In 2003, a photographer in California posted photos on his website in an effort to highlight the erosion along the Pacific coast. One of the photos showed an aerial view of the superstar Barbra Streisand’s house (the word “house” doesn’t really capture the essence). Miffed, Ms. Streisand filed a US$50 million lawsuit in an effort to force the photographer to take down the photo – one of 12,000 – from his website.

Barbra Streisand’s house. File photo: Wikicommons.

Before Streisand filed her lawsuit to remove the photo of her residence, apparently there had been only six downloads. Within a month, more than 400,000 had viewed it. The ensuing publicity resulted in her earning the eponymous, “Streisand Effect,” which in its simplest terms means that drawing attention to oneself can have unintended negative consequences.

While Nicole Kidman’s recent arrival without quarantine in Hong Kong does not exactly fit the description of the Streisand Effect, it comes close enough. Both the BBC and CNN have given prominence to Ms. Kidman’s circumvention of the strict quarantine rules for international travellers. Hong Kong’s 21-day quarantine, as most locals know, is one of the strictest in the world, which has resulted in one of the world’s lowest infection rates.

Kidman is in town to film an upcoming series for Amazon. In her spare time, she was seen shopping for high-end apparel a couple of days after her arrival. In the meantime, scores of people from multiple countries cannot visit their family members in Hong Kong nor can expatriates here go overseas because the strict 21-day quarantine would exceed the amount of time they could be absent from their workplaces. Of course, this ignores all the other tragic stories associated with Covid.

The headlines in both local and international outlets say it all. Terms such as “tone deaf”, “anger”, and “public outrage” were used when the news of Nicole’s privileged presence came to light.

Although arriving on a private jet from risky Australia, circumventing quarantine, and just to rub it in, going shopping within days of landing certainly qualifies as tone deafness on Kidman’s part, perhaps most outrageous is the exemption given to her by the Hong Kong government.

In response to Kidman’s exemption the government lamely stated:  “the case in discussion has been granted permission to travel to Hong Kong with a quarantine exemption for the purpose of performing designated professional work. It added that such cases are “conducive to maintaining the necessary operation and development of Hong Kong’s economy.”

People wearing face masks in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

Curiously, Kidman’s exemption takes precedence over other VIPs such as HSBC Chairman Mark Tucker, who apparently spent three weeks in isolation.

Clearly, the decision makers in the government are unaware of the Streisand Effect. Did they really think that Kidman would be able to hole herself up in a mansion on the Peak without going shopping? Surely they knew the story would get out. Did they not study the optics of such a story? Apparently not.

Kidman is here shooting a TV series called “Expats”, taken from the novel “Expatriates.” The New York Times, in a review of the book calls it “a rich education in an almost century of cruelty, exploitation, deep pockets and good parties in the city [Hong Kong]”. So it appears that, with her privileged presence, the Australian actor will be carrying on the same role here as a thespian.

At the end of the day, although celebrities surely prefer to avoid the Streisand Effect, there’s another maxim that they are well aware of, often attributed to the famous circus showman P.T. Barnum: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’m not sure it applies in this case though.


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Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.