Nothing attracts rich white people like the Big Little Lies theme song.
It’s playing in a boutique kids’ toy store just off the main drag of Byron Bay while the owner talks about the tsunami of celebrities and wealthy city folk that has crashed onto the once-sleepy, surfy shire.
“If they’re not the soul that’s meant to be here, they get spat out and they end up going back to wherever it is they came from,” Mel Sainsbury says about the newcomers who’ve decided to not just visit the beach town but pull a Hemsworth by buying up, moving in, putting on a hemp shirt and calling it home.
Byron Bay’s property prices surged more than 40 per cent during coronavirus lockdowns, with the median house price rocketing to about $1.83 million. Reports of Sydneysiders and Melbournians escaping the big city rat race in favour of a sea-change have grabbed headlines.
“It’s the energy,” Mel continues, carefully folding clothes on the counter. She has owned Essentially Byron for 16 years and been a local since she was five.
“If you’re not meant to be here, you’re not gonna be embraced and things aren’t going to fall into place for you.”
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A middle-aged man and his family burst into the tiny, creaky timber shop. His wife wants a certain dress but in a different style or fabric or something, so she leaves her details should it ever materialise. He continues to talk loudly on his phone about a potential car purchase, shoving past miniature cotton-candy pink plastic fairy ornaments and mounds of tutus hanging from the wall.
“I’ve always liked the old F355 Ferraris,” he declares, as if to impress the nearby plush toys with his yen for the collectable mid-90s Italian sports cars that fetch upwards of $300,000.
The Big Little Lies song has finished and now another tune from the same musician is playing but no one has ever heard of it. The Big Little Lies song probably has a proper name but no one knows that either. It will forever be known as the Big Little Lies song and conjure up memories of crashing waves and moody skies and rich people living in clifftop real estate and Reese Witherspoon driving her car while talking fast and Nicole Kidman wearing lots of beige tops.
Coincidentally, the new Nicole Kidman series Nine Perfect Strangers – based on the global best-selling novel by Sydney author Liane Moriarty (the same author who wrote the Big Little Lies novel which spawned the HBO show of the same name … c’mon, keep up) – is filming in the area. Kidman’s co-star, box office heavyweight Melissa McCarthy, has been renting a nearby home worth a reported $35,000 a week.
She almost outshines the town’s most famous resident: Chris Hemsworth. Or is it Zac Efron?
Byron Bay is a Big Little Lies viewer’s dream – and a longtime local’s nightmare.
“Hemsworth and the celebrities – I’m over ’em. Any true local will say we’re off ’em. We don’t want ’em here. We don’t,” says Bert Reid, who moved to the shire in the late ’80s and opened up the Wreck Surf store on the main street about 25 years ago.
“With the Hemsworths, the town becomes a different place. It’s a mini Hollywood. It’s not Byron. Everywhere I look, there are pictures of Chris Hemsworth. It’s not the town I grew up in.”
He’s not crazy about all the other celebrities that are holidaying here either: Michelle Bridges, Sam Burgess, Kate Ritchie and Hollywood super couple Isla Fisher and Sacha Baron Cohen to name a few of the summer’s high-profile visitors. And he’s also not mad about the people they attract.
“People come to Byron from Melbourne and Sydney but they bring their city mentality and attitude,” he says before his lanky hipster mate Snake jumps in.
“It’s pricing out the core backbone of Byron. Not everyone here has thousands in the bank,” Snake says.
Is Snake a long-time local?
“I moved here in May,” he hunches his face down into his shoulder, “… from Melbourne.”
Reid says he has had to shove out his family to nearby Ballina in recent years to deal with skyrocketing rental prices. He’s not alone.
“We can’t stay, we’re being kicked out because our landlady wants to do Airbnb. There’s nowhere to go,” says Karin Ecker – the mum of viral online eco warrior Arlian Ecker, better known as Plastic-Free Boy – about the rent hikes. She moved here in 2000 after living in Sydney for about five years.
“Because of the Chris Hemsworth effect, the whole housing prices thing has happened,” she continues as we dismantle her tent at the weekly Saturday night markets on the lawn in the centre of town.
“The Chris Hemsworth Effect” is the thing many residents are blaming for the boom. And yet, the guy is nowhere to be found.
To get even close to the megastar’s mega-mansion, you have to drive south out of town and rough it for 15 minutes through a nature reserve on an unsealed dirt road that teeters along mountainous edges and dips through valleys while the tubular waves of Seven Mile Beach roll in along the left.
Even when you get to the property – dubbed Byron Bay Westfield because of the fact it looks like it houses both a Woolworths and David Jones … and a tri-level Zara – it can’t be seen and there’s another gated dusty road that winds into heavy forest.
It’s almost like Australia’s most bankable movie star wants privacy. Outrageous, huh?
It’s the peak of the summer holiday period and the famous family has vacated their adopted town and popped up on the less buzzy Lord Howe Island to escape attention. And while Elsa is papped returning with the kids on a private jet, Chris is still MIA. Instead, he’s in Sydney filming the next Marvel instalment, Thor: Love And Thunder, in Centennial Park with co-star Chris Pratt.
“Even when he’s there, it’s not like he’s always hanging in town,” a paparazzo who has shot in the area says about Byron Bay’s most controversial resident.
But that doesn’t stop people from talking about him. A lot.
A man’s voice echoes down the dark Bay Lane alleyway around midnight on a Saturday.
“She drops the kids off and gets out looking phenomenal – no makeup, hair tied up,” the voice booms out of a restaurant.
A backpacker vomits near the falafel joint in the distance. Even his spewing sounds British.
But the mouthy middle-aged local just talks louder. He’s entertaining two out-of-towners and it’s immediately clear he’s dishing on the shire’s famous fabled creature.
“Then he comes in once a week and reads to the kids and sh*t. Chris jumps out and shakes hands with people and talks to people,” his voices bounces around the brick alley.
Chris Hemsworth’s prominence in the town is so huge, people even use him as a geographical landmark of which to describe their own whereabouts.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re right near Chris Hemsworth’s house – Chris Hemsworth’s house,” one guy talks loudly into his phone while waiting for a coffee – reiterating the detailed fact just to make sure we all hear it over the slurps and froths of the espresso machine.
Whatever happened to just dropping a pin on Google Maps?
“No one owns the town,” Bert says as we sit on the hardwood floor of his surf shop on a busy Sunday afternoon. “But there are people that grew this town to keep it how it is and now it feels like we all need Range Rovers.”
The groovy Kombi van has been run off the road by a slick fleet of Range Rovers and the luxury car is the first thing you notice about the town. Everyone drives a Range. And Bentley SUVs that look like funeral hearses. And Porsche Cayennes. (“We shoulda driven up in the Porsche,” one Sydney dad whined days ago as his teenage kids browsed in a cool boutique off Jonson Street that sells trendy brand names available back in the big city they came from.)
“Back in 1990, you could go to the old Beach Hotel and it was just a fibro sh*t hole,” mumbles a guy sitting on a deck chair on the main street holding a cardboard sign with a scrawled message that reads: “Sh*tty advice by donation.” He has lived here on and off for decades and now resides in a tent in a nearby caravan park.
“And down in the toilets there was graffiti all over the walls and the walls were kicked in and you could buy weed.”
He blames Crocodile Dundee producer John “Strop” Cornell for ushering in a new phase when he bought the pub in 1990 for about $9 million. It sold again in 2007 for $44 million and 2017 for $70 million and just recently for $100 million. Strop’s presence came a few years after Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton John bought properties in the region.
“That was the beginning of the end for this town. They crushed the old Beach Hotel, they built the beautiful new Beach Hotel. And the transformation continues to this day.”
A donation is given and advice is requested: Should people keep moving here?
“Here’s sh*tty. But everywhere else is sh*ttier,” he offers, like a really cranky magic 8 ball.
But Crocodile Dundee doesn’t beat Thor in a fight. Thor came in at a different time and brought celebrification, tabloidification and –
“W*nkification,” a post office employee says while diligently sorting packages. She’s a no nonsense mum who raised her now-adult boys in the hinterland.
“I avoid the entire area if I can.”
“I saw a limousine in Bay Lane. It was weird,” says Rosie Cranshaw who owns the Taiga Rose crystal store that sits opposite a Lorna Jane and a Tommy Bahama.
“I was speaking to my friend the other day and she said, ‘I can’t help but be resentful toward these people who have moved here’.”
Rosie moved to the area about a decade ago from New Zealand via Canada and sold feather jewellery at the local markets before pivoting into the crystal business.
She has seen the crowds changing. What crystals are newcomers buying?
Selenite. It cleanses, restores clarity and gets rid of negative energy, she says. Same with amethyst – it promotes peace and releases fear, anger and anxiety.
I pick through piles of rocks and deliberate over what toxic qualities I want to dispel.
“Don’t over-think it,” she shrugs. “They can mean whatever you want them to mean.”
The summer holidays are coming to a close. The streets are looking less busy by the day.
A roadside clairvoyant has her fold-up card table balanced between the footpath and the gutter outside a fancy gelataria – across the road from a Baskin-Robbins and around the corner from a YoFlo frozen yoghurt shop that Chris Hemsworth was once papped at.
She’s fed up after a summer of dealing with city folk problems.
“People dealing with their cheating partners,” she exhales. “They’re whining that their partners in COVID were cheating on them or secretly chatting to people online. I’m just sitting here thinking, ‘F**k, give me a break. You and the whole world.’”
The only thing she’s more fed up with is Byron’s power struggle.
“All the newcomers and the old-comers – who were newcomers anyway and who are just upset about the new-newcomers – well, they’re not doing anything to help themselves. All this ‘who was here first stuff’, it’s all bullsh*t,” she says while splaying out tarot cards. “Look around! Do you see Indigenous people here? African people? Do you see multicultural people here? No, it’s a redneck town.”
A stylish woman walks into a nearby boutique with her family and instructs everyone to choose shark tooth necklaces.
The clairvoyant continues.
“You can’t just bang a bongo and smoke a joint and call yourself a local. Or think you’re alternative because you’re recycling and growing a garden,” she drawls.
What’s the one question most customers have been asking lately?
“Will I be able to buy a house here,” she rolls her eyes.
Like the Sh*tty Advice guy, this roadside clairvoyant has lived on and off in the town for decades.
“I didn’t get stuck here, that’s the trick,” she declares. “Back in the ’70s, no one wanted to live here. The town stank.”
The Big Little Lies song starts drifting down the street from another store or bar.
So why does everyone want to live here now?
“They’ve all come here because they want the dream that everyone else wanted. Everybody wants a piece of paradise. But look around,” she rearranges stones and cards. “This isn’t paradise.”
Twitter, Facebook: @hellojamesweir