‘It’s been impossibly hard’: How Dr Alex George went from losing his brother to going head-to-head with the Prime Minister
We spoke to the nation’s only good influencer about a tragic last six months
“Trying to tell people you can’t come in and say goodbye to your mum or your brother, you know, you felt like you’re a really horrible person but you were doing what you had to do and that was your role,” Dr Alex George tells me.
Lewisham hospital, where Alex works, treated the first case of Covid in London, and nearly 1,000 people have died of the disease across the NHS trust the hospital is part of. It’s been a strain for Alex, who has often been the one to tell relatives they can’t say goodbye.
In June, Alex lost his brother without warning. Llŷr’s suicide came as a “complete shock”.
In the months that followed, still working in A&E and grieving, he’s turned it into ferocious energy, what he calls a “personal mission”. He’s clear he’d rather not be in this position – he’d rather have his brother back – but from receiving that news, he’s since ended up in Downing Street face-to-face with Boris Johnson.
“It’s been impossibly hard”, he says, reflecting on the past six months.
‘I think people probably thought I was a bit of a hopeless romantic’
With his sun-reddened skin and slightly awkward chat, Dr Alex was never a natural fit in the Love Island villa. He was working in A&E when producers approached him to go on the show, and says he only did it because colleagues egged him on. “They were like, ‘you know, go and you’ll be back in a couple of weeks anyway, it’s a different experience’. I was like, fine, I’ll give it a go.”
2018 was undeniably the peak of the show, and Dr Alex was the unlucky-in-love everyman to some, the slightly sinister friendzone-dweller to others. How did he see his image after the show? “I think they probably thought I was a bit of a hopeless romantic, I guess. That was probably the thing.”
His suggestion that “I tried to be caring for the people around me and I was the mate of a lot of people” seems an admission he wasn’t destined to win the dating show.
But he insists the experience didn’t change him, pointing out he went back to work in the hospital afterwards.
What did change was, in his words, his “platform”. Checking his phone for the first time out of the villa, Alex had a million new followers on Instagram.
“I couldn’t actually go into my Instagram to turn the notifications off because things were pinging through. The phone just died,” he says. “It couldn’t cope with it. It just killed the phone.”
He’s still in touch with people from the series – Laura, Samira, Jack and Adam sent him messages of support after his meeting with Boris – but he’s taken a different path. He’s keen to stay clear of the Dubai debate, too: “I’m a big believer in you control your own sphere of influence, and I mean that as in your literal actions and the way you behave”.
There’s no blueprint for life after Love Island. Some contestants settle into their lives as influencers, jetting off to Dubai to keep the millions of followers happy. Others go back to work and fade into relative obscurity. Dr Alex managed to straddle both.
“When I came off I went back to A&E and still wanted to talk about health, and didn’t want to give up my career,” he says. With 1.7 million Instagram followers, things changed.
‘I rarely get very much stick online’
The Dr Alex George brand (and the Dr really is a key part) is one that looks exhausting to maintain. Between the A&E shifts, there’s a podcast, the constantly-updated Instagram story, a book, the odd bit of sponcon, and TV appearances.
A cynic might say the brand is carefully cultivated. He’s never going to be selling bikinis, so why not sell wellbeing? But if it’s a facade it’s one which shows few cracks. After he’s told me about how much he tries to get out and walk to clear his head, and interact with people on Instagram, by lunchtime his feed is full of just that. If Instagram disappeared, he’s still got a career, too.
Instead, he talks about his “platform” and his “community”, consciously trying to put the work and the message before any mention of his own success.
Still, he keeps them engaged, he says trying to reply to as many comments and messages as possible. His story is full of him sharing people @-ing them in theirs.
The result of this, he says, is that he’s not subject to the abuse other former Love Island contestants get – or if he is, that he doesn’t pay much attention.
“I’m very fortunate, I would say, that a lot of people do get a lot of stick online. I very rarely get very much at all, it’s very unusual. It’s a noisy few rather than a lot of people.”
‘You just learn to live with these things, you don’t get over it’
Alex had been talking about mental health for a long time and in 2018 met Theresa May in Downing Street to discuss his efforts. But, suddenly and tragically, things took on a sharper focus.
Alex’s brother Llŷr died of suicide in June, the month before he was due to start medical school. It came with no warning, and was a “complete shock” to Alex.
“I love you so much Llŷr. The kindest and most caring soul,”Alex wrote on Instagram after Llŷr’s death. “I was so proud of you starting medical school next month, you would have been the most incredible doctor. We are hurting so bad. No words can explain. As a family we are devastated. We love you and miss you so much.”
“It’s been a hard six months, been very very hard, impossibly hard,” he says. “You just learn to live with these things, you don’t get over it. You just learn how to get through each day and how to find positivity and find happiness again.”
That, he says, is what’s caused this renewed effort, his “personal mission”. It’s probably too easy to think that the campaigning vigour is the natural result of the personal tragedy. Most people, simply put, probably wouldn’t double down and stay in the spotlight.
As people have gone off influencers, whose beach-filled Instagram utopias seem out of touch during the pandemic, Dr Alex has stood out by contrast – the podcast is back, the advice is flowing, the book is due to be published, and he’s been in Downing Street.
‘I would happily trade and have my brother back and not be doing this’
Dr Alex insists Love Island didn’t change him. But for anyone whose last memory of Alex might be the salmon shirt-wearing beta left out in the cold by Megan Barton Hanson, the video of a suited Welshman holding court with the Prime Minister may just raise some questions.
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He’s been appointed as a mental health ambassador for young people – which he explains involves making sure the views of young people are heard.
“You can’t just have people who are not living that experience or close to that experience and understanding that experience making all those decisions and not having them represented,” he said.
Alex is adamant he wasn’t appointed out of nowhere, and that months of research have gone into this. “People often make quick judgements when they don’t know the stories,” he says. “They don’t see the thousands of hours I’ve spent going through papers, going through papers, speaking every charity, writing proposals and the actual work that goes behind that.”
His keenness to address any suggestion he might not be qualified is evident – he returns to the point later in our conversation when we talk about his brother. “To anyone who’s questioning or would question my suitability to any role, whatever. I’ve got more motivation than a lot of people and I will do my very best,” he says.
The loss of his brother gives him another reason to take on the role, he says, but it’s something he’d reverse in a heartbeat. “I would happily trade and have my brother back and not be doing this. It’s not a qualification anyone wants but I have it, unfortunately.”
Of course, some might say the stigma around mental health has largely gone, that everyone knows it’s “okay not to be okay” now – but you don’t get the sense that’s an argument that washes with Dr Alex. He’s spoken about how he wishes Llŷr was able to speak out about how he was feeling, how a lack of stigma may have meant he’d still have his brother.
The role also goes beyond stigma-breaking – he says he’ll be pushing for more funding for mental health services and thinks uni students have been unfairly treated.
The Dr Alex brand – the doctor/influencer hybrid – is also what makes him suited for this role, he argues. “I’m not a consultant in mental health or a psychiatrist and stuff like that, but that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing for this because it’s about having a voice for young people,” he says.
“You don’t want someone who is far removed from the people that we’re talking about because that wouldn’t be the purpose – that would be the purpose of an advisor on mental health.”
And while he maintains the villa didn’t change him, the last six months have profoundly changed him. He’s pushing forward, busy, and keen not to dwell on the old jokes about the villa.
When he says he has another call coming – part of his schedule of endless interviews – I ask him if he might give the fans one last ahoihoi. He shoots it down.
“No. No,” he says firmly with a very, very small laugh. “Absolutely. That died a few years ago. That went a few years ago. We’re not in those times, sadly, anymore.”