AS Zara McDermott soaked up the sun in the 2018 Love Island villa, she knew her moment in the spotlight had finally arrived.
But cut off from the outside world, the 21-year-old was un-aware she was making waves for a different reason and a storm was brewing back home — naked snaps she had sent to an ex had been leaked online and viewed by millions.
Zara McDermott says she was called a ‘slut’ and ‘disgusting’ after naked pictures were leaked
The vile betrayal by a “trusted” partner, which she learned about as she left the villa, not only tainted her experience on the ITV show but brought back horrific memories of a similar incident at 14 which ruined her teenage years and left her suicidal.
Zara, who had been relentlessly bullied at her Essex school, gave in to pressure from a popular lad and sent him a nude picture after he told her: “It will make me like you more.”
By the next day the selfie, snapped in her bath, had been shared around the school and beyond, sending her into a spiral of self-loathing, depression and long-lasting damage.
In an exclusive interview ahead of her new BBC3 documentary Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn, she told The Sun: “It’s been ten years of pain.
Zara shot to fame after appearing on Love Island in 2018
“It still affects me to this day and I don’t think it will ever go away. I was so scarred from that experience.”
Zara — who back then had never even kissed a boy — vividly remembers walking into school the following day and seeing classmates sniggering in corners.
One gleefully pressed the image up against the classroom window so her teacher could see.
Shockingly, the school suspended her — while the boy involved went unpunished.
Zara, now 24, recalled: “My drama teacher saw it and said, ‘I didn’t think she was that kind of girl’. That still hurts. I could barely look her in the eye for the following four years.
“You want people who are older and more experienced, like teachers, to be compassionate. There was no compassion for me.
“They were so embarrassed by my behaviour that they didn’t want me in school. Do you know what that does to a young girl?”
While Zara was shunned at school, in the street strangers hurled abuse at her, calling her a “slag” and “disgusting”.
Zara is currently in a relationship with Made in Chelsea star Sam Thompson
Her mum, Karen, recalls a class-mate’s mother knocking on the door and telling her she should feel ashamed that she had allowed her daughter to take intimate pictures and send them to a boy.
She said: “It’s quite a small community and a lot of people knew what had happened. We’d look around and think, ‘How many people have seen that image?’ ”
Depressed and isolated, Zara had problems with sleeping and eating.
She said: “There were a few occasions when I seriously considered ending everything, and I looked into ways I could do it.
Zara was born and grew up in Essex
“My life was unbearable. The idea of not living any more was better than having to deal with the pain I was going through every day.
“But something stopped me — something told me, ‘This will get better’.”
At the time, Zara felt that her dad Alan almost turned his back on her. She said: “I can’t tell you that feeling, to realise your family are ashamed of you. It was so embarrassing I wanted to die.”
In an emotional scene in the docu-mentary, Zara’s parents finally reveal the devastation they felt on seeing their daughter violated.
Zara put on a brave face while she was in the Love Island villa
Karen tells Zara tearfully: “There is still a level of pain for us when we talk about it, but I was never ashamed of you.
“I just wanted to protect you and I couldn’t at that point.”
Zara, who has also appeared in Made In Chelsea, said the conversation with her parents for the documentary was the part she was most nervous about and revealed she avoided talking to them before filming because she wanted the emotions to be fresh and raw.
She said: “I’m glad I did that because it really shows how upset my mum was. Also, I had never heard my dad say anything about what happened, so capturing that rawness was so important. It shows how badly families are affected.”
Zara says she was relentlessly bullied at her Essex school
Although she was academically bright, Zara was miserable at school.
Her life only moved on when she landed an apprenticeship with the Civil Service aged 18, rising to become a policy adviser at the Department for Education.
Then, after her relationship with her boyfriend came to an end, Zara was approached to go on Love Island.
She said: “I almost didn’t go on the show because I was so into this guy. He was a lawyer, he was older than me, he was everything I wanted.
“I thought he was the one but then he dumped me and turned quite nasty. Reading between the lines, he sent these pictures to his friends before I went on Love Island, so when I went on the show, they began circulating them.”
This time, the police stepped in and began investigating the leak, even suggesting she should be pulled out of the show. But her mum insisted she should stay, arguing that nothing could be achieved by dashing her dreams.
When Zara learned about the pictures, the day after leaving the villa, her reaction was very different from how it had been as a teenager.
She said: “The first time I went through depression, anxiety and grief over that loss of innocence.
“This time I was just so angry. I’d just been on this huge show, an amazing opportunity. What gave him the right to share images that I sent in confidence? What gave him the right over my body, my intimacy and my privacy? This is not OK.”
Zara decided against pressing charges, partly because the current law against revenge porn says the prosecution must prove a perpetrator intended to embarrass or distress.
She said: “I didn’t have the proof of intent to cause distress, and that part of the law makes me angry. They’re missing out a huge chunk of victims because distress can be caused, whether intended or not, so that part of the law needs revisiting.”
Zara revealed she contacted fellow reality TV personality Georgia Harrison, urging her to prosecute after her ex, Stephen Bear, was accused of posting a sex tape of the couple online at the end of last year.
Zara has talked openly about the plastic surgery she has had
She said: “I was horrified. It’s despicable and I felt so terrible for Georgia. I wanted to offer my advice.”
For the documentary, Zara spoke to schoolgirls who say they are constantly pestered for nude shots by boys their age — but she says telling teenagers not to send them is naive.
She continued: “I don’t think it’s realistic to wag your finger at teenagers and say, ‘Don’t do that’. It’s like telling teenagers, ‘Don’t have sex’.
“We all know they’re going to. We will never stop young people sending pictures, so why not teach them how to sext safely? Things like anony-mising your images, making sure there’s no visible body markings or tattoos, don’t have your face in the picture, don’t take a picture against a background that’s easily identifiable.”
While in the villa Zara coupled up with Geordie Adam Collard
Zara overcame her trauma to become a reality TV star and a model, signed with top agency Storm, and she is in a happy relationship with Made In Chelsea’s Sam Thompson, who she calls her “rock”.
Now she hopes her documentary will be shown to all pupils.
She said: “The best thing you can do for teenagers is give them a tool like this documentary and say, ‘These are the risks you’re taking. Look what this girl has gone through’.
“There also needs to be a clampdown by police on perpetrators at schools and colleges, because victims often don’t see any reason to report it. They need to make an example out of a few people.”
After Zara’s revelations, her school, The Coopers’ Company and Coborn School, in Upminster, Essex, issued a statement reading: “The leadership team at Coopers’ Coborn is saddened to hear of Zara’s experience.
“We now have specific policies for peer-on-peer abuse and clear procedures for sexting incidents.
“We can outline in the strongest possible terms that if the situation occurred (today) it would be handled very differently.”
While Zara believes the mood has shifted slightly from when she was a teenager, in terms of victim-blaming, she says she will never forget how alone she felt at 14.
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