Michael Owen reveals watching daughter Gemma, 19, kiss on Love Island ‘not something a father wants to watch’
Football legend Michael Owen was out of the country at the start of last week, when his 19-year-old daughter Gemma made her Love Island debut.
A father can’t stay out of the country for ever, though, and when he returned, on Wednesday, he switched on his TV and took a deep breath.
The former England and Liverpool star hadn’t watched a single episode of the controversial dating show until that point, but what a way to be introduced.
There on screen was his little girl (“my pride and joy”) not only prancing about in a bikini, but, later, snuggled up in bed with a man eight years her senior.
An Italian stallion of a man called Davide.
“It’s not something any father wants to watch, is it?” the former Ballon d Or winner says, with some understatement.
He admits he was a bit baffled by the rules of Love Island, particularly the one which sees contestants who barely know each other share a bed, but his wife Louise was on hand to offer commentary and analysis.
His account suggests it must have been like explaining the offside rule to a football ignoramus.
“I said to Louise, ‘do they really have to sleep together, like in the same bed?’. She said ‘yes’. I said ‘I did not bank on this’,” he said.
He watched on, through gritted teeth, but is keen to stress that it could have been worse.
“Luckily for me, there was no physical contact. Gemma had her back to the guy. There was space between them. I thought, ‘Good girl’. No father wants to see physical contact, do they? I certainly don’t,” he said.
“If there is physical contact I think I’ll be throwing something at the screen. I don’t want to see kissing. Do not make me see kissing!”
He insists that Gemma, the eldest of his four children, doesn’t want to do kissing either.
“That was one of the things she was most worried about, the kissing tasks they get set.
“I didn’t know anything about the show, but the worry was that she’d have to kiss this lad and that lad and the next.
“I was away so didn’t see the first episode, but her mum told me there was a possibility she’d have to do a dance — a lap dance or something — which Gemma would have been uncomfortable about.
“But I guess the longer she is in, the more relaxed she will be about that sort of thing.”
Will he, though?
Owen’s wife has been even more jittery since Gemma went into the famous Love Island villa and became the victim of the sort of vile social media trolling that being on Love Island tends to invite.
Gemma has been accused of, well, pretty much everything — too fat, too thin, too brunette, too dim, too horsey, too snobbish.
“It’s hard because I have three other kids [James, 16, Emily, 14, and Jessica, 12] and this is their sister and they are reading this stuff,” Owen said.
“Louise has been very upset about it. You can say, ‘don’t read it’ but that’s very difficult.
“I know she’s been used to that sort of thing with me — I’ve had it all my life; to look at my social media feeds you’d think 70 per cent of the world hates me, but it’s different when it’s your daughter. For Louise it’s more difficult.”
Are the hardest criticisms about Gemma the ones about her physical appearance or her personality?
“Personality. She’s the most amazing girl you could meet. She’s clever and funny and kind. She’s not two-faced. She’s loyal, a decent person,” Owen said.
“She’s still our baby. I’m still my parents’ baby and I’m 42! It’s how it is.”
It’s a very modern parenting dilemma, though — how to cope when your daughter, barely out of school, heads off to Love Island.
First, though, why? Why would a lovely girl like Gemma Owen, who could be famous — like her dad — for her sporting achievements alone (she competes on the international dressage circuit), even consider it?
It’s not as if it could possibly be the only route to fame and fortune, because she has grown up with both.
Gemma was born in 2003 into a life of extraordinary wealth and privilege.
She was the apple of her father’s eye (“I was there when she was born. She arrived with this shock of hair and she was gorgeous”).
She grew up exactly as you’d expect the daughter of a world-famous footballer to, in a world of mansions, ponies, private schools and lavish holidays.
Her parents set up Manor House Stables in 2007 and they keep numerous horses at home.
Dressage became Gemma’s passion and her career trajectory, her dad admits, always seemed to be based around the equestrian world.
Just last year she was part of Team GB at the European Championships in Spain with her horse Sirius Black.
She had been active on social media — horsey social media, mostly — but last year, fresh from studying business at college, she set up a beachwear design company.
And now she’s on Love Island, the land of the bikini!
“It was about six weeks ago. She said she’d been approached by the producers. She talked about it with her mum first — they are like peas in a pod, best friends — and then they raised the subject with me over lunch,” Owen said.
He was not thrilled.
“As I say, I’d never watched it, but I had a perception about Love Island,” he said.
“I think a lot of dads would think it’s the most awful bit of news. My initial reaction was, ‘no! don’t do it’.”
At this point, he says, Louise was also “very wary” and Gemma wasn’t sure herself.
“She’d thought a lot about it, listing the pros and the cons, but the more we talked about it, the more I saw she was veering towards wanting to do it,” Owen said.
“She wanted to do something for herself, to get her own personality out there, meet new friends and enjoy her summer, but she was agonising over it.
“She wanted our blessing. She would never do something if she thought we’d be ashamed or disappointed in her, or her grandparents would be disappointed.
“You have two choices. You can either say, ‘no way. No daughter of mine’, or you can be supportive.
“I think being supportive is always the better option. I suppose it comes down to love and trust.
“Eventually I looked at it like this: This is the test. If we’ve done everything right in bringing her up, which I think we have, then we shouldn’t be scared of this.”
“It wouldn’t have been my choice, but at some point you’ve got to trust your own parenting.
“You have to let them go, spread their wings. She’s a sensible girl. She won’t do anything that’ll make us ashamed.
“One thing I wasn’t happy about, watching the show, was the amount of swearing — and from Gemma too. She said the s**t word (he spells it out), and I was shouting at the screen there.
“I don’t allow swearing at home.”
She’s so achingly young though. This is one of the few laments on social media that actually seem to be fair comment. Gemma only turned 19 in May.
Much of the social media obsession about her has focused on her youth.
Owen is slightly baffled about the hoopla over Gemma’s age, though, arguing that: “she has had two years more than I had to get ready for life in the public eye. Also, she’s a mature 19. She’s a bit like me in that regard. I was playing for Liverpool when I was 17, and having to make friends with 23, 24, 25-year-olds.”
“The bottom line is, she’s an adult and I have to trust her to make sensible decisions.”
He added: “I’ll be honest with you. Twenty years ago, if I’d known I was going to have three daughters, I’d have said I’d be greeting any lads who came near them with a baseball bat. But you have to be realistic.”
“My daughters are going to kiss people. They are going to have boyfriends, husbands, children one day. I get it.
“Most girls don’t kiss boys when their dads are watching, but that’s what the show is. And you’re being blind if you don’t realise this is going on in real life too.”
He wouldn’t be drawn on the subject of Davide as a future son-in-law, and it’s unclear if he’s entirely sure he knows which testosterone-charged beefcake Davide is.
“I’ve only watched one episode. I have to catch up,” he said.
Back in the real world, has he met many of Gemma’s previous boyfriends (and not with a baseball bat?).
“Yes, but to be honest she hasn’t had that many. Lockdown kind of stalled all that for that age group,” he said.
Owen also opened up about how he and Louise met — famously at primary school.
“She was the only girl I ever wanted as my girlfriend. I was the fastest runner in the school but when she was chasing in kiss-chase, I always let her catch me. We’ve been together for ever,” he said.
Not that he’s saccharine about this. He settled early in life — he was a dad by the time he was 23 – so would he want similar for his children.
“I think a lot of it is circumstantial. For Louise and me it worked out like that, and we also didn’t have to wait to get married to save up, like a lot of people do,” he said.
“But there is an argument for waiting and doing it all later, having a bit of freedom in your 20s. I don’t think I was ever in a nightclub. I didn’t get all that side out of my system and maybe you should.”
Even parents who have never watched Love Island will know that two previous contestants have committed suicide and others have complained of suffering serious stress and anxiety when they emerged blinking into the real world again.
The show has made improvements — like other contestants, Gemma had a psychological evaluation before heading into the villa and will be offered counselling support.
Is he worried about her ability to cope, mentally?
“Honestly, no. I hope this isn’t me being naive or blase, but I think I know Gemma better than anyone else on the planet and mentally she is rock solid. But obviously it is an area I think quite a lot about. Believe me I know what it is like to be in the public eye and the pressures it brings,” Owen said.
“I’ve mentored dozens and dozens of younger players, so I do know about this.”
Owen understands how difficult fame can be to negotiate.
“I know what it is like to take a penalty in a World Cup when you are 18, knowing that there will be people burning your effigy if you miss,” he said.
“I know what it’s like to have 75,000 people singing your name, then, when you retire, no one is interested. The comedown in my world can be astronomical, the highs, the lows, the emptiness when no one loves you any more.”
Ultimately, though, he was famous for something — football.
Love Island contestants end up being famous for being famous. This is a whole different game.
“This has been swishing around in my head too, yes, but ultimately I know how dedicated Gemma has been with her riding, up at the crack of dawn, whatever the weather, working so hard and she slogged her way there,” he said.
“She was one of the youngest people to do that. This is not a girl who’s spent her life sat eating cheese and onion crisps, then just expects success to fall in her lap.”
She is not, he is saying, a spoilt rich kid and admits that he has spent his whole adult life grappling with how to stop her turning into one.
“I will be honest, it’s a conflict trying to teach them values, not just of money. I had nothing when I was growing up, but when you get a bit of success, a bit of money, your kids grow up with all the big houses, big cars. They fly business class and they think it’s normal,” he said.
“How do you teach them reality? You try. I’ve booked economy class seats and been bollocked by my kids, but you still try.
“I want my kids to know what it is to make their own way in life.”
And you think Gemma will?
“I know she will. She’s got drive, ambition and I’m proud of what she’s done. She’ll go far in life — with or without Love Island,” Owen
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