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Reality bites? Life after X Factor and Big Brother for their Northern Ireland stars

Leona O'Neill asks Northern Ireland stars Eoghan Quigg, who was on The X Factor, and Big Brother contestant Ashleigh Coyle about their experiences in the limelight and what happened next

Eoghan Quigg
Eoghan Quigg
Ashleigh Coyle
Mike Thalassitis
Sophie Gradon

The tragic deaths of the former Love Island contestants Mike Thalassitis (26) last month and Sophie Gradon (32) last year have prompted moves to ensure that future participants in the show will be offered therapy, social media training and financial advice.

It is believed that both took their own lives (however Gradon's parents are disputing this), tragedies that sparked calls for better aftercare for people on all reality TV programmes.

This is a call echoed by two former reality TV contestants from here - The X Factor's Eoghan Quigg and Big Brother contestant Ashleigh Coyle - who say they believe that counselling and aftercare are a hugely important aspect of helping contestants cope when they are thrust overnight into the limelight.

Twenty-three-year-old Ashleigh, who lives in Londonderry and works as a nail technician and television personality, came second in the 2014 Big Brother show. She says that the aftermath of her TV appearance led her to suffer from anxiety and to seek counselling.

"I was in the Big Brother house and on the outside the newspapers were running stories about me," she says.

"But I was completely oblivious to it. I had no contact with anyone and it hit me like a ton of bricks as soon as I came out. You went in there and no one knew who you were and you came out and people suddenly did."

Ashleigh says it wasn't long until she was back to reality, working in a shop and trying to get on with her life. She says Big Brother did nothing to prepare her for life beyond the show.

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"I was just caught straight away with the reality of everyone knowing who I was," she says. "There was no gradual impact of it. People also seem to forget that you also still have bills to pay. Just because you were seen on TV doesn't make you a millionaire.

"Two months after I came out I remember I started a job in a shoe shop in Derry. People would come up to me and ask why I was working there, and why I wasn't working on TV. I was still doing stuff like that, but it didn't pay everything that I needed to pay for in my life."

She says that reality TV "throws all kinds of people together for a reaction, and entertainment for the public, but there seems to be little thought given to the consequences".

"I didn't really get any support after coming out of Big Brother," she says. "I saw other people suffering. Reality TV is strange.

"They seem to put people in there just to get a reaction. They don't put ordinary people in there with no temper or no issues.

"There are all kinds of people in there because that is what makes for entertainment for the people at home to watch.

"The people going in have to do psychology and psychiatric tests, and looking at some of the contestants down the years, I can't get my head around how some of them passed those."

Ashleigh says she suffered from debilitating anxiety after leaving the bubble of the Big Brother house.

"When I came out of Big Brother I was fine for a couple of months. Then things started to slow down and I wasn't on a high anymore," she explains.

"My anxiety would have been through the roof. I felt really uncomfortable being out in the town. It was nothing at all to do with the people of Derry, because they were the most supportive.

"I just felt very self-conscious, because I could see people pointing at me and whispering. They were probably just saying: 'There's that girl from Big Brother, what's her name again?'. I just felt like everyone was looking and I became very self-conscious.

"I went to my GP and he put me on beta-blockers for a few weeks. I ended up taking myself off them. I think at that stage I maybe had a stigma around mental health issues. I thought I didn't want to be on antidepressants, because I was only 19 years old and had a great life and a great family.

"I decided to go and get help through counselling, which really, really helped me. That is the best thing that I ever did. And I think that counselling should have been offered when I came out of Big Brother, but it wasn't.

"You are basically thrown into this world that you have no clue about and suffer judgment from everyone in the street. I still have people coming up to me now, five years later. Sometimes they don't say nice things and sometimes they judge me as a certain type of person because I did Big Brother. I really feel that we should have been looked after a little more and taught how to deal with that kind of stuff."

She adds: "The prevention should maybe be in the preparation. You are told that you are going to come out and everyone is going to know you and at the time you are just thinking: 'That's brilliant'. There is no actual teaching or training about the consequences that you will have also.

"I think that should be taught before you go in and the whole way through the audition process and, afterwards, I think that counselling is a must, because that is what sorted me out and allowed me to keep myself a little more level-headed.

"And I think the dangers of social media need to be taught too. It is easy to put a lot of the blame on reality shows, but a lot of it is trolls also. People sitting behind computer screens preaching about mental health and girl power who are the same ones writing nasty comments under people's photos just because they think people who are on TV aren't real. People need to be kinder to one another."

Dungiven's Eoghan Quigg (26) came third in The X Factor in 2008. He now runs Eoghan Quigg Entertainments and still works in the industry. He says he was lucky to have people around him who reminded him it wouldn't last.

"I was only 16 years old when I was on X Factor," he says. "It was an unbelievable experience and one that I have nothing but positives for."

Eoghan says he remembers a piece of advice that helped keep him grounded.

"I was so young and I really didn't understand how big it was and what I was really getting myself into," he adds. "I think that a lot of people suffer because they have a lot of lost promises. They might have been told false things about touring and gigs and it doesn't happen. And people find the reality of that hard to deal with. I had such a brilliant team around me in my parents and others, and that helped a lot.

"I had a tour manager called Mark Murphy and he gave me a bit of advice. He said: 'Enjoy it now and strike while the iron is hot because it might not always be here'. He was always reassuring me that this wouldn't last forever.

"So every day when I got up and got on stage I would be thinking 'enjoy it, have fun, make as much money as we can' because I knew that it wasn't going to last forever. And when I turned 19 years old, with three years on the road under my belt and commuting from London back to Northern Ireland, I just felt like I needed a break and a rest. I had missed out on a lot of my teenage years, had no qualifications and was lonely in London."

Eoghan says his family helped greatly, as did the fact he went back to his old school to gain qualifications to prepare for the future.

"I think the reason I got back to normality so soon after The X Factor is because my family were so grounded and so normal," he says.

"The people I had around me were so reassuring and told me not to get too big above myself.

"They told me that yes, I did really well in the competition, yes I am pretty well-known, yes, I'm getting a lot of work in the UK and making a lot of money, but that this might not last forever so don't take it for granted.

"And that is how I was able to come out of it.

"I left London and went back to my old school, St Patrick's in Dungiven, and did fifth year. I was 19 years old. It was daunting in a way because you think that people will think I'm a failure, look where I've been, look where I am now. But that is your own anxiety and your mind playing tricks with you."

The Thalassitis case was "heartbreaking", says Eoghan, and he adds that he can see how people can spiral into an abyss after the highs of reality TV wear off.

"It's so tragic what happened to Mike," he says. "I watched the show and I really liked Mike in it. I felt like he was such a confident fella and he seemed to have everything going for him. He was good looking. He probably could have got any girl he wanted. He was an ex-professional footballer. He had loads of money and probably had a load of career opportunities. But sometimes, just because people have all that going for them, it doesn't mean that they are happy inside."

Eoghan says he has seen people spiral downwards after emerging from reality TV situations and he believes that TV bosses should do more.

"I do think that some of the reality shows maybe have more help, post-show, than others," he says. "I know X Factor had nothing, it was just out and away you go. We got some media training, to learn how to talk to the Press, but that was it.

"I know people who came out of the show, post-X Factor, and were told that they were brilliant, advised not to do this gig or that gig, that they were too good for that and then the promises that were made don't work out and they found themselves, a year down the line, not even being able to get those gigs that they once turned down. And people find that tough.

"That hits them hard and they have no money and they don't know what to do and then it's back to nine to five. And reality kicks in and depression can also kick in."

Eoghan says that he thinks a proper aftercare arrangement needs to be put in place for those emerging from reality TV shows.

"I believe there should be an aftercare programme for everyone who comes out of these reality TV situations and have been exposed to so many people and they are going to be well-known," he says. "All reality TV contestants need some kind of course to prepare them for that will come next.

"I also think that people online need to be a lot nicer, because everyone is fighting some sort of battle and you just don't know what people are dealing with. They might be putting on a brave face and a smile. A lot of people do actually care what people say to them online, a lot of people are sensitive. You just don't know."

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