Australia

Australia Geelong: How scandal sank paparazzo mayor Darryn Lyons

Darryn Lyons at the Melbourne Cup Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Darryn Lyons brought his "razzamatazz" to the Geelong council, but allegations of bullying seem certain to sink his political career

Ex-paparazzo Darryn Lyons' rough-and-tumble tabloid attitude has brought his term as mayor of an Australian city to an end.

Whatever Darryn Lyons does, he does colourfully. With his fake abs, pink Mohawk and garish fashion choices, the ex-paparazzo and reality television star goes to extreme lengths to ensure he is not ignored.

He came to prominence as the head and founder of photo agency Big Photos, ruling one of the UK's most prominent paparazzi empires from a red velvet throne carved with his initials.

Branding himself "Mr Paparazzi", his appearances on television shows such as Celebrity Big Brother, Deadline and Top Gear in the UK, and Dragons' Den and Excess Baggage in Australia, established him as a media personality, even as his photography business collapsed.

But in 2013 he made an unlikely career change, leaving behind the world of celebrity scandal to become the mayor of Geelong in Australia.

Lyons campaigned aggressively on a platform of radical revitalisation for the city, with a take-no-prisoners attitude that cut through with voters. But that aggressive approach, which served him well as a photographer, now seems likely to cost him his job.

The unlikely mayor

This week's public release of a 1,500-page report from an independent Commission of Inquiry identified a "culture of bullying" in Geelong's City Hall, with Lyons at the centre.

The report outlined a pattern of behaviour by the mayor who frequently swore at staff, publicly belittled them and created a "climate of fear and anxiety". Lyons, for his part, admitted that he should be "held accountable" for the swearing but said he was trying to hold his staff to high standards in a tough administrative environment.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lyons, pictured centre with former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was elected on a platform of revitalising Geelong

Should the Victorian state government pass the bill in its current state, the entire Geelong council will be sacked and an administrator appointed until 2020, ending mayor's short-but-colourful political career.

Lyons had never been expected to get the job. His predecessor Keith Fagg, the preferred candidate of the local business community, triggered an early election race after he resigned for "health reasons".

Geelong's business and political establishment supported Ken Jarvis, a former mayor of Geelong known for a failed attempt to bring a Guggenheim Museum to the city. Lyons's candidacy at first appeared to be a joke but it soon became clear that the colourful photographer was shaping up as a serious contender.

Fruit and vegetable tycoon Frank Costa - the president of the Geelong Cats, an Australian Rules football club that is as synonymous with the city as the Yankees are with New York - hinted that if the wrong candidate won, the state government might step in, sack the council and place it into administration.

But he could not stop Lyons who won by 58,000 votes, delivered in part through a social media presence of 717,000 Twitter followers, T-shirts, trailers, non-stop public appearances and a few carefully timed, self-deprecating jokes about his surgically enhanced abs.

On 16 November 2013 Lyons was sworn in as mayor and it was not long before he started making people mad.

'Giddy up!'

The trouble started with a widely ridiculed commercial, seen here on YouTube, that depicted the citizens of Geelong as zombies, wedded to their manufacturing past. Lyons, draped in mayoral chains and clutching a magical staff, rode into the city on a horse.

With a thrust of the mayor's staff, a blinding flash of light banished the undead and turned Geelong into a middle-class playground of seafood lunches, amusement parks and sommeliers in top hats.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lyons, pictured with fiancee Elissa Friday at the Geelong Cup racing carnival, has used his celebrity to raise awareness of his home town

Then there was the billboard erected alongside a major highway into town, that showed Lyons next to his personal slogan "Giddy up!" What the mayor saw as good advertising, others saw as reminiscent of a North Korean personality cult.

And the truth was that Geelong was not "giddying up". At the start of 2014, the city was hit with what Lyons himself called a "tsunami" of job losses, as Alcoa closed its Port Henry aluminium smelter and Ford announced it would close its engine works down in October 2016.

By August 2014, unemployment had spiked across Geelong, the city was still in debt and it was not long before local councillors were talking about "tough budgets" and funding cuts.

'In-your-face style'

Bubbling away behind the scenes was the culture of bullying in Geelong City Council that the Victorian government's report painted in detail.

The report outlines an entrenched culture of bullying and abuse by councillors and council staff, including Lyons.

In one incident, a manager hacked holes in a wall with an axe after a pregnant woman asked for her workspace to be ventilated of chemicals.

Lyons admitted to many of the claims in the report, including the claim that he had made key staff members so intimidated that they had to be physically relocated to a different part of the building, away from the newly-refurbished mayoral offices.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lyons enters the Celebrity Big Brother house during the show's 2011 run in the UK

When Lyons appeared on popular morning breakfast show TODAY on Wednesday, he admitted to an "outburst" against a female staff member but said he had been singled out in the report. He said that while he was "bullish", he was not a "bully".

"I'm the first to admit that my razzamatazz and in-your-face style has not been to everyone's liking and I've stepped on a few toes, and even grumbled and yelled quite a bit in getting things done for my city," Lyons said.

"But I've suffered the frustrations of any leader who wants to change the world overnight… who gets impatient with those who haven't been able to keep up with the pace."

The bill to sack the council is set to be debated in the upper house of the Victorian state parliament, where the Victorian Labor government does not have a majority. The government still needs support from the opposition or minor parties to push it through.

But even if it fails to pass, it seems unlikely that the Lyons mayorship can survive. Mr Paparazzi, once a king among muckrakers, has been sunk by a scandal of his own.

Related Topics

More on this story