SYDNEY – For the residents of Byron Bay, life in paradise can be both a blessing and a curse.
The Australian beach town of around 10,000 residents has long been a magnet for those looking to escape city life and experience the scenery and serenity of the country’s east coast.
But over the years Byron Bay’s popularity has skyrocketed, attracting millions of visitors annually – and more recently, social media influencers and Hollywood celebrities are taking laid-back shelter in the country’s near-pandemic-free conditions.
For many locals, however, it’s a scheduled Netflix show that has proven the final straw in this onslaught of glamor.
Now the city known for its laid-back lifestyle is fighting back to stop the show – and what some consider to be an “empty, empty, inaccurate representation” of its home.
“Live your best life”
Earlier this month, the US-based streaming giant announced that it would be doing a reality series called “Byron Baes” in town.
A press release stated that it will be “a documentary that follows a feed of hot Instagrammers who lead their best lives, are their best selves, and create the best content, #nofilter guarantees.”
“This is our love letter to Byron Bay. It’s not just Chris and Zac’s backyard, it’s the playground for more prominent neighboring influencers than you can toast with a selfie stick,” said the press release on the actors Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron are referred to, among the many stars who settle in town.
Netflix promised “fights” and “heartbreak” – and the city has delivered in its own way.
The news was met with outrage and protests from many residents, who say the series has the potential to exacerbate recent social and economic changes and may forever brand the city in the social media caricature image.
The “blank, vague, inaccurate representation of the show is very, very undesirable,” Byron Shire Mayor Simon Richardson told NBC News.
“We prefer to define ourselves and share our own stories rather than find someone outside of our borders and without knowing who we are trying to do,” he said.
“My message to Netflix is, you said you wanted to write a love letter to Byron. If you really love us, leave us alone,” he added.
“Spread the love elsewhere.”
A petition calling on the authorities not to give filming permits received more than 8,000 signatures within a few days of its launch.
The show is alleged to be a distraction from the “systemic problems” the area is facing, such as demographic changes, housing affordability, coastal erosion and rising unemployment.
“It broke my heart when I read the press release, the tone of how they set it up,” said petition organizer Tess Hall.
“”[We’re not] Everyone goes around wearing linen or string bikinis and getting wasted and clapping and producing drama, “she said.
Byron Bay has been a magnet for the rich and famous since the 1980s.
However, locals say it has maintained a strong community spirit, which includes the history of battling big corporations, such as preventing McDonald’s from opening a local outlet.
“There are so many people here who just want to live relaxed, conscientious, sustainable, and environmentally conscious lives,” said Hall, a filmmaker.
“This is about an ongoing tradition of activism and passion for the community … We are not a city ready to be exploited,” she said.
Companies say no
More than many other Australian beach towns, Byron Bay has an array of trendy fashion shops, bars, and cafes, often with lines winding its way through the main streets.
But many of these companies have also spoken out against the show, claiming that global advertising is way too expensive and swear not to allow filming on their premises.
“We can potentially benefit financially, but nobody wants to profit financially to the detriment and desecration of their own city,” said Ben Gordon, owner of the Byron Bay General Store, which traces its history back to 1947.
“As far as I am currently aware, almost all, if not all, of the companies they have approached have said no,” he said.
As Australia grapples with deeper issues like treating the country’s Aboriginal people, opponents of the show say Netflix has failed to connect with key members of the local community.
Delta Kay, an Aboriginal woman, was one of many people who attended an emergency community meeting last week.
“When I heard about Byron Baes, I just shook my head,” she said of the meeting.
“We work hard here, we are a very close community because we love our home,” she added. “How dare ‘Byron Baes’ come here and make this fantasy about our little hometown.”
Despite the criticism, Netflix has shown no signs of setback.
A company spokesperson said the show’s goal was “to open the curtain for those of influence, to understand how charisma exercises power, and what it says about this very human need to be loved.”
“The reason we chose Byron Bay as our location was because of the area’s unique characteristics as a melting pot of entrepreneurship, lifestyle and health practices, as well as the sometimes uncomfortable coexistence of the traditional ‘old Byron’ and the alternate ‘new’ of which we will turn speak to. “
However, the voices of “old Byron” warn not to be underestimated and define the Netflix battle as a turning point for the city.
“We’re real people, we live real lives,” said Hall, who organized the petition against the show.
“We have a fight on our hands now,” she said, adding that they couldn’t take it lying down.