rita ora sunning herself
Photos by MTRX and KHAPGG/Backgrid 
Entertainment

Australia Was a Big Pandemic Hideaway for Celebrities. Will They Stick Around?

The continent probably won’t hold onto the new Hollywood, but it has become the site of an old pattern.
June 7, 2021, 11:55am
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A series that explores the endless appeal of the physical footprint of celebrity.

This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

Lately, while doing my daily Daily Mail browse, I’ve been noticing something that surely you’ve all noticed by now, too.

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“Welcome to Aussiewood! Stars Swap Tinseltown for (Almost) Covid-Free Life Down Under—With Natalie Portman Moving Her Family, Luke Evans Staying On, and Nicole Kidman Escaping Hotel Quarantine for Two Weeks at Home.”

The Hollywood sign practically shivers as its life force ditches sparkling Los Angeles for... Australia! One by one, they’re hopping on 15-hour flights (business class, natch) and arriving, often with their entire families, along with a significant amount of SPF and extremely large sun hats. This particular Daily Mail headline was published in January, but the flight pattern it speaks of has been happening for a while, as filming restrictions down-down south have been much more forgiving.

But does anyone (other than the tourism industry) actually want them there? Celebrities have a long history of gravitating toward relatively empty new places and then “ruining” them, from Kanye West’s takeover of small town Wyoming (Jeffree Star now lives there too) to the glitzy array of A-listers in Montecito (Oprah, Gayle, Gwyneth, Harry and Meghan) who are all no doubt doing their fair share to raise property values.

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We definitely have Thor: Love and Thunder to thank for the current migration down under, and specifically Mr. Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, who has become the de facto head of the Australian A-list, perhaps partially because of his idyllic and iconic Byron Bay mansion, complete with spa, rooftop infinity pool, and packed guest list. This part of the country is where most of the glitterati flock, and Hemsworth loves to entertain—can you imagine having attended an an 80s-themed birthday party in February of 2021? The likes of Matt Damon and Idris Elba did. (The dissonance of seeing Aussies partying is not unusual: Hemsworth posted about the party on his Instagram, and one commenter wrote: “At first I was like, ‘Why are there so many people without masks!?!’ But then I realized you’re in Australia and it’s basically normal there.” Another wrote: “Not Americans thinking they’re the only country lmao.”)

chris hemsworth surfing

Hemsworth surfing

Thor itself is a big enough production to lure a number of other A-listers: Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, and the aforementioned party guest Matt Damon. But it’s just one of more than 20 international pro- ductions happening this year, the New York Times reported, citing Thor but also Three Thousand Years of Longing, a fantasy romance starring Elba and Tilda Swinton, as well as one of the many Joe Exotic adaptations with Kate McKinnon; Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives; the workplace comedy God’s Favorite Idiot with Melissa McCarthy; and Ticket to Paradise with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. (I knew about this last one because the Daily Mail wrote that Roberts was doing her mandatory 14-day quarantine “with” Ed Sheeran, a report that was quickly denied by the latter’s spokesperson.) After Trump was elected, Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher moved back to her hometown of Sydney. Of the move, a source told the Sydney Morning Herald: “They didn’t want to raise their kids in Trump’s America.” Even Rita Ora’s been bouncing around Sydney since she started taping The Voice Australia. In late April, a mind-blowing brunch gathering involved Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Sacha Baron Cohen, Isla Fisher, and Rita Ora. That’s basically fan fiction to me!

Given what a paradise Australia’s been painted as, it’s ironic that it was only last year that Tom Hanks caught COVID-19 on the Queensland set of Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s production of an unnamed Elvis biopic. Many cite this as one of the first moments Americans started to take the pandemic seriously, but not seriously enough to compete with Australia’s eventual close attention to safety measures and speedy lockdowns.

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So while COVID is mostly to blame for the exodus, the question remains if the celebs will stay. If there’s anyone who exemplifies the move from sunny Los Angeles to sunnier Sydney, it would be Zac Efron. He’s filming the second season of his ego-focused Netflix show, Down to Earth, but it’s not specifically Australia-based. A source told People in April that Efron “has no plans to live permanently in LA again,” and that “[Zac] loves Australia and considers it his home.” Since then, however, he’s reportedly broken up with his Australian girlfriend Vanessa Valladares (whom he met when she was a server at the Byron Bay General Store), and also slashed the selling price of his Los Angeles home, implying that even a now single Efron isn’t going back. Truly, all you have to do is look at the guy’s Instagram: clutching kangaroos, swimming with dolphins, and “living his best life in a caravan down under.” Hollywood has fully lost Efron to the other side of the planet, and we need to come to terms with that.

In late April, I called up the Gold Coast–based real estate agent Eoghan Murphy—who is originally from Ireland but also competed on the second season of Love Island Australia, if you doubt his commitment to the country—to ask if he thought celebs were going to stick around Australia even after their various productions ended. “Our economy is booming, the real estate market is booming, so I think a lot of people are now moving forward in an uncertain world, who are probably turning to Australia as a safe haven for their capital, for their cash,” he said. Not to mention, he claims, despite the Daily Mail’s Australia section, there’s more privacy. Australians, Murphy says, are just more chill: “Australia is quite laid-back. Someone like that can walk down the street and not get bothered too much like they would back home.” (Meanwhile, these are the same paps that Katy Perry called “perverted” in a tweet in 2014 and Cardi B called “racist” in 2018.) Last June, the industry publication Inside Imaging wrote that times had been “tough” for the paparazzi in Australia, adding: “Australia doesn’t quite compare to the US market, where there’s a massive thirst for celebrity gossip and enough of them to fill a theatre.”

Portman and her husband

Portman and her husband Benjamin Millepied

While a real estate agent who has competed on Love Island (great season, by the way) is naturally eager to praise the Australian economy, Elena Callcott, a 24-year-old pop culture lover in Melbourne, is sure the likes of Rita Ora won’t be in town indefinitely. “We’re about to go into winter here,” she said. (For those, like me, unfamiliar with Australian winter, Byron Bay’s chilly season can range from 11 degrees Celsius/52 degrees Fahrenheit—to 19.4 degrees Celsius/66 degrees Fahrenheit.) “I don’t think she’s going to stick around for that. She will want to travel, especially as the rest of the world opens up.” Callcott added that while Australia has done well figuring out how to manage a somewhat “normal life,” “We’re never going to get vaccinated, basically... It’s a hot mess.” Her fears are somewhat founded, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in early May that Australia’s vaccine rollout “has fallen well short of initial government forecasts,” to wit: “At our current pace of roughly 318,000 doses a week, we can expect to reach the 40 million doses needed to fully vaccinate Australia’s adult population in mid August 2023.”

And with influencer culture booming and celebs just walking around, the “chill” nature of Byron Bay might shift. The place Vogue described in 2018 as a “dreamy town in New South Wales, known for its stunning beaches, excellent surf breaks, and hippie hospitality” (its motto? “Cheer Up. Slow down. Chill out”) may be ruinable. After Vanity Fair wrote a glowing feature on the “surfing mamas,” aka “murfers,” in the area, locals really did worry about an influx. “Many of the so-called Byron influencers, who, by the way, don’t live in Byron and sit in its traffic every day, only show the good,” a local named Amy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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“It does feel like there’s a renaissance of influencer culture here at the moment. And there’s also a huge appetite for beating down on them, or I guess punching up,” said Callcott. Recently, residents of the area pushed back at a Netflix Australia reality show called Byron Baes that had begun filming in the area. The Guardian reported that local businesses—yes, including the Byron Bay General Store where Efron met his now ex-girlfriend—met to discuss “what could be done to protect the community” and prevent the “docu-soap series following a ‘feed’ of hot Instagrammers living their best lives, being their best selves, creating the best drama content.” An online petition with several thousand signatures demanded “Boycott Byron Baes Netflix Series by Refusing to Grant Filming Permits,” and a signator named Ryano O. wrote in the comments: “This town has been through a large rapid social change, thanks to COVID. A TV project of this nature will do nothing to help those struggling to adjust to the change.” This past April, Netflix reportedly flew out representatives to attempt to “charm” the locals into playing along with the series.

Efron and Vallardes enjoy the beach

Efron and Valladares enjoy the beach

And if you’re a celeb thinking of moving, you may already be too late. The same source who told the Sydney Morning Herald that Baron Cohen and Fisher were moving back to Australia also noted: “[Sacha and Isla] are surprised by the public interest in their move to Sydney; they thought they left the headlines and paparazzi behind in Los Angeles.”

Not so idyllic as the paparazzi photos make it seem, and with a time difference that would make even the most adept multi-coaster cringe, maybe we won’t be losing our Hollywood stars to Australia just yet. Only a select few have actually put their Los Angeles homes on the market. Even if they dip down there for a bit, they’ll just boomerang back. (Apologies.)

Follow Lindsey Weber on Twitter.