Netflix Chronicles Byron Bay’s ‘Hot Instagrammers.’ Will Paradise Survive?

0
10

BYRON BAY, Australia — The moral quandaries of life as an Instagram influencer in the famously idyllic town of Byron Bay are not lost on Ruby Tuesday Matthews.

Ms. Matthews, 27, peddles more than vegan moisturizers, probiotic powders and conflict-free diamonds to her 228,000 followers. She is also selling an enviable lifestyle set against the backdrop of her Australian hometown’s crystalline coves and umbrellaed poolsides.

It’s part of the image-making that has helped transform Byron Bay — for better or worse — from a sleepy beach town drawing surfers and hippies into a globally renowned destination for the affluent and digitally savvy.

“I do kind of have moments where I’m like, ‘Am I exploiting this town that I live in?” Ms. Matthews said recently as she sat at The Farm, a sprawling agritourism enterprise that embodies the town’s wellness ethos. “But at the same time, it’s my job. It puts food on the table for my children.”

The tensions between leveraging and protecting Byron Bay’s reputation, always simmering in this age of entrepreneurial social media, exploded last month when Netflix announced plans for a reality show, “Byron Baes,” that will follow “hot Instagrammers living their best lives.”

Local residents said the show would be a tawdry misrepresentation of the town and demanded that Netflix cancel the project. One woman started a petition drive that has gathered more than 9,000 signatures and organized a “paddle out” — a surfer’s memorial usually reserved for commemorating deaths — in revolt.

Several store owners, many of whom have substantial Instagram presences, have refused permits that would allow Netflix to record on their premises. A number of influencers who were approached by the show also said they had decided not to take part.

Among them was Ms. Mathews, who went through the initial filming and interview process but later bowed out. “Byron isn’t a joke,” Ms. Matthews said, wearing the stonewashed jeans and chunky ice-blue knit that she had advertised on Instagram that morning. “They’re basically branding our town.”

The backlash has raised questions about who is entitled to control and capitalize on the cult of Byron Bay, a place now known for its slow and escapist lifestyle, where the bohemian has been glossed into a unified jungalow aesthetic of tasseled umbrellas, woven lanterns, linen clothing and exotic plants.

Some argued that the reality show would focus on a sliver of influencers whose picture-perfect presences on Instagram don’t represent the “real” Byron Bay. In doing so, they said, the show would expose the town to unwelcome outsiders.

“What right do they have to exploit grand Byron?” said Tess Hall, a filmmaker who moved to Byron Bay in 2015 and organized the petition and paddle out. She added that she feared the show would draw “the wrong type of person” to the region and share the town’s secret beach spots with the rest of the world.

“We’re not Venice Beach,” she said. “It’s a different vibe.”

Others said they worried that a mere portrayal of Byron Bay as a shallow party town would make it come true.

“Personally, I have nothing against influencers,” said Ben Gordon, who runs The Byron Bay General Store, a “mostly plant-based” and oft-Instagrammed brunch spot, which was originally involved in the show before he withdrew it.

“It’s about a town being perceived in a completely false way,” added Mr. Gordon, who has more than 80,000 Instagram followers between his personal and store feeds. “My biggest fear is that the show will become self-fulfilling.”

To some, though, the pushback against the reality series smacks of elitism and hypocrisy, and is ultimately futile and even counterproductive, as the protests and resulting media coverage have given it free publicity.

“It’s absurd and ridiculous to think people can control how Byron is, or isn’t, represented,” said Michael Murray, a buyer’s agent who has spent more than three decades in the region. “It no longer belongs to a certain clique.”

Netflix has brushed off the criticism, saying it is going ahead with production of a show that it said would be “authentic and honest.”

Que Minh Luu, the director of content for Netflix Australia and New Zealand, said in an emailed statement that “our goal is to lift the curtain on influencer culture to understand the motivation, the desire and the pain behind this very human need to be loved.”

Before the town was ever graced with its first string of heart emojis, before the boom of the 1970s and ’80s or the earlier influx of surfers and those seeking an alternative lifestyle, Byron Bay was a quiet whaling town on Australia’s east coast, 100 miles south of Brisbane.

Wategos Beach — where homes can sell for more than $17 million — was a steep hill with just a few families, including the Wategos, a South Sea Islander family who farmed bananas and, later, ran a beach kiosk selling thick shakes and hamburgers.

“It was heaven,” said Susie Beckers, 60, a descendant of the family, sitting on the waterfront as she watched a local surf competition, her grandson playing in the sand. “No one really wanted to live here,” she added of the beachfront real estate, “because it was so far out.”

The kiosk has since been transformed into a luxury restaurant and hotel, Raes on Wategos, where a night in a penthouse suite can cost more than $2,500.

The median house price in Byron Bay is $1.8 million, making it the most expensive place in Australia and almost as expensive as the Hollywood Hills in California. Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron have moved to town.

Byron Bay’s rapid growth is a threat to the values it holds dear, some residents say.

The town, said Mandy Nolan, a local writer, has become a case study in what happens when a culture of localism is marketed on a global scale. “Our values of sustainability have powered a market of unsustainability,” she said. “Byron has become a victim of its own brand.”

The inequality in the town is stark. Hospitality workers, teachers and nurses have been pushed out of town or, worse, into homelessness. The town, with a permanent population of under 10,000 people, has the country’s highest rate of homelessness after Sydney, according to a recent government street count.

Along the coast, some people sleep in tent shantytowns in the sand dunes and bushes, while others — many of them in stable employment — move between short-term accommodations, friends’ couches and their cars.

John Stephenson, a 67-year-old massage therapist, has spent several years living out of his station wagon. “It’s embarrassing,” he said as he gathered belongings from a storage unit before moving into temporary accommodation. “I don’t look like a bum, but I feel like one.”

In other parts of town, though, the illusion remains intact.

One balmy evening at the Cape Byron Lighthouse, a man dressed in a feathered fedora, a bolo tie and neck-to-ankle denim was photographing two of his children picking flowers. He was so consumed with capturing the moment that he did not notice that his third child, sitting behind him, was at risk of falling down the hill.

A woman with a yoga mat slung over her shoulder shouted to him. The woman, Lucia Wang, had just moved to Byron Bay the previous evening. She had come, she said, for the town’s beauty and healing properties.

“The first thing you need to do is just go to the ocean and have a swim,” she said. “Everything will be OK.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here