for love—and more importantly £50,000. They grew familiar to me, as a group of strangers will after you watch their every move for 50+ hours in a South African villa retro-fitted with wall-to-wall cameras.


I was well into my first year of life after college and waffling on what path to take, the excitement of the real world feeling less shiny with each job rejection. During the day, I hosted at a pizza restaurant and daydreamed about the imaginary life I could be living in a glittering metropolitan city while at night I immersed myself in the absurd world of the “Love Island” villa. And then, before I could wallow in my own self-pity for much longer, the pandemic hit. The restaurant closed to the public, my improv practices were canceled, and my mask was glued onto my face like a second skin. The villa became the place where my mind felt safest to zone out from the dangers of the outside world. The contestants’ days consisted of getting ready in the morning, lounging by the pool in the afternoon and then getting ready again in the evening. Sprinkled throughout were arguments and cheesy physical challenges. The drama and the confusing British lingo kept me attentive, and each episode landed on some inane cliffhanger. I learned about the insane variety of British accents as I met different contestants, and in my own life I started asking friends if they were free for “a chat” and joked with my roommate about “cracking on” with the cute guy I had spotted at the corner store. 


As someone whose dating life hasn’t been nearly as exciting this past decade as a single contestant’s on “Love Island” has been for the season, I felt a bit out of my depth. The secondhand anxiety crept in, a sensation I sometimes experienced while watching shows like these. I kept imagining myself in the villa, nervous and insecure, but trying my best to be vulnerable, funny, and attractive. Then I would shake my head and remember: It wasn’t reality but a reality show. I wondered why it made me feel so strange, why picturing myself in this environment, besides the obvious stress of being filmed for 24 hours a day, would make me feel insecure about my own dating life. 


I’ve been an observer for as long as I can remember. Maybe that’s why I chose to study film and television in college - so I could take my passion for watching things to an academic level. But even before I discovered Nora Ephron and Netflix-bingeing, I loved to watch the people around me. Many of my close friends agree that before they really got to know me they thought I was quiet, shy and not-so-quick to jump in on a joke. This quality usually sheds once I get to know someone and start to feel like I can be my loud and rambunctious self. But I realize that the juxtaposition of these two sides of myself is strange, that my observation of others takes precedence before I fully let them in. I treat it like a sociological experiment. There’s something almost scientific about it: surveying a group of people, picking up their set of social cues and determining how I can then fit best into their dynamic. 


I used this same “tool” when it came to love and relationships as a teenager: observation. But the groups I had to observe weren’t all that helpful in my own quest to find a “lasting connection”, as they say in the villa. There were my parents, who met in college before social media or dating apps and had been set up by mutual friends. I scratched them from the record, even though they were my first look at what real love looked like. As a society, we had moved beyond the realm of meeting people naturally, or so it seemed to me, in a world obsessed with swiping left and right. Then there was the second group: my friends who had started dating in high school, whose adolescent views on love seemed more specific to their lives than anyone else’s. My last touchstone was maybe the one that hurt me most of all: the romantic comedy. I had fallen for the genre after watching “Sleepless in Seattle” in eighth grade. It gave me a fantasy to believe in, one that heavily featured Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and phone-in radio shows. But I didn’t have any best friends with a love-hate dynamic and my life wasn’t scored by jazz standards, or movie-like in any sense of the word. So I settled for a series of average dates with guys I wasn’t all that interested in, and I learned that you can’t script every interaction as perfectly as Ephron and Meyer did. 


Growing up, I always felt - and was told by seemingly well-meaning adults - that the time for a boy to like me was just round the corner. In high school I swore that college would be the time I’d meet the love of my life. At graduation, I looked around at the friends I had made and felt that maybe that’s what this time had been for: friendship, not romantic love. In post-grad, I interviewed at various jobs and tried to catch the eye of some of the employees in the hopes that we would instantly click. And with my move to LA on the horizon, I thought maybe the person of my dreams was sitting in their Westside apartment as unaware as I was that we would soon be inseparable. 


When a global pandemic hits and it’s not just frowned upon for you to meet new people but implied to be potentially life-threatening, these hopes seem dimly naive or even selfish in comparison. Sometime during quarantine, I began to worry that my time was running out, that once I finally met a guy who was interested he would hear that I had never dated anyone and run in the opposite direction. Lockdown seeped into weeks and months, and I began to bargain with myself. I was good on my own and I liked to be independent. Maybe being alone for the foreseeable future, my whole life even, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. 


A lot of tears are shed on “Love Island”. It makes sense because these people are stuck inside a confined space for six weeks, forced by producers to only really talk about who they’re planning on coupling up with and not allowed books, music, or even pen and paper. Meanwhile, on the other side of my quarantine TV binge, stuck inside my own space for weeks at a time, I, too, shed tears. I cried for fear of the country I was living in, for the safety of my friends and family, for the insufferable but very real worry that my loneliness would follow me wherever I went. But as I watched the contestants flirting and hooking up and trying each other on for size, I found an odd sense of comfort and security in my own lackluster dating life. Maybe this time alone has allowed me to find true solace in myself, or maybe it has helped me realize that I don’t have to try so hard to find a person I want to be with. I’d like to think that “Love Island” allowed me to see that even reality contestants don’t know what’s best for them. They, too, feel alone, make mistakes, and sometimes even find love. Or £50,000. 

Claire Hardwick is a writer and TV fanatic originally from Houston, TX. You can read more of her ramblings in her newsletter

Lucy Comer is an illustrator based in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on stories of longing, intimacy, and heartache. She loves creating portraits, sequential illustrations, and zines. More work can be found on Instagram @loosey.comber