It’s the name of a girl who divided a nation. Schapelle Corby. The unlucky beauty-school dropout convicted for smuggling marijuana into Indonesia and the ensuing soap opera that charmed our television screens have captivated Australia for over nine years. It was the topic of discussion at neighborhood barbecues and brought to light the same “guilty or innocent” celebrity personality that had been inflicted on Lindy Chamberlain years ago.
Yet the crime itself is not what diverted attention to Schapelle for all these years. Instead, it was the puzzling personality of this offended drug smuggler. On one hand you have the everyday Australian girl, lover of the beach and devotee to the simple life in Queensland. A wrongfully persecuted Australian tourist; victim of a syndicate conspiracy and a casualty of racism in a foreign country.
Alternatively, there’s the liar, drug mule, cannabis queen and bogan resident of the sunshine state. The one who covered for her drug-dealing father, hitting her hand on her face in court and the unassuming smuggler caught by Balinese officials.
Remembering 2005 and Australia, every middle class citizen had their “little girl” in their hearts, knowing she was traumatized by the stark reality of prison and facing a sentence that could end her life. The daughter of a Queensland fish and chip shop owner was wrongfully accused of a heinous crime she would never commit. On the day of the sentencing, thousands flocked to televisions and hundreds cried when they heard “20 years”, while others nodded in silent approval.
It’s safe to say that the topic of Schapelle Corby’s innocence segregated a nation. On top of the media circus that isn’t usually seen for small-time criminals, let alone drug smugglers, Schapelle was on trial by the public, whose limited evidence somehow granted each of them to declare their verdict on the ensuing court case. At the time of her sentencing, polls had even indicated that three quarters of Australians had faith in her story.
And now nine and a half years later we feature Schapelle on the front of every major newspaper and magazine in Australia, reporting on her release from the jail that made her an international star. A television biopic was thrown onto prime time television to capitalize on her popularity and, at the time, upcoming release. But this time things are different and not in Schapelle’s favour: in 2010 a poll found one in ten respondents believed her to be innocent.
But the past nine years is what must be explored. Why and how did this girl’s story explode out of proportion into an array of other issues? Is this about the psyche of the underdog or is she just a beautiful everyday girl who warms our hearts? Or is this a national identity issue, challenging our attitudes towards class?
While Schapelle’s blue eyes behind jail cells are ingrained in our memory, courtesy of the media, what’s disheartening about the ordeal is that while Schapelle was released from Kerobokan prison with an abundance of media exposure, 11 forgotten Australian criminals were left behind bars in Balinese jails. With two of them facing the death penalty and another six serving life sentences, there is little to no interest from the public in their plight.
Renae Lawrence, the only female Bali Nine member, is currently serving a 20- year sentence after trafficking heroin. Lawrence and Corby were both in prison at the same time yet there was little sympathy for Lawrence. Schapelle always had the upper hand and the undisputed love from the public that Renae did not. There is no Renae biopic or magazine covers. Many will claim the main difference is that Renae was found with drugs on her and Schapelle found drugs in her bag. But other than that, these two drug offenders are the same, with one significant difference – timing.
Schapelle’s arrest was made in the wake of the Bali Bombings and at a time where there was little trust socially between average Australians and Indonesians. Middle class citizens were frightened of the exotic location, which was so frequently visited by Australians, because of the recent events, and Schapelle appeared to be a hostage to the so-called “enemy”.
It seems Australia’s camaraderie with this drug smuggler was based on this idea. Constant footage of the depressed and anxious Schapelle was being played through Australia and every moment behind bars meant more anger from the Australian public towards Indonesia. Fundamentally the Balinese officials were being the assailants of the nation’s “daughter”, and by extension, ourselves.
This foreign country challenged Australia’s national values and, typically, Australian pride and nationalism was fostered among groups of people as a result. Various people were quoted to have complained about the court case being conducted in a language aside from English and even going as so far to judge the lack of English in the Indonesian judicial system as an example of its incapacity.
What is rarely articulated in media is the reaction of every day Indonesians who expressed confusion at the convicted criminal. The reaction of the Australian people, with their unintelligible accusations and callous defense of Schapelle was considered unusual outside of those fully interested in the story. And any tourist in Australia the past few weeks may have confused Schapelle with an Australian celebrity, with her face splattered on every major media in Australia.
Probably what’s most frightening about the whole concept is that there’s a chance Schapelle will be able to profit from this ongoing public interest in herself and her case. It was recently reported that she secured a deal with the Seven Network worth $2 million to share her story exclusively in an upcoming interview.
Fortunately, current Queensland premier Campbell Newman is on the side of many and commented that Schapelle should not receive revenue from her crime, even going so far as to say he would asking Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie if Corby could be stopped under Queensland’s proceeds of crime laws.
Many Australians still believe Schapelle is innocent but is appears as if the majority believe otherwise. While she once stopped barbeques and forced people to show their nationalism, now the public seems to imprint her with a guilty sticker and wonder why they we ever obsessed with the beauty school dropout in the first place. With the parole period of Schapelle lasting until 2017, it’ll be interesting to see if Schapelle will be featured alongside Paris Hilton on page six columns in the future after this negative reception.
But with her sister Mercedes already featured in a Ralph Magazine spread and half-brother James Kisina out of jail for drug-dealing himself, the Corbys seem to be the Australian equivalent of the Kardashian family. Innocent or not, Schapelle could run off this popularity for years as American O. J. Simpson did after being acquitted of murder in 1995. Perhaps the Australian public should prepare for the Schapelle Corby Show in 2017
Originally published on Aphra Magazine, January 20, 2014.