Bright, funny, vivacious and a hopeless romantic – Caroline Flack’s celebrity status left a nation under the impression it knew her inside-out. Her suicide, just over a year ago, turned this upside down and Channel 4’s new documentary attempts to fill in the gaps left by her sudden, shock death.
The closing months of Caroline’s life included events that dominated newspaper front pages. In December 2019, the Love Island presenter was arrested on suspicion of assault after an alleged altercation with her boyfriend Lewis Burton. She subsequently stood down from the upcoming winter series of the show and two days before Christmas, pleaded not guilty. Burton did not support the prosecution but Caroline’s trial was booked to start on March 3, 2020. She took her own life on 15 February.
During this time, Caroline contacted filmmaker Charlie Russell and explained that she wanted to document what was happening to her. That film never got made but Russell stayed in contact with the Flack family, who worked with him paint a more complete picture of the star we all thought we knew.
While the film examines the role of the media and social media, and how overflowing negativity from both had a huge impact on Caroline, it’s in paying tribute to her that the documentary shines brightest. Adorable childhood home videos show Carrie, as her loved ones call her, and her twin sister as their mum, Christine, explains: “Jody was the positive and Carrie was the negative.”
Her friends speak fondly of Flack’s ability to light up any room but don’t shy away from turning their attention to the things she found harder. “She did want to be famous,” says one pal. “The problem was she just wasn’t emotionally wired to deal with all the pressure of being famous.”
Watch: Caroline Flack's family begged her to quit showbiz to have an 'easy life'
As a teenager, she really struggled when it came to heartbreak, Jody adds, explaining that her sibling previously took an overdose when one youthful romance failed. Caroline, Jody admits, didn’t want anyone to know about this. “She was quite fascinated by the subject of suicide,” she adds. “We knew that about her.”
The family’s hope is that in revealing these details, they can encourage deep and meaningful conversations on mental health. At one point, Christine points out the painful truth that while we’re all apparently talking about mental health more than ever, there is still a huge stigma and Caroline, even at the height of her fame and when she was one of the nation’s most-loved stars, always felt the need to keep her truth behind closed doors.
The Flack family also point out that Caroline’s rise to fame coincided with that of social media and she was hounded on multiple occasions; during a fling with Prince Harry, when she was rumoured to be dating Harry Styles, as her and Olly Murs’ stint as X Factor presenters was criticised and, of course, in the wake of her arrest. As she was derided on Twitter, much of the national press took a similar tone with one newspaper headline reading: “Caroline Whack!”
Caroline, her family says, couldn’t pull herself away from checking her phone, and thanks to screenshots of headlines and tweets, we gain a picture of the things she was most likely reading about herself. But an hour is not long enough to give Caroline the tribute she deserves and thoroughly examine these outside factors, though the film does its best to explore them without apportioning blame.
The question that remains as the credits roll is: What’s next? This film is the latest in a string of documentaries which reexamine the relatively recent treatment of female stars, and its release comes just weeks after Framing Britney Spears, while a year ago, Channel 4 released a series on Jade Goody, subtitled ‘The Reality Star Who Changed Britain’.
Much like Asif Kapadia's 2015 Amy Winehouse film before them, these documentaries all remind us that women in the spotlight are given (to put it mildly) a raw deal. But talking about the unforgiving treatment women in the spotlight face isn’t enough.
How will the next female star who falters be treated? How can social media become a place where #BeKind is something people actually do, instead of a hashtag thrown onto the end of posts?
Channel 4’s film succeeds in painting an unflinching portrait of the real Caroline behind the headlines, but its true impact will be decided by what happens next. These documentaries have to be a starting point.
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Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday, 17 March.
Watch: Caroline Flack's mother takes aim at social media companies