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Netflix faces Byron Bay backlash as Australian beach town fights reality show

Byron Bay, known for its relaxed lifestyle, is fighting back in an effort to stop the show — and what some see as a "vacuous, vapid, inaccurate depiction" of their hometown.
Image: A welcome to Byron Bay sign on the main road leading into the town center on March 29, 2021 in Byron Bay, Australia.
A welcome to Byron Bay sign on the main road leading into the town center March 29, 2021 in Byron Bay, Australia.James D. Morgan / Getty Images file

SYDNEY — For residents of Byron Bay, living in paradise can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Australian beachside town of around 10,000 people has long been a magnet for those wanting to escape city life and experience the scenery and serenity of the country’s eastern coastline.

But over the years Byron Bay’s popularity has exploded, attracting millions of visitors annually — and more recently, social media influencers and Hollywood celebrities seeking laid-back shelter in the country’s near pandemic-free conditions.

For many locals, however, it's a planned Netflix show that has proved the final straw in this onslaught of glamour.

Now, the town known for its relaxed lifestyle is fighting back in an effort to stop the show — and what some see as a "vacuous, vapid, inaccurate depiction" of their home.

'Living their best lives'

Earlier this month, the U.S.-based streaming giant announced it was making a reality series in the town called "Byron Baes."

A press release said it will be a "docusoap following a feed of hot Instagrammers living their best lives, being their best selves, creating the best content, #nofilter guaranteed."

"This is our love letter to Byron Bay. It’s not just Chris and Zac’s backyard, it’s the playground of more celebrity-adjacent-adjacent influencers than you can poke a selfie-stick at," the press release said, referring to actors Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron, among the many stars to take up residence in the town.

Image: Elle Macpherson enjoyed time with her sons in the beach in Byron Bay, Australia.
Elle Macpherson is one of many celebrities to flock to the coastal tourist town, south of Brisbane.Matrix / Getty file

Netflix promised "fights" and "heartbreak" — and the town has delivered in its own way.

The news has been met with outrage and protests from many residents who say the series has the potential to exacerbate recent social and economic shifts, and may forever brand the town in the image of social media caricature.

The show's "vacuous, vapid, inaccurate depiction is very, very unwanted," Byron Shire Mayor Simon Richardson told NBC News.

"We’d rather define ourselves and share our own stories, instead of someone beyond our borders and not knowing who we are attempting to do so," he said.

"My message to Netflix is — you stated you want to do a love letter to Byron. If you truly love us, then you’ll leave us alone," he added.

"Spread the love somewhere else."

Image: The "paddle out" held by local surfers in Byron Bay, Australia.
This week, those opposed to the show organized a "paddle out" protest where surfers gathered in the sea to send a message.Oli Ayo

A petition calling on authorities not to grant filming permits has received more than 8,000 signatures within days of its launch.

It claims the show is a distraction from the "systemic issues" facing the area such as shifting demographics, housing affordability, coastal erosion and increasing unemployment.

"It broke my heart, reading the press release, the tone of how they pitched it," the petition’s organizer, Tess Hall, said.

"[We’re not] all going around wearing linen or string bikinis and getting wasted and gossiping and manufacturing drama," she said.

Byron Bay has been a magnet for the rich and the famous since the 1980s.

But locals say it’s retained a strong community spirit that includes a history of fighting big businesses, such as preventing McDonald’s from establishing a local outlet.

"There are so many people here that just want to live a laid-back, conscientious, sustainable, environmentally-aware existence," Hall, a filmmaker, said.

"This is about an ongoing tradition of activism and passion for community … We’re not a town that’s willing to be exploited," she said.

Businesses say no

More than many other Australian beachside towns, Byron Bay has a slew of trendy fashion stores, bars and cafes, often with lines winding down the main streets.

But many of these businesses have also come out against the show, saying the global publicity comes at far too high a cost and vowing not to allow filming on their premises.

"We potentially stand to gain financially from this, yet no one wants to gain financially at the detriment and desecration of their own town," said Ben Gordon, owner of The Byron Bay General Store, which traces its history back to 1947.

"As far as I'm aware at this point, nearly every business they've approached, if not all, have said 'no'," he said.

As Australia grapples with deeper issues including its treatment of the country's Aboriginal population, those opposed to the show say Netflix failed to engage with key members of the local community.

Delta Kay, an Arakwal Bumberbin Bundjalung traditional owner, 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 told 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 world about our little hometown."

Image: Protests against the show in Byron Bay, Australia.
Protests against the show also took place on land this week, with locals holding placards urging its cancellation.Kelvin Saik

Despite the criticism, Netflix has shown no signs of backing down.

A spokesperson for the company said the goal of the show "is to lift the curtain on people of influence, understand how charisma wields power, and what it says about this very human need to be loved."

"The reason behind choosing Byron Bay as a location was driven by the area’s unique attributes as a melting pot of entrepreneurialism, lifestyle and health practices, and the sometimes uneasy coming together of the traditional 'old Byron' and the alternative 'new,' all of which we’ll address in the series."

But the voices of ‘old Byron’ warn they’re not to be underestimated, framing the Netflix fight as a tipping point for the town.

"We're real people, we live real lives," Hall, who organized the petition against the show, said.

"We’ve now got a fight on our hands," she said, adding they won't take it lying down.