How did drug trafficker Schapelle Corby become an Australian obsession?
She has riveted Australia for more than a decade, the everyday Aussie beach girl who somehow sparked diplomatic rows, furious protests and a media bonanza on par with America’s O.J. Simpson trial. She is so notorious Down Under that she needs no last name: She’s just Schapelle.
Next week, after an exhaustively chronicled stint in a Balinese prison for smuggling marijuana to the Indonesian island, Schapelle Corby is expected to return to Australia. Her homecoming marks the climax of a tale that divided and in many ways defined Australia, where the obsession with the woman the nation once protectively dubbed “Our Schapelle” has not faded, even if belief in her innocence has.
Not since the notorious case of Lindy Chamberlain – whose baby daughter was killed by a dingo during an Outback camping trip – has a legal saga so mesmerised the country. But exactly why Corby’s plight achieved such prominence can be, at first glance, a bit puzzling. She wasn’t famous before her arrest and she was hardly the first Aussie to be busted for drugs while travelling abroad. As The Australian newspaper once put it: “Corby is an ordinary suburban Australian woman who worked in a takeaway shop, saved up for a holiday in Bali, and somehow galvanised an entire nation.”
Fueling the fixation was everything from the unprecedented media coverage of her trial, to the made-for-TV courtroom theatrics, to the empathy ordinary Australians felt for a woman they viewed as one of their own. Her case also coincided with an era of cultural upheaval, tapping into a surge of nationalism and fear heightened by bombings in Bali that killed 88 Australians just two years before Corby’s arrest.
Anthony Lambert, who spent years studying Australia’s response to the case, once described Corby as “the daughter who is Australia”. And in some ways, she still is.
“She functioned as a representation of what being Australian meant,” says Lambert, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at Macquarie University. “In the beginning, [there was] that initial surge of emotion and kind of racist vitriol that was about the nation much more than it was about the actual case ... She still represents a relatively young, feminine version of being Australian and white Australian-ness, caught up in trouble.”
The saga began in 2004, when a 27-year-old Corby set out from her home on Australia’s picturesque Gold Coast for a vacation in Bali. When she arrived, Indonesian customs agents found more than 4kg of marijuana inside her boogie board bag. Corby insisted the drugs had been planted by corrupt baggage handlers; Balinese officials insisted she was lying. She was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her sentence was eventually reduced and in 2014, after 9 years behind bars, she was released on parole. She was not permitted to leave Bali until her sentence expires on May 27.
In the beginning, polls showed the vast majority of Australians believed Corby had been set up. Proving her innocence became a national cause, sparking “Free Schapelle” T-shirts and “Boycott Bali” banners. Her face took the place of celebrities on magazine covers. She even became an Australian slang phrase: to be “Schapelled” means to get a raw deal.
Many Australians saw themselves in Corby, Lambert said. With her Gold Coast upbringing, she was the quintessential surfer girl – easily identifiable in a beach-loving country where more than 80 per cent of the population lives within 50km of the coast.
She also embodied the classic image of an Aussie “battler,” a humble, working class hero. Her father was a retired coal miner, her mother owned a fish-and-chips shop. She was a high school dropout who later dropped out of beauty therapy school when her father got cancer, and worked in her family’s shop.
Even her choice of vacation destination was relatable. Given Australia’s isolation, overseas travel can be prohibitively expensive. Bali, just a two and a half hour flight from the northern Australian city of Darwin, is the exception. For decades, it has been a favourite vacation spot for Australians, many of whom view it as an extension of their own country.
Corby was hardly beloved by all. Some dubbed her a bogan, the Australian equivalent of, well, white trash. Still, whether you viewed her with pride or pity, you were invested in her plight, says Lauren Rosewarne, a social scientist at the University of Melbourne.
“There’s some people who looked at Schapelle and thought, ‘That could be me,’” Rosewarne said. “Versus others who looked down on her as a bogan, as a sort of blight on the kind of Australians that we’re ashamed of. And therefore, there’s a schadenfreude element of wanting to see her get justice.”
“Whether you’re supportive of Schapelle or dismissive of her, you’ve got a story that – excuse the cliche – captivates the nation.”
Then there was the irresistible drama of her legal battle. The stakes were grave – she was facing a possible sentence of death by firing squad. Australians, whose own country generally prohibits cameras in the courtroom, were transfixed by the trial footage beamed in from Bali: Schapelle collapsing in court. Schapelle’s mother screaming, “You judges will never sleep!” Schapelle’s sister yelling at reporters outside the courthouse, shrieking with rage: “This verdict is UNJUST!”
It felt like something out of a film. And in a way, it was. In 1989, Nicole Kidman starred in a popular Australian miniseries called “Bangkok Hilton,” playing a woman who is tricked into carrying drugs from Thailand to Australia. The movie wormed its way into the Australian psyche and bolstered the sentiment that Corby was innocent, Rosewarne said.
Corby sometimes seemed to embrace the circus. In a moment captured on video for a documentary, one of her lawyers, Robin Tampoe, tells her Australian networks will cut into their daytime programming to air the verdict live – something not done, he notes, since Princess Diana’s funeral. “Everybody’s watching,” Tampoe assures her, adding that broadcasters would likely air the lengthy court buildup to the verdict itself. “Wow!” Corby responds in almost giddy wonder. “Like Melbourne Cup day!”
And, like Melbourne Cup day – Australia’s most prestigious horse race – everyone did seem to be watching. Two Australian networks alone drew 1.7 million viewers for the verdict, said Ross Tapsell, an expert in Indonesian media and culture at the Australian National University. Given Australia’s population at the time was just 20 million, it was an impressive audience.
Indonesians, who called Corby “Ganja Queen,” were mystified by Australia’s response. To them, the case was clear-cut, and the Australian outrage both ridiculous and overly nationalistic.
The fallout from Corby’s conviction was intense. A protest was held outside the Indonesian Embassy in the Australian capital. There were calls to boycott travel to Bali. Luggage wrapping services at airports enjoyed a boom in business, as wary travellers had their suitcases shrink-wrapped to prevent drugs from being slipped inside.
Days after the verdict, a letter containing a suspicious substance was sent to Indonesia’s ambassador in Australia in what was widely seen as a protest against Corby’s sentence. The substance was later found to be non-toxic, but the scare prompted a swift apology by Australia’s prime minister to Indonesia’s government.
Even actor Russell Crowe weighed in. “When there is such doubt, how can we, as a country, stand by and let a young lady – as an Australian – rot away in a foreign prison?” Crowe said in a radio interview before Corby’s conviction. “That is ridiculous. We just gave Indonesia how many hundreds of millions of dollars in tsunami relief?”
There was a perception that an innocent woman was trapped in a system that was not only unjust, but uncivilised. Corby’s jail was described in the Australian media as barbaric, the judges depicted as uninterested and unintelligent. “The judges don’t even speak English, mate,” radio shock jock Malcolm T. Elliott said during a 2005 broadcast. “They’re straight out of the trees.”
Australians’ ignorance about Indonesia and its judicial system played into such views, said Tapsell. Surveys show that nearly a third of Australians don’t realise Bali is part of Indonesia.
Corby’s case also happened during a period of uncertainty about Australia’s place in the world and relationship to Asia, coming just two years after the Bali bombings carried out by Muslim militants. The attacks were Australia’s equivalent of September 11, marking a loss of innocence and ushering in an era of fear about the country’s proximity to conflict in Asia. Corby was seen, at least in the beginning, as being “behind enemy lines”, Lambert said.
Over the years, unflattering reports about Corby’s family emerged, sullying her image in many Australians’ eyes. Among the most damaging were stories about her father being busted for marijuana possession in the 1970s (and insisting the drugs weren’t his,) and her half-brother’s arrest in 2006 for stealing marijuana during a violent home invasion.
Today, few Australians still believe Corby’s story. But curiosity about her remains. Her release from prison in 2014 was predictably chaotic, with Corby enveloped in a crush of cameras, one Australian journalist shouting: “This truly is an amazing moment in history!” Since then, paparazzi have documented her life in Bali, snapping photos of her running errands and lounging on the beach. She has tried to keep a low profile, but the media have eagerly chronicled her relationship with her Indonesian boyfriend, her visits to her parole officer, her changing body weight. Her homecoming is expected to spark another frenzy.
“There is an element of fatigue and also endless curiosity about how this story ends,” Rosewarne said. “Because we’ve invested so much, emotionally.”
And so, Australia braces for the inevitable: the live coverage of Corby’s arrival, the speculation about her romantic life and career prospects, maybe even (as one talent agent suggested) a stint on “Dancing With the Stars.”
And Australia, inevitably, will be watching.
“She’s not just coming home to the Gold Coast,” Lambert said. “She’s coming home to the nation.”