TV & Radio

Laura Whitmore: ‘Look at Olivia Wilde – it seems the more successful you get, the more negativity people throw your way’

Laura Whitmore loves the drama. Literally. She’s just announced her exit stage left from Love Island; now the jaunty presenter is taking to the West End. We’re discussing how three years of grilling newly minted influencers on live telly equips you for the stage. “There’s definitely a similar skill set when you do live…” – she pauses, raises her eyebrows, says with a flourish – “drama. Drama in everything I do!” Fresh from crowning Ekin-Su and Davide – christened “mum and dad” by the internet for being besotted one minute, bickering the next – as this year’s champs, Whitmore is treading the boards in 2:22 A Ghost Story, in the same role that nabbed Lily Allen an Olivier nomination earlier this year. It was her husband Iain Stirling, he of the “TerrrNIGHTTTT” Love Island voiceovers, who first told her she’d nail the part. “I was like, ‘Whaaaat! There’s no way I’d remember all those lines’.”

Aside from Love Island, Whitmore has been a steadily rising figure on TV and radio for the past decade, having presented ITV2’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! sister show from 2011 to 2016, and hosting her own Sunday morning radio show on BBC Radio 5 Live from 2018. But for Whitmore, who also recently left her 5 Live show, this is a time of change. When it comes to new opportunities, she’s a proponent of “opening it to the universe that the right thing comes around when you want it to, and when you can do it”. Alongside performing in 2:22 A Ghost Story, she’s making a true crime podcast with Stirling and putting the final touches to a new ITV documentary series, Laura Whitmore Investigates. Oh, and her book, No One Can Change Your Life Except For You (the title is her life motto, she says) has just been published in paperback. “I’m not gonna lie. I haven’t had many days off!” she jokes. But Love Island, which achieved its highest viewing figures for three years this summer, was her most high-profile gig yet, and many were surprised when she walked away.

“For me, it was a show that I kind of fell into. Not in a way that I ever would want to,” she explains. Whitmore took over presenting duties when Caroline Flack stepped down in 2020, after being charged with assault; Whitmore continued in the role after Flack took her own life in February of that year. The show had “parameters”, which Whitmore seems to have found creatively limiting. “I just felt like there was only so much that you can do in a show like that,” she explains. “And also the frustration, I guess, when someone’s like, ‘Oh, you do 10 minutes on a show’ and I’m like, ‘Do you have any idea how many hours that takes?!’” Other projects were coming along, plus she wanted to go out on a high. “I feel like this year might be one of the best years of all time. I don’t know if it can get better than that!” she laughs. This year’s success means ITV2 is going big again, with an annual double whammy. “I think now with twice a year, it kind of will take up your whole life. Your whole life to watch it. Can you imagine working on it!”

In a statement announcing her departure, Whitmore paid tribute to Flack, writing on Instagram: “I was only planning to fill in for Caroline for a series and it turned into three series. I hope I did you proud Caroline.” I wonder if, given the circumstances, Flack was often on her mind as she worked on the show. “Caroline was more than Love Island,” she says straight away. “She loved that show so much. And I know she was always a huge supporter of me doing that show to step in for her.” The pair had been friends for a long time, something that’s very distinct in her mind from the job. “They’re kind of two separate things, personally, if I’m honest with you. And she had such an incredible career. And should still.”

It’s hard to imagine how, in the age of social media, any person now copes with hosting such a high-profile show. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted: the online opprobrium can be constant. The landscape has changed significantly since Whitmore started her career as a presenter on MTV News. “When I was first started doing MTV, if someone had an issue with you, you didn’t really know about it, you’d just carry on and do your job,” she says. But it’s everywhere. “The more successful you are, you get it more. I only get a tiny bit of it, but you look at people like Olivia Wilde, and people like that – what she’s got the last week – it seems the more successful you get or the more you do, the more people want to talk about you, the more they’ll throw negativity your way.” People do seem fascinated with Whitmore’s earnings, though. She made a TikTok correcting some of the criticisms she received on Love Island, including about her salary. “People care a lot about how much money I make,” she says – and she hasn’t observed the same focus on the earnings of her male counterparts. “Even today I saw in the press about how much money I’m apparently making in the West End. I’m like, I don’t know if they did that about [previous 2:22 A Ghost Story star] Tom Felton?”

This year’s Love Island was noteworthy for another reason: the series received 1,500 complaints of alleged misogyny, including the perceived “bullying” by male contestants towards Tasha Ghouri, who was repeatedly singled out in a game of Snog, Marry, Pie. But some of the complaints are amusingly petty, Whitmore explains: “I got a complaint because I’m so selfish, I make the whole show about me because I walk so slow. Someone actually wrote in! I walk normal pace. They slow it down!” Some things, she says, you just have to take with a pinch of salt. “It’s an entertainment show. So I think if you’re using Love Island as being exactly what real life is, then you’re in trouble.” (Ofcom ruled that the “bullying” behaviour was “not shown in a positive light” and didn’t pursue the complaints.)

The show, though, has comprehensively overhauled its duty of care and aftercare protocols after receiving criticism, particularly after former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis took their own lives. Whitmore wasn’t a part of the conversations about these very serious issues – understandably, they fall under the purview of the producers rather than the presenter. “I know they’ve upped the duty of care. I think they can continue to work on it, personally. And I think they will.”

The show can also be a force for good; she mentions a friend who told her the show inspired useful conversations with her 13-year-old daughter. “If you have young people watching the show, maybe use it as a chance to go: do you see that? Do you agree with that? What do you think went wrong there? So I think it’s important maybe to have those conversations, but also Love Island should not be raising your children.” As for the Islanders who go in with a suitcase and come out to gazillions of new followers and a changed life, we should go easier on them: “You forget how young they are in there. Some people go in there and come out and go, ‘F***, I was a dick. I’m sorry’. And that’s OK! We’re allowed to make mistakes. We’re human. That’s all right.”

Whitmore has the kind of springy, wholesome enthusiasm that only presenters of popular live TV shows seem to possess. She’s speaking to me at the end of a long day of rehearsals, Zooming from a seemingly windowless room. “You can probably gather… this is not home.” She’s emphatic and energetic; even when she’s leaning on an elbow to prop herself up, star tattoo showing on her wrist, it’s as though she could leap to her feet and do a live link at the drop of a hat. But crack open that zippy, colourful carapace and you’ll find an iron focus that explains her success. “I just want to get better at what I do. If I did the same thing every day, I’m never gonna get better. And I just want to constantly push myself and challenge myself.”

The public does not know her as an actor, and she “definitely” feels the pressure that added scrutiny inevitably brings. “I think, sometimes within the theatre world, [or] even just as a theatregoer, there can be snobbery,” she says. But acting has been in her life for some time. She was a student at the Leinster School of Music and Drama in the Republic of Ireland and took a course at Rada in London; later, she performed opposite Shane Richie in a 2017 stage adaptation of Peter James’s novel Not Dead Enough. In 2020, she wrote and starred in her first short film, Sadhbh, about a struggling young mother, and she got an acting agent earlier this year.

Now that she’s free from sending lovelorn youngsters on Jet2 flights back to Stansted, she can start to spread her wings. Theatre has always been “a love, a passion”, she explains. “I mean, the West End is kiiind of the dream, isn’t it?” Whitmore, 37, grew up in County Wicklow and says she first got into drama because “believe it or not, I was shy and quiet growing up, and my mum was worried about how quiet I was”. She studied journalism at university and joined the drama group as a way of getting to know people, going on to play Antigone and – not wanting to jinx anything – what she describes as “Lady M in the Scottish play”.

Danny Robins’ 2:22 is now on its fourth cast and looking like a firm fixture of the West End scene. It’s about a young couple who have just had a baby and bought a doer-upper, before things start to get creepy – every night at 2:22am, Whitmore’s character Jenny hears strange goings on, which her husband dismisses. The show has been a smash since opening last year; it’s the kind of unadulterated, scary fun that feels like a school trip for adults (plus gin). “I’ve had my cousin go, ‘Can I come?’ And I’m like well, no, you’re five,” Whitmore says, droll.

Like Jenny, Whitmore is a new mother; she and Stirling’s daughter was born in March last year. But given the subject matter, it feels a bit silly to ask if Whitmore relates to the character more than that. “I’m being haunted by ghosts!” she jokes, before adding that all of the cast have kids of their own and are bringing their own experiences to it. “There’s this juxtaposition of fear that Jenny has, that her house is being haunted, but also she’s trying to be strong for her child. The need to protect, not wanting to look like this crazy, overtired mum, but also wanting to speak her truth.” The directors Matthew Dunster and Isabel Marr have encouraged her to make the part her own, in part by incorporating her Irish background. “It’s been lovely to play around with that. I say that before I’ve even stood on the stage. So god knows what will happen when I’m onstage.”

Whitmore is now up and running at the theatre – after the first preview this week, she posted on Instagram that it was “one of the best experiences of my life!!!” – and she’s keen to keep acting. But also… she’ll go with it. She returns to that philosophy of right things, right time. “The universe just sometimes throws things at ya.” We’ll see her documentary series, in which she’ll explore sex, power and the internet, before the end of the year; she’ll have a week off from the play in October to fly out to America and finish it. So is she going Louis Theroux on us? “No one can be Louis Theroux, except Louis Theroux! I don’t rap as well as him,” she jokes. “I’m just gonna be Laura. Laura Whitmore.” And then she sounds serious – and satisfied. “It’s pushing me, which is what I want. When I get to the stage of doing the same thing, and I can’t really push myself, or I’m not allowed to push myself any further… then I have to change things up.”

‘2:22 A Ghost Story’ is at the Criterion Theatre, London, until 8 January 2023

Laura Whitmore tells contestants the bad news on ‘Love Island’

I want to constantly push myself and challenge myself

Laura Whitmore

Felix Scott, Laura Whitmore, Tamsin Carroll and Matt Willis star in ‘2:22 – A Ghost Story’

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