From Selling Sunset to Love Island, are reality TV relationships the real thing?

It is well known that sex sells, but, on reality TV, love sells even more. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on ITV2’s Love Island. Despite complaints about this season being bland, as well as concerns about the contestants’ conduct (Faye Winters’ tirade towards Teddy Soares broke the show’s record for Ofcom’s complaints, racking up nearly 25,000), it has attracted the biggest digital audience of any show this year.

As we prepare for its culmination next week, a slate of other dating shows are already vying for its place. For instance, Ready to Mingle, which starts on ITV2 next month. In the series, a woman searches for her perfect partner among 12 male suitors, but not all of the boys are single. I smell a smash hit.

Love is the thread that ties so many hit shows together. Even if a reality show isn’t dating-themed, you can bet that romance will be woven in at some point (even Strictly has its curse). Take Jason Oppenheim and Chrishell Stause from the Netflix hit Selling Sunset. The real estate agents set the internet ablaze recently with the news that they were dating, announcing their romance via a series of Instagram photos from a boat trip in Italy, one of which was captioned “the JLo effect” in reference to Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s yacht-based tryst.

No one saw it coming, especially because Oppenheim – who is Stause’s boss – had previously dated another of his co-stars and colleagues, Mary Fitzgerald. Fans now eagerly await more details when the series returns – the reaction from the rest of the cast, the tell-all on how it happened and, cynically, a possible breakup. But since this love story started off screen, there remains a chance that this, unlike so many other reality relationships, is the real deal, as opposed to an impeccable PR stunt.

Romantic relationships on reality TV are the key to popularity, relevance and brand creation. As such, they are often met with distrust and suspicion. From Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley to Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift, celebrities have been accused of dating each other for publicity for decades, but reality TV has perfected the “showmance” art form. It was cemented in the public imagination via shows such as Channel 4’s Big Brother, where the term first gained popularity in 2001, and where the youngest, hottest contestants were cast seemingly with the sole purpose of “hooking up”. The public are consistently critical of relationships they consider to be staged, but viewers tend to extend a lifeline to contestants who are slightly more interesting together than apart.

Because we often don’t buy into these unions, we are shocked when they continue once the credits stop rolling – even when the couples met on shows predicated on finding love. The veracity of Chris Hughes and Olivia Attwood’s relationship in series three of Love Island was questioned after the programme ended, especially since the moment they chose to break up was captured in an EastEnders-esque slanging match in their spin-off show, Crackin’ On.

Meanwhile, Damian Powers and Giannina Gibelli, from the Netflix show Love Is Blind, managed to hold on right until the show’s reunion, After the Altar, where they called it quits – thanks, in part, to Powers’ involvement with Francesca Farago from Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle. Aside from being linked to Powers, Farago has dated her co-star Harry Jowsey, the Bachelorette contestant Jef Holm and Towie’s Demi Sims, saving her from the fate of her largely forgotten castmates.

She has followed a long line of reality personalities whose relationships weren’t quite what they seemed. These include the Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kenya Moore, who staged an entire relationship in 2012 with Walter Jackson (he called her “a great actress”), and Brody Jenner, who was not only revealed as having had a girlfriend while supposedly dating his castmate Kirstin Cavallari, but also that he didn’t date her “enemy” Lauren Conrad.

Sometimes, we see the facade collapse in real time. Liberty Poole and Jake Cornish seemed like early frontrunners to win Love Island, but viewers have come to doubt his sincerity. From encouraging other coupled-up islanders to play away to entering the villa with magnetic couple’s bracelets, his behaviour seems more machiavellian than one would expect on a show where the topics of conversation are usually tanning and shagging. Each time Jake stresses that Liberty is “his girlfriend” to assuage her suspicions, it feels as though he is saying it more to assuage ours.

Stause and Oppenheim’s relationship will be under the microscope, too, but how much of it we see will answer many of our questions about its veracity. The more real their relationship is, the less of it we are likely to see on screen. It remains to be seen whether the Selling Sunset stars are also selling us a dream.