In October 2017, brazen British reality television star Gemma Collins stood before a live audience at London’s Wembley Arena — microphone in hand, peroxide-hued hair twirled into jaunty Sailor Moon buns, shiny tights glistening under all that spotlight — and announced the BBC Radio 1 Teen Awards winner for best TV show as “LOVE ISLAND!” to thundering applause. She pivoted to congratulate the victors, one arm outstretched in a victory punch toward the venue’s ceiling, mouth upturned to reveal a set of chemically white teeth.
And then, without warning, she fell through a gaping trapdoor.
As the laws of gravity will have it, when a big trapdoor opens and you are above it, your entire body will descend rapidly into its black and unknown nadir, whether you like it or not. (No one likes it.) The plummet is always floundering, inelegant. For a moment, you will look like an unfinished magic trick: half visible, half concealed. Your limbs will make desperate contortions to break the fall. Elbows, wrists and feet will move into unnatural positions, searching frenziedly for some hard, flat surface — for familiar terrain.
The trapdoor Collins fell through was more bewildering and blurring than other trapdoors because it was positioned before thousands of strangers and because it contained three contestants from the reality show Love Island, who were being propelled from its depths to receive their prize on stage. Their bodies became semi-entangled with Collins’ — a maelstrom of figures — until two of them were able to pull her back up onto the stage. The scene was a Funniest Home Video writ large: equal parts comical and traumatic.
Fifteen years ago, if you fell through a trapdoor, only the people who saw it would know. But this is the age of live television and the internet. Blooper footage circulated instantly online. The Daily Mail published an extensive commentary, as did other gossip websites. There were videos everywhere, covering infinite angles. I first saw the skit on Instagram and have since replayed it at least 100 times, not because I wanted to see Collins humiliated — though falling into a hole is always very funny — but because I was fascinated by her response to it afterward. (More on that soon.) This initially may not have been a big deal to anyone outside the U.K. (excepting myself, an idiot procrastinator who follows the minutiae of Blighty’s reality vortex with genuine enthusiasm), but soon enough, it was.
For the uninitiated, I must pause here to explain the marvel that is Gemma Collins, who isn’t just any reality star. She’s an icon and master manipulator of her image — that of a working-class Essex woman selling used cars turned no-nonsense glamazon running a fashion empire. (Collins is, apparently, so concerned about misreporting that she once threatened to sue fans for making untrue comments about her manicure.)
On screen, Collins is an archetypal prima donna: arriving late in a signature chassis of thick bronzer and paisley caftans, her loud Essex accent often arriving first. She is well-schooled in hyperbolic diva outbursts (walk-outs, supercilious glares, dousing nemeses in cocktails), equally beloved and reviled. A cursory Google search affirms her ability to be at once crass and queenly: on Celebrity Big Brother, while wearing oversized sunglasses in bed, she refused to participate in housemate challenges; she left the I’m a Celebrity jungle after 72 hours and a Celebs Go Dating dinner after four minutes. She’s deliciously eccentric. “No one’s ever peed on me,” she told a fellow Celebrity Big Brother housemate in earnest after someone let loose in the spa. “They wouldn’t have the cheek to do it.” In the same series, she shared a private indulgence with the group: “At 11 o’clock [each] night, I must have a cigarette on the toilet. If I can’t have a cigarette on the toilet, I don’t want the cigarette.”
One of Collins’ finest moments occurred in an episode of The Only Way Is Essex — the reality show that served as her fame incubator — when she confronted an on-off love interest at a pool party, her shapely frame wrapped in a hot pink towel. “Take a look at this,” she says, savoring each syllable, then opening the towel to reveal a one-piece swimming costume. “You ain’t EVER going to get this candy.”
Like others who’ve successfully navigated the weird landscape that is reality television, Collins understands she must carefully abstract her persona, amplifying its best bits on screen, which will then be amplified online (her dramatic zingers spawned the Insta fan account gemmareacts), funneling other parts into sponsored posts and side hustles (she has a best-selling autobiography and a womenswear boutique). But it’s her reactions to very real, unscripted events — like the crushing trapdoor gaffe — where Collins demonstrates real mastery over the way others perceive her and where she offers a very shrewd approach to dealing with humiliation.
Post-fall, the memes came thick and fast — so Collins, perhaps knowing they’d proliferate no matter what she did, promptly joined the fray. She posted an image of herself as the face of a national workplace accident helpline. She retweeted videos that soundtracked her fall with Celine Dion’s Titanic theme. She shared a clip of the incident on Instagram, and part of her caption read: “I’ve always compared myself to Bridget Jones, now this confirms it everyone! Madonna stacks it, I stack it. Guys I am ok now and the show must go on it’s gone VIRAL.” She uploaded a photo from that night, grinning, and captioned it: “It was all worth it [emoji peace sign]. I got my selfie with Rita Ora <3.” In a heartfelt interview with OK! Magazine, she revealed that “I was laughing so much I wet myself.”
Collins took control of the narrative by running with it — by transforming it into one of her most memorable performances yet, by making an occupational-safety-hazard-come-to-fruition a badge of honor. If she was mortified, we’d never know. It’s impossible to be the butt of the trapdoor joke, Collins seems to tell us, when you are laughing too. (Or when you actually wrote the punchline.) It’s sage advice, and I’ve been taking heed of it ever since.
Feature photo by Dave J Hogan via Getty Images.