BYRON BAY, Australia – The moral dilemmas of life as an Instagram influencer in the famous idyllic town of Byron Bay are not lost on Ruby Tuesday Matthews.
Ms. Matthews, 27, sells more than vegan moisturizers, probiotic powders and conflict-free diamonds to her 228,000 followers. She also sells an enviable lifestyle against the backdrop of the crystal-clear coves and umbrella pools of her Australian hometown.
It’s part of the imagery that helped transform Byron Bay – for better or for worse – from a sleepy seaside town attracting surfers and hippies to a world-famous destination for the affluent and digital savvy. .
“I have times where I say to myself, ‘Am I exploiting this city that I live in? Ms. Matthews said recently while serving at The Farm, a large agri-tourism company that embodies the city’s wellness philosophy. “But at the same time, it’s my job. It puts food on the table for my kids.
Tensions between leveraging and protecting the reputation of Byron Bay, still boiling in the age of entrepreneurial social media, exploded last month when Netflix announced plans for a reality show, “Byron Baes,” which will follow ” Instagrammers who are living their best lives ”.
Local residents said the show would be a misrepresentation of the city and asked Netflix to cancel the project. A woman started a petition that collected more than 9,000 signatures and organized a “paddle out” – a surfer’s memorial usually reserved for the commemoration of the dead – in revolt.
Several store owners, many of whom have significant Instagram presence, have refused permits that would allow Netflix to record on their premises. A number of influencers approached by the show also said they decided not to participate.
Among them was Ms Mathews, who went through the initial filming and interviewing process, but later bowed out. “Byron is no joke,” said Ms Matthews, wearing the stone-washed jeans and chunky ice-blue knit she had advertised on Instagram that morning. “They essentially mark our city.”
The backlash has raised questions about who has the right to control and capitalize on the cult of Byron Bay, a place now known for its slow and escaped lifestyle, where the bohemian has been slipped into a unified bungalow aesthetic. from tasseled umbrellas, woven lanterns, linen clothing and exotic plants.
Some have argued that the reality show will focus on a slice of influencers whose perfect Instagram presences don’t represent the “real” Byron Bay. In doing so, they said, the spectacle would expose the city to unwanted outsiders.
“What right do they have to exploit the great Byron?” said Tess Hall, a filmmaker who moved to Byron Bay in 2015 and organized the petition and paddle. She added that she was concerned the show would attract “the wrong kind of person” to the area and share the city’s secret beaches with the rest of the world.
“We are not Venice Beach,” she said. “It’s a different atmosphere.”
Others said they were concerned that a simple 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” brunch spot and often Instagram, who was originally involved in. issue before removing it.
“This is a city seen in a completely wrong way,” added Gordon, who has more than 80,000 Instagram followers between his personal feeds and those of his store. “My biggest fear is that the show will become self-fulfilling.”
For some, however, the crackdown on 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 is absurd and ridiculous to think that people can control how Byron is or is not represented,” said Michael Murray, a buying agent who has spent more than three decades in the area. “He no longer belongs to a certain clique.”
Netflix swept aside the reviews, saying it was moving forward with producing a show it said would be “genuine and honest.”
What Minh Luu, content director for Netflix Australia & New Zealand, said in an emailed statement that “our goal is to lift the curtain on influencer culture to understand the motivation, desire and pain behind this. very human need to be loved. . “
Before the town received its first set of heart emojis, before the boom of the 1970s and 80s or the previous influx of surfers and those looking for an alternative lifestyle, Byron Bay was a hunting town. quiet whale on the east coast of Australia, 100 miles. south of Brisbane.
Wategos Beach – where houses can sell for over $ 17 million – was a steep hill with only a few families, including the Wategos, a South Sea island family who grew bananas and, later, ran a beach kiosk selling thick shakes and burgers.
“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. “Nobody really wanted to live here,” she added of seaside real estate, “because it was so far away.”
The kiosk has since been transformed into a luxury restaurant and hotel, Raes on Wategos, where a night in a penthouse suite can cost over $ 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 threatens the values it holds dear, some residents say.
The city, said Mandy Nolan, a local writer, has become a case study of what happens when a culture of localism is commercialized globally. “Our sustainability values have fueled an unsustainable market,” she said. “Byron fell victim to his own brand.”
The inequality in the city is blatant. Hotel workers, teachers and nurses have been evicted from the city or, worse yet, homeless. The city, with a permanent population of less than 10,000, has the highest homelessness rate in the country after Sydney, according to a recent government street count.
Along the coast, some people sleep in tent slums in sand dunes and bushes, while others – many of whom have stable jobs – move between short-term accommodation, friends’ couches. and their car.
John Stephenson, a 67-year-old massage therapist, spent several years living off his station wagon. “It’s embarrassing,” he said, gathering personal belongings from a storage unit before moving into temporary accommodation. “I don’t look like a tramp, but I do feel like a tramp.
In other parts of the city, however, the illusion remains intact.
A balmy evening at Cape Byron Lighthouse, a man in a feathered fedora, bolo tie and ankle-length jeans photographed two of his children picking flowers. He was so absorbed in the capture of the moment that he didn’t notice that his third child, sitting behind him, was in danger of falling down the hill.
A woman with a slung yoga mat shouted at him. The woman, Lucia Wang, had just moved to Byron Bay the night before. She had come, she said, for the beauty and healing properties of the city.
“The first thing you need to do is just go to the ocean and have a swim,” she said. “Everything will be alright.”