‘It was almost like therapy; it helped me heal myself’

With one film in the bag and another in the wings, Zara McDermott has proved steadfast in her impressive transition from reality star to documentary maker.

n just a few short years, the onetime Love Islander (McDermott entered the famous villa in 2018) has switched out glitzy stints on shows such as The X Factor: Celebrity and Made In Chelsea – she is dating cast member Sam Thompson – for one-stop films that tackle some of today’s most important issues.

“I think that this is my career now,” reasons the 24-year-old.

“I mean, social media is, for me, a bit of fun. I love posting photos and working with amazing brands – what girl wouldn’t want to dress up in pretty dresses and do that side of things? That is a lot of fun. But for me there comes a point where that can only give you so much, that can only make you feel so much.

“The documentaries, that’s where I want to be, that’s where my passion is, that’s where my zest for life is [and] where I want to be forever.”

And thankfully viewers – and critics alike – agree she’s pretty good at it, having already garnered comparisons to Stacey Dooley’s seasoned ‘Investigates’ series and landing her branding in ‘Zara McDermott: Uncovering…’.

In fact, her first ever film on Revenge Porn – centred on the sharing of explicit or sexual images or videos without consent and inspired by her own life experiences – was such a hit it’s become BBC Three’s most requested factual TV programme of 2021, and even received a nod at this year’s NTAs.

“People are always talking about revenge porn; I get so many messages,” says McDermott, humbly.

“I don’t get approached as much in the street anymore, as I used to years ago, after Love Island, but now, when I do, most people come up to me to talk about my documentary – and that’s such a rewarding feeling knowing you touched someone and made a difference.

“So many women say, ‘I had this’ and ‘thank you so much for doing your film because it really helped me understand what I could do, who to talk to and the fact that I shouldn’t be ashamed,” she details.

“And the more we can try and alleviate that, the more we can make women feel confident in the fact that they shouldn’t feel ashamed, and it’s not their fault, the better.”

The former government adviser hopes to incite the same positive response with her second powerful title, Zara McDermott: Uncovering Rape Culture.

Returning to BBC Three, the eye-opening documentary – stemming from her own sexual assault four years prior – sees the Essex native investigate sexism and ‘rape culture’ in Britain’s schools, looking at how such attitudes and toxic behaviours have become normalised.

“(The assault) is something that I experienced, but it could have been a lot worse,” she states of her ‘in’ to making the film. “It all happened so quickly that I got out of that situation, mentally, quite unscathed.

“Then after that, I went on Love Island and I had to deal with all my revenge porn stuff (whilst McDermott was in the villa, unbeknown to her, naked photos she had shared with an ex were circulating), so that assault was put to the back of my mind until we decided to make the second documentary.

“Now we’re looking at the more physical side of assault,” she explains, “The deeper-rooted repercussions of what happens when this rape culture, this misogynistic behaviour and this abusive behaviour in schools goes unchecked?”

In a bid to expose the true scale of the problem, McDermott speaks to young women and girls first-hand about their experiences of ‘rape culture’ – in both state and private schools – to understand how such incidents can happen in what is supposed to be a safe and secure environment.

She hears from young men and boys about their perceptions and whether they fully understand the long-term impact that a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality can go on to have.

“It’s a really important part of the film,” she says of her chat with the schoolboys, who at first refused to talk for ‘fear of their words being twisted’. “It shows that young men are also struggling to talk about this topic and understand it. (Therefore) it’s so important to get the education right.”

Has exploring such issues gone some way towards her own healing?

“The assault was something that I felt was important to talk about and share because I hadn’t really done it yet,” McDermott confides. “Whereas with revenge porn, that was a massive part of healing from it.

“I think genuinely if I sit and talk about my revenge porn for too long, I will cry, because it tainted such a massive part of my childhood and me growing up.

“As a 14-year-old girl all the way through to 18 years old, they are massive changing points of your life, when you’re figuring out who you are, you’re becoming an adult. And for me, I felt like that was taken away from me,” she finishes, her revenge porn having extended to another incident as a teen.

“So while I felt like talking about what happened was important, it doesn’t change the effect that it has definitely had on me and probably will have on me for the rest of my life.

“But it was almost like therapy; it helped me heal myself and link things together where I felt maybe slightly damaged from what happened.”

Zara McDermott: Uncovering Rape Culture airs on BBC Three on November 24

Belfast Telegraph