Outside the studio, crowds swarmed around but he couldn’t comprehend that he was the epicentre of the fan mania.
This weekend, on the 18th anniversary of winning the prize, he remembers the lunacy: “People were rocking the car back and forth. I asked ‘who are they here for?’ I couldn’t register it was for me.”
Even a stroll to the shop the next day was out of the question.
“The show was on the Friday and I remember on the Saturday I wanted to go and play tennis with the person I was dating at the time. They [his minders] were like ‘that is going to be impossible’ but I couldn’t understand why. They said, ‘OK leave the hotel and just walk to the shop’. And I remember I left and I called them five minutes later and I had security guards [come and get me] because it was just too intense. No one prepares you for that level of fame. For the fact that everyone knows who you are. There is nothing you can do to prepare for that.”
In the weeks that followed, the paranoia began to creep in.
“You go through a phase of thinking everyone is looking at you – even if they’re not. It’s very bizarre. And because I was on Big Brother with the mirrors [that had TV cameras hidden behind them] any time I looked in a mirror I constantly felt like there was someone behind it. It was a very strange feeling.”
The thought that his conversations continued to be listened to by millions also had to be overcome.
“I constantly felt like I was wearing a microphone pack because we used to wear them every day. They give you counselling but I used to even look in the mirror of my own home just to check [that I wasn’t]. It is amazing how it can f**k with you. It’s a very bizarre experience.”
Anna Nolan, runner-up in the first Big Brother series, can relate to the darkness. As quickly as the attention flooded their lives, it slowly drained away.
“The worst part afterwards was the craziness dying down.”
Firstly she says “your brain is trying to adapt to the huge amount of attention and you are love bombed and some part of your brain thinks ‘oh my goodness, this is how things are now and this is my life and it’s going to last forever’.”
But it doesn’t: “It starts to seep away and my head just found it tough to adjust to that middle period of it slipping away and then trying to regroup.”
She recalls: “There would have been a dark enough period where I had been fooled into thinking I was going to be the most important thing in the newspapers and in the public eye. It definitely affected me and I got quite down – only for a short time – then I thought ‘you big feckin’ eejit, you were absolutely fooled’.”
While Nolan had enough support to find her way through the “adjustment period” after appearing on the show, she says: “I know for others in my year it was a huge blow to them.”
What makes it harder she says is that “you get zero sympathy because you knew what you were getting into so it was like ‘Cop on! This is how the game works!’ But what I know for quite a few of them is that it really affected their mental health – without a doubt.”
She laughs when asked about the level of support:
“We had a psychologist who I had a 20-minute face-to-face conversation with the night I came out and then immediately I was taken to the party and fed a load of Champagne. It was ridiculous, actually.”
Although this year’s flock of Love Island stars might think fame and money are part of the upside of the reality stardom package, Dowling warns both can act as “the great magnifier”: “I think people think that when you get famous and you make money your life is going to be perfect. But that’s not how it works.
“If you have got issues before being famous or there are things going on in your life then it can magnify the situation and make it a whole lot worse.
“It can make you feel worse, more vulnerable. Remember, it is not the Cinderella story. It’s not like a magic wand that is going to fix everything. All your vulnerabilities and insecurities are not going to go away.”
The quick and easy materialistic pleasures that earnings brought quickly stopped feeling satisfying.
Having won the show at 23, he says: “I was going out shopping and buying stuff but two or three years of that and you get bored with it. There are only so many Dolce & Gabbana belts or Gucci sunglasses you can get. By the age of 25 or 26, I was done.”
And although he has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of post-reality show stardom, he faced the added pressure of having to prove himself: “You have to work harder than everyone else because people are thinking ‘oh, you were on a reality show…’
“It’s great being given an opportunity but you have to prove yourself.”
Ahead of Maura Higgins and Greg O’Shea’s exit this week, the stars have some solid advice.
Nolan says: “There is going to be a lot of attention, invitations and TV appearances. So enjoy it but take it all with a pinch of salt. Be aware of whoever is asking you to these events their ambition is just to get you there and that’s it -there is more than likely no long-term plan.
“Ignore social media for a couple of months. For every compliment, 20 will rip you to shreds.”
Dowling says: “Don’t take it too seriously, be very wary, people will automatically want to be your friend so rely on people who know you and trust your family, friends and instinct. If your gut says a situation is wrong, it usually is.”
And finally: “Make as much money as you can and invest. Don’t be stupid with your money because fame can be very short-lived.”