“I’ll always have anxiety but it’s not the daily battle it used to be.”
Love Island’s Kem Cetinay, talks about his mental health journey…
When you meet Kem Cetinay, he's full of the easy chat, charm and banter that undoubtedly helped him win dating series Love Island back in 2017. He describes himself as "a happy guy these days", as he bubbles over with enthusiasm about his new fashion range for Primark, which he says has "lots of lairy, colourful shirts". The 23-year-old adds: "I'm quite a big personality, so it's just the sort of stuff I love to wear."
It's just one of the opportunities the endearingly frank Essex-born barber has enjoyed since his TV win. After splitting the £50,000 prize money with his then girlfriend, Amber Davies, he was able to buy a house; he and fellow contestant, Chris Hughes, have had their own TV show (they make a charismatic double act) and a chart hit single, and Kem boasts more than two million followers on Instagram.
For him though, his biggest achievement was coping on the show - with its 24-hour surveillance, constant threat of rejection and intense personal criticism - which he regards as an emotional turning point in his life. It proved, he feels, that he was finally overcoming his mental health problems.
Since age 11, he'd been dogged by anxiety, panic attacks and depression, possibly triggered by the trauma of his mother, Figen, 52, nearly dying from septicaemia when he was young - and shortly afterwards his own tonsils operation going wrong, leading to him suffering kidney failure.
"I went on the show as a test, in a kind of a way," he explains about his decision to enter the Mallorcan villa, reportedly against the reservations of the programme's psychiatrist and his mother. "I knew it was a risk because of what I'd gone through with my mental health, but I thought I had more to gain than I'd lose. My mum didn't want me to do it because she was so worried about how it would effect me just as I'd started to get better. She was like, 'What are you doing?'"
Years of therapy and eventually CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) had enabled Cetinay, aged 20, to finally start overcoming the problems that had married his teenage years and resulted in long absences from school. "I was determined not to miss the opportunity of Love Island. I'd lost most of my teenage years to depression and this was a way of seeing how far I'd come. In the months before it, I'd already managed to get my first proper job, start going out and meeting girls, and felt I was really on the road to getting myself into a good place.”
He's still involved with the show - the fifth series is on now - hosting podcast, Love Island: The Morning After, and is willing to talk to contestants after they leave, share his own experiences and give support.
"Going into Love Island was so huge for me, because it was the first time I was without anyone beside me," says Cetinay. "My mum and my family have been so supportive - sometimes maybe a little too much - and I felt I had to take control of my life and start relying on myself. It was all a complete new challenge but turned out to be a personal godsend. I was on my own little journey inside myself that no one knew about. I did experience anxiety and panic - my mum told me afterwards she could see it in my face every time it happened while she was watching.”
"Having to stand up and talk in front of everyone, go on a date, or even just walk into the villa to face everyone after something happened were all things in the past I'd have run away from because they'd trigger my anxiety to peak level," he shares. "I managed, and it really made making friends in there really emotional because it was such a heightened time for me dealing with all that."
He originally doubted he'd survive the first week, so when he did, he admits: "I thought I almost don't care what happened because to me, I'd done more than I ever imagined. For me, realising I had to deal with things because I was a small part of a big thing, was a big thing, and each time I coped I realised the anxiety didn't last forever, and it gave me the courage to keep going."
Ironically, he believes his years of struggling and suffering "matured me way beyond my years. I felt older than many of the other Islanders in my head. A lot of things got thrown at me when I was young and I'd had to take things seriously before I was old enough, and that really affected me."
Although he describes coming off the show as a "shock, as I hadn't realised how big it had become while I was in there", he coped remarkably well. "Even though I was in the public eye, I was in a relationship living at my mum and dad's and so life was still pretty normal. My family kept me grounded. It's a bit insane after the show but you adapt to it a lot quicker than you think, and you have to accept the negatives and positives and just accept it's an amazing opportunity."
Today, he regards his anxiety as manageable. "I'm still training myself to find inner strength to deal with things and take each step at a time, but in the last few years, so much has changed and improved for me. Although the anxiety's not a daily battle like it used to be, I think I'll always have it," he adds. "I'm a sensitive, emotional person and through research and reading a lot about it, I've realised you're more vulnerable to trigger points than other people. I will get those anxious feelings, a bit of anxiety is normal, and sometimes I have a really bad day but I kind of get through it nowadays. What's great is that now my friends talk openly about that and mental health problems because it's become the norm with us to be open about things."
Staying active and regular gym sessions are just some of the ways he looks after his wellbeing and mental health. "Those sessions are important to me because it's about keeping my head in the right place and [being] somewhere I can zone out. I'm also into my male grooming - I have regular facials - because feeling I look good helps me as well."
He declares that he's "single - and although I'd like to meet someone I'm not going to force it. If it comes along, it comes along. In the last few years, I'm just happy to try and find the good in everything, not to stress, and enjoy myself. Designing the Primark range - my mum's a fashion designer and she helped me - was brilliant. I'm so proud of it," says Cetinay. "I've always been into taking risks fashion-wise and love being a little bit different with my look. How you dress says so much about your personality and who you are."
Kem Cetinay has launched a new range: Primark MAN x Kem (#PrimarkMANxKem).