- Publish Date
- Sunday, 10 June 2018, 8:08PM
When Camilla Thurlow walked into the Love Island villa last year the nation did a double take. There she was, all pretty and posh with the timid gaze of Bambi, a feminist who believed in paying on dates, and perceived chauvinism where the other girls saw chivalry. What was this reserved Scottish lassie, who went to the same elite public school as Tony Blair and Tilda Swinton, doing on a racy reality show that revolves around boobs, bums and bikinis?
With Love Island now in its fourth series, a lot of contestants have come and gone. Most end up on the guest-appearance scene or mildly scandalising gossip columns. But Camilla was different. She had a compelling authenticity, and even as the latest slew of newbies are looking for love (or its nearest hands-on equivalent), our emotional investment in Camilla hasn't lessened.
'Love Island came along at the right time,' she says gravely. 'My job had taken me away for a long time to far-flung places where life is tough. It had changed me – made me too self-sufficient – and I was finding it hard to fit back into normal life. Someone from the programme saw me on social media and got in touch, and I thought it sounded like a challenge.' Given most contestants enter because it sounds like a laugh and they might pull, you can already see the potential for culture clash.
To explain: Camilla, then 27, was older, better travelled and more serious than the other entrants. She worked for The Halo Trust, a charity that destroys landmines (which she insisted on referring to as 'explosive ordnance disposal') in former war zones. Such is her rarefied social milieu that she reportedly dated Prince Harry, for heaven's sake! Yet in matters of the heart she was verging on entirely clueless, which is possibly why Camilla's arc was nothing short of astonishing.
'I had recently come back from Afghanistan, where I was covered up from head to toe and even existing as a woman is difficult,' she says. 'It was wonderful to shed the layers in the sun, but because I've been away a lot I didn't have anything useful to contribute to conversations, so I didn't say anything. I probably came across as rather cool, but I was just finding my feet.'
Camilla might not have been the brashest or the bravest, and there were episodes when she seemed to do little except cry, but her journey from buttoned-up bluestocking to the sort of reckless hedonist who has sex on television was TV gold. When she coupled up the first time, with Jonny, she took an age to kiss him. When she coupled up for the last time, with Jamie, she was so uninhibited that the pair were flailing under the duvet as the cameras rolled. It was one hell of a ride. I mean, journey.
'I loved being in the villa,' says Camilla. 'It was liberating and my friendships with the other girls helped me through. The camaraderie was special.'
In person, Camilla is a petite yet voluptuous beauty. She's brunette, too, which comes as a surprise; in the villa she appeared blonde, though is adamant that was purely due to the sun. But then she appeared to be many things in the villa: vulnerable, fragile, awkward.
'I may have looked fragile, but I'm not,' she says firmly. 'I was certain I would be fine. In the years leading up to Love Island I never cried. When I was in Mozambique or Cambodia I didn't call my parents because I knew I would break down. Crying on TV was a cathartic experience and something that needed to come out. I learned so much about myself and how I bottle things up.'
She also fell in love, with ridiculously good-looking 28-year-old Calvin Klein model Jamie Jewitt. They are still together, but today she refuses to discuss him. I ask her to at least describe the relationship. 'Easy, happy, balanced,' she says. I tell her it sounds like a dog-food advert. She doesn't laugh; instead she falters, has a swift rethink and then decides that she'll stick with the original Crufts-winning formula.
This peculiar reticence is frustrating. She and Jamie were memorably snapped in the street having a blazing row – he was shouting, she was wobbly-lipped – but Camilla is adamant she can't remember why they had a confrontation. I don't believe she's trying to be difficult; she simply raises her guard for fear of saying the wrong thing, even when it doesn't matter.
Born in Dumfries, Camilla boarded at £33,000-a-year Fettes College in Edinburgh, then studied sports science at Loughborough University. By then she had become interested in the charitable sector and, after a year of travelling, contacted Halo on spec. 'I expected they would tell me to go away, get some experience and come back in a couple of years,' she says. 'But they were recruiting, so they took me on and trained me up. My first post was in Cambodia; I started doing office work and writing reports. Then I did my operations training and became a jack of all trades, enabling me to run a project in the field.'
She learned how to sort out a computer mainframe, fix a Jeep, manage finances – and blow things up. 'We didn't defuse landmines; controlled explosions are safer and put them entirely out of commission,' she says. 'These remnants of conflict cause devastation to communities.'
Having witnessed harrowing sights in some of the world's most troubled countries, Camilla says she felt guilty and struggled to 'have fun' when she returned to Britain. Love Island might seem like an extreme choice, but she has always believed in full-body immersion, so she jumped straight in.
Her travails began with wide-boy Jonny, who wooed her as best he could, despite his evident frustration at her reticence. The fact that she articulately argued with him about feminism didn't help either. She was just warming to Jonny when new girl Tyla arrived and started circling her man. Camilla left Jonny to choose. He unceremoniously dumped her and immediately got it on with Tyla. The floodgates opened for Camilla. 'In real life I would have withdrawn and tried to gain perspective,' she says. 'But in the villa there was nowhere to hide.
'I understand why people think Jonny was a big deal for me; it probably did look upsetting from the outside, but it needed to happen. It made me realise finally that even if you go through heartbreak you can rebuild yourself.'
After Jonny there was a slightly creepy interlude with personal trainer Craig, who pursued her relentlessly. Then along came Jamie, and that was it. He had class and was a complete grown-up. So they bedded one another. On telly. Who would have guessed? Not the programme's two million-plus viewers, that's for sure. Her parents are 'always supportive', she insists. But what about Camilla herself? Ah. Apparently that's an interrogation too far.
Although she and Jamie appear on social media to be every inch the caring couple, Camilla is coy. She reverts to her default politeness, giving a pained smile that never quite reaches her eyes when I enquire about the nights of passion beneath the duvet or her giggly confirmation to her villa-mates that Jamie had a 'very nice penis'. 'Some things are private,' she says now, despite the fact it happened on national television.
'I didn't go into the villa vowing not to have sex because I didn't necessarily think I would meet someone I liked,' she eventually says. 'You can't make a plan because you might be in there for seven weeks or for one week, and you have to try to make the best of every moment.'
Camilla entered the house with 'a couple of hundred' Instagram followers. A year on, she has 1.3 million. Alongside the usual glam photos, there are pictures of her working for Halo, wearing a flak jacket and bomb disposal visor. In others she appeals for donations by holding up a sign in support of civilians in Syria. She is a social-media influencer who has the opportunity to sell ideas rather than flog beauty products. 'Am I a role model?' she asks rhetorically. 'I do feel I have responsibility and I try to think about the message I send out whenever I post.'
She and Jamie have visited refugee camps together and plan to go to more this summer, where they will cook food and build shelters. In her downtime, Camilla is a homebody at her flat in Battersea, South London: 'Staying in on the sofa watching a film with Jamie and a takeaway Vietnamese is my idea of bliss.'
She is currently earning a living from media appearances and last year signed as a Christmas ambassador for beauty retailer LookFantastic for an alleged £500,000. But she plans to return to her day job and in the long term is keen to write a nonfiction book about life in the field. She seems a shoo-in as a presenter for a Channel 4 documentary, though her latest foray into TV was more controversial than expected.
A boxing match for Sport Relief 2018 saw her go fist-to-fist with presenter Helen Skelton. Both women were trained by professionals. Helen, however, all but annihilated Camilla – although Camilla managed to land a black eye on Helen and survive the three rounds.
Viewers complained about Helen's 'aggression' and that it was an uneven match. At one point the referee told Helen to 'go easy'. When I tell Camilla that I found it so brutal I watched it from behind a cushion, she remains stiffly poised. 'I loved the training, it's a fabulous sport and I've always been a fan,' she says. Yes, I say, but it was horribly one-sided. She tilts her head, as though unsure about what I mean. 'The first round was quite tough, but we had been sent in there to fight so I don't know why anybody would be surprised.'
I am utterly bemused. Then the penny drops: Camilla has no idea that she was battered so comprehensively by her opponent. I ask her if she has watched the bout on BBC iPlayer. She hasn't. Jamie watched it ringside and presumably that was enough for her.
'My time in the villa taught me to be a little bit more forgiving of myself,' she muses. 'For so long I was trying to be tolerant of everyone around me while showing myself zero tolerance and expecting perfection from all aspects of my life. I know there are many difficult things going on in the world and I'll never stop trying to do my bit, but me being unhappy isn't going to change things.'
Love Island as therapy – who knew? The other girls may have stripped off into barely there swimwear but Camilla's long, dark nights of the soul were far more revealing. It was impossible not to feel protective of her. I just hope that having shed those layers of restraint, Camilla resists the temptation to retreat back into them. Bambi deserves to run free.
This article was first published on dailymail.co.uk and is reproduced here with permission.