Darryn Lyons is back in his home town Geelong after 25 years in London and he’s in a philosophical mood about what he’s learnt from life, and what is really important.
“My dream was to be a millionaire by the time I was 30,” he says. “I’ve made plenty and lost plenty. My life’s a roller-coaster whether I like it or not. I can be as successful in my own heart and mind with 20 cents as I can with tens of millions. Money buys you nice things, but I’ll be honest with you, it becomes extremely immaterial after a while.
“My dad’s the absolute opposite of me in relation to material things. He drives around in his Nissan that I think has done 425,000 kilometres, and he loves his car, more than I love my Ferrari or my Lamborghini or my Range Rover.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like having them. I don’t look at them as motor cars, particularly the two sports cars. I look at them as works of art. I’m a really arty person as you can see by the house. Whether it’s photography, whether it’s Warhol or beautiful pieces of art, I’m a great collector. I love collecting things that are special.”
We’re talking in Lyons’ historic home overlooking the water in Geelong. Outside on the street is his Ferrari. Inside there are many pieces of art. The pool room upstairs is replete with framed photographs, many of glamorous and semi-clad, sometimes unclad, women.
Lyons has never shied from his image as a bon vivant with a colourful lifestyle – not to mention his colourful hairstyle – a lifestyle stemming from the fortune he made with Big Pictures, his photographic agency.
His wealth, he says, was visualised early. “At the age of 12 I had a silver Lamborghini on my wall in front of me when I would study,” he says. “I thought, ‘I really want one of those one day’. I had my heart set on it.”
The image inspired him. “Absolutely, without question. I don’t think life is ever meaningful without a firm belief in something that is out of your reach, that you need to try and touch. Some of us touch them. Others try and touch them if they have the wisdom and, I suppose, the balls to go for it.
“I have been a huge gambler round the horses and the tables, at times. Lucky the spring carnival only comes once a year. The issue is I will always back myself. You always get annoyed when you lose and you always get frustrated. But the fact is you’ve got to be a realist, that you do lose sometimes, and the last few years I’ve lost a lot, but I’m also totally convinced that I’ll have the biggest business in the world again.
“But do I care whether I have the biggest business in the world? Do I care whether I have the biggest boat in the world? I’ve had planes, trains – well, not a train yet … I’ve had the private jet, I’ve had the boat in the south of France, I’ve had a couple of them, I’ve had yachts up on the Whitsundays.
“I’ve had everything that one would dream of in 30 lifetimes and I’ve fitted into this one. I’m a great believer that great experiences are the richest things in life, whether it’s a camping trip to Apollo Bay or a hike in the Kimberley, or riding a horse across a desert or hot-air ballooning across Africa …”
Darryn Lyons is a Geelong-born success story, and now he’s come home. He loves this area. “My parents are older. My family and friends are here.”
He grew up in Manifold Heights and Leopold and attended Geelong East Technical School. “Incredible place to be brought up,” he says. “It was safe, it was wonderful. Went to Aberdeen Street Baptist Church, Sunday school, (went to a) great school, great teachers. I don’t really have a bad memory about my childhood. I have a wonderful family.”
Lyons has launched several pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs in the area – the Eureka Hotel in Little Malop Street, the Home House in Moorabool Street, The Elephant and Castle in McKillop Street and Growlers in Torquay. And, with cyclist Cadel Evans, he’s an “international ambassador” for Geelong.
“Wherever I travel around the world, I’m a huge supporter of the town,” he says. “I’ve invested extremely heavily into the town and every dollar made in the town has stayed in the town. I’ve just kept reinvesting and I’ve been lucky enough that the people of Geelong have supported every business that we started.”
It’s a busy time. He is working on start-ups in Sydney, two or three in Europe and possibly one in Dubai.
“It’s been an extremely busy transition coming back here,” he says.
“I’ve invested extremely heavily into the town and every dollar made in the town has stayed in the town. I’ve just kept reinvesting and I’ve been lucky enough that the people of Geelong have supported every business that we started.”
He is launching a digital media company, celebstock.com, an online celebrity stock photographic agency. “People will be paying to look and use this enormous archive of 25 million online images,” he says. “It may be used by basic blogger at home for $40, to [the] biggest publisher, possibly $20,000 … Photographers can upload and see their sales almost instantaneously.”
It’s a different price-point from Big Pictures.
“Big Pictures was charging anywhere between $250,000 to $1 million a picture.” He says: “I didn’t see the future in the current dinosaur that was Big Pictures.”
After so long running Big Pictures he needed a change. “I decided I’d kind of had enough. The global financial crisis had hit the business hard; I needed to restructure (it) …
“The changes in the business, from privacy (laws) to GFC to dealing with a lot of people in the industry – it wasn’t me. There was a scourge in the industry, an underbelly of the industry which didn’t appeal to me.
“I changed my perspective in what I felt was ethical. It’s like any business. You always get your bad eggs. The whole industry needed – and has had – a major shake-up. I got very depressed that the celebrities used their images when it was right for them and then the next minute they’d sue you …”
He hasn’t changed his view on the ethics of photographing celebrities. “A celebrity, if they’re in the public eye and in a public place, it’s open season. The only celebrities who really whinge about their privacy are the ones that are either up to no good, or want the candy floss on one hand and promote a CD or a movie career, or they get caught with a situation where they don’t feel it should be public. But that’s their issue.”
The last time I met Lyons was in London in 1997 in the highly charged months after the death of Princess Diana. I asked, from a distance of 15 years, whether her death changed the way he operated. “I think it did for five minutes,” he says. “There was certainly a reinvention. It certainly got rid of a lot of the chasers, I think it got rid of a lot of the unprofessional operators, albeit it didn’t take long for them to come back.”
As the operator of a large photographic agency, did he feel the heat of Diana’s death? “Oh absolutely no doubt.” He says the story was reported “horribly wrong”. “The paparazzi was blamed for the death of Diana whereas Diana was a catalyst for the paparazzi,” he says. “She used me and many other people on many other occasions to create her global image.
She was the first global supermodel, superstar princess. She was licensed to thrill and dressed to kill.
“On her day, if she got out of bed the right way, she encouraged it, and there were days when she was upset, woke up on the wrong side of the bed, when she didn’t want it. And I think that is a very difficult issue to police within the press. I think we’ve all copped it. You’ve got to take the good with the bad …”
I asked what he thought of the recent publication of photographs of Kate [Middleton], the Duchess of Cambridge, topless. “I disagree with the publishing of the pictures. I’ve actually had pictures come over my desk which have never been published.”
Was it tasteless or unfair? “I’ve got an open mind to it. I think she was extremely naïve. I don’t think she should have put herself in the position, being in the hot spot, the south of France … I would have assumed Kate would have been a little bit more intelligent.
“And you’ve got to remember Prince William is so incensed, almost obsessed about privacy. So that’s why it surprised me so much, Maybe he felt he had done his deed (in arguing for privacy) … He’s been a major catalyst in the royal family in a lot of the changes in privacy. I think it’s been pushed very hard by the palace.
“I think it’s quite sad because I think the royal family globally have done a great job in resurrecting almost the end of their careers … The pomp and ceremony over the last couple of years and the young royals particularly have done a fantastic job in getting their mojo back.
“She (Diana) was in a battle with the royal family. She used it (the media) to win the battle against Prince Charles. She wanted a lot of the truth revealed … Going through a little bit of the celebrity side myself, I can understand the way she must have found it extremely difficult on a daily basis to live one’s life with total international scrutiny.”
Lyons left London three months ago after 25 years; it was there he became known as Mr Paparazzi. He spent the four months before that at his home in St Tropez, France, with his partner Elissa, who has returned to London to train as a journalist. “She’s very nose down and tail up; I’m missing her deeply, actually.”
He’s pleased to be home and says that “now it’s recreation and reinvention time for Darryn Lyons”.
He’s had a touch of the celebrity treatment in Geelong himself after his appearance on the TV show Excess Baggage. “It was a great show for me. I was really happy with the job I did and the enormous amount of money I made for Geelong charities.”
He talks about “the 50th slap on the back or ‘Dazza show us your abs’ or ‘Dazza this’ or ‘Dazza that’ … getting that 24/7 would drive you bonkers”.
“I’m extremely accessible to people and I get very well looked after in the town by the people and I do my utmost for so-called fans … I learnt from a very young age, always remember where you came from. I was at the races yesterday and it was mayhem.”
He is hard to miss with his hair and Ferrari. “I’m no shrinking wallflower, without question. I do like colour, I do like flamboyance. I’m a classic Leo. But at the end of the day not necessarily if you’ve got it, flaunt it because I ain’t got much to flaunt so I have to buy everything.”
And those abs? “They’re doing all right. I need to get a bit fitter. I’ve been pretty knee-deep in work.” He stresses “they are not implants”, but a result of liposuction whereby fat is stripped away from muscle.
He enjoys giving back to the community with involvement in the Darryn Lyons Trust. “I’ve set up a trust within a big community foundation in Geelong where an individual can set up a foundation within a foundation.” He also works with the Shane Warne Foundation.
At 47, he sees his return as a homecoming, and the challenge is to adjust to a new pace. “It’s gone from sixth gear to a lazy second, going on third. That’s been a hard thing for me because I’m extremely pro-active.”
Lyons is in a good place except he misses Elissa. They have been together for four years. “She’s studying writing, TV and photography and she is a qualified chef,” he says. “And she was a model with Elite for three years. The biggest issue in my life at the moment is she’s there and I’m here.”