Dark undercurrents: the Australian obsession with Schapelle Corby

The ongoing preoccupation with Corby, who spent nine years in a Bali prison cell for drug smuggling, is rooted in snobbery, misogyny, and xenophobia

Schapelle Corby: to the Australian media, she is ‘our Amanda Knox’. Photograph: Bagus Othman/Reuters/Files

Schapelle Corby: to the Australian media, she is ‘our Amanda Knox’. Photograph: Bagus Othman/Reuters/Files

Wed, Feb 12, 2014, 01:00

Schapelle. Here in Australia, she needs no further introduction. As with Beyoncé, or Madonna, the surname is superfluous. (It’s Corby, since you ask.)

And, like Beyoncé or Madonna, her image is as instantly recognisable as her name: startling blue eyes, immaculate grooming, and a set of expressions that seem to have been crafted especially for the camera. But Schapelle’s not famous for her talent or for being on a reality show. She’s famous because in 2005, she was caught smuggling four kilograms of marijuana into Bali in a boogie-board bag.

She spent the last nine years in a Bali prison cell, before she was released on parole on Monday night, stumbling out of the jail and straight into a screeching, snapping mob of waiting media.

“For a minute there, it all started to look a little over-the-top,” a reporter shouted into his microphone, and it briefly seemed sense had penetrated the hysteria. But he was referring to the number of armed prison guards accompanying Schapelle to the luxury spa, where, we were told, she would spend the night, on the tab of a TV network, which has paid between $1 million and $3 million for her first interview.

To the media, she is “our Amanda Knox”, “the new Lindy Chamberlain”. Translated, Schapelle is clicks and ratings. But to the outsider, the obsession with her is slightly baffling.

In Ireland, the plight of the so-called Peru Two occupied the media for a few weeks before fading from the headlines. But Australia has been gripped by Schapelle’s story since 2005: was she the victim of a miscarriage of justice, set up by baggage handlers, or was she duped – as one TV dramatisation this week speculated – by her own, now-deceased father? Or was she just a naive good-time girl (seriously, who smuggles drugs into Bali)?

The public mood has shifted – at the time of her sentencing, three in four Australians believed her innocent, by 2010 that number was one in 10 – but the fascination with her lingers. To understand why, you need to scrape below the surface into some of the less well-advertised undercurrents of this laid-back, have-a-go culture.

At its basest, the ongoing preoccupation with Schapelle is rooted in snobbery. She has come to represent a particular breed of Australian, a caricature mocked and mythologised in equal measure: the singleted, tattooed kind; the kind who has a sister called Mercedes who became infamous herself, and ended up posing topless in a men’s magazine. Together, they are crime’s answer to the Kardashians.

Part of it, too, is fuelled by old-fashioned misogyny, and the universal appetite for stories about women – especially photogenic women – accused of “male” crimes.

And part of it is xenophobia, the sense of “us” and “them” left over since the Bali bombings. At the height of the outrage, Radio 2GB’s Malcolm T Elliott said on air: “The judges don’t even speak English, mate; they’re straight out of the trees.”

Beneath all the hysteria, it is easy to forget that there is a real person at the centre of this, a depressed, frightened woman who has provided the public with a decade’s worth of voyeuristic mirth and who now faces an uncertain future. The well-trodden path of TV talk shows and book deals might not prove as lucrative as expected (Monday night’s TV dramatisation performed poorly in the ratings.)

Even so, there are likely to be endless opportunities for interested Australians to share in her post-jail bikini body, her joy at her freedom, her inevitable wedding, her post-baby bikini body, her plastic-surgery disaster. In many ways, she has just swapped one prison for another.

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