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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Hawai'i sees itself in sweet, tough Jasmine

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jasmine Trias is all smiles with strong voting support heading into the final rounds on "American Idol."

Associated Press

It didn't really matter to Rachelle Shields that she couldn't get past security to see Jasmine Trias' triumphant return to Maryknoll School on Friday. She was happy just catching a bit of the breeze from the prodigal Idol's whirlwind visit.

"I could hear her singing," Shields said as she stood on the sidewalk in front of the courtyard where Trias performed. "That's good enough for me."

Shields, of Makiki, is just one of thousands of Hawai'i residents who have found themselves drawn inexplicably into the barreling phenomenon that is "Jasmania."

Interest in Fox's "American Idol" show ran high last season when local boy Jordan Segundo made the initial round of 32. The excitement ratcheted up this season with three Hawai'i residents — Trias, Camile Velasco and Jonah Moananu — at the start. Moananu was the first to be eliminated; Velasco made it to the final nine before saying aloha.

As Trias has advanced week after week, surviving a string of close calls, the level of excitement in Hawai'i has become palpable. Civic and community organizations such as the Palolo Neighborhood Board have struggled to make quorum at their Tuesday night meetings.

Offices, diners, beauty parlors and bus stops are abuzz each Wednesday morning with speculation on whether Trias will survive to sing another week.

Despite a shaky performance, Trias advanced to the top three last week, aided by what is assumed to be a high percentage of the 1.32 million votes Hawai'i callers registered in the two-hour window after Tuesday's show.

All of the major media outlets locally have featured Trias prominently in their daily coverage. Articles about Trias and "American Idol" are typically the most requested on The Advertiser's Web site; a recent chat session drew so many visitors, it jammed the server.

Jasmine Trias sang "The Power of Your Love" at Maryknoll High School at an assembly held for her on Friday. Trias, one of the final three contestants vying for the title of "American Idol," came home for a quick visit and was greeted by overwhelming "Jasmania."

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Some say it's Trias herself who lit the fire, with her preternatural poise and vocal talent. Others say it's a provincial chip-on-the-shoulder that incites Hawai'i voters to prove over and over again that our small state is something to be reckoned with.

Joseph Stanton, a professor of arts and humanities at the University of Hawai'i, said Hawai'i's embrace of Trias is similar to earlier support shown for athletes with Hawai'i ties.

"Right now she's our team, she's our representative," said Stanton, who teaches an American studies course about sports. "You can compare it to that point in time when everybody was becoming a Mets fan here because of Sid Fernandez, and later Benny Agbayani."

Stanton, who grew up in St. Louis and has lived in Hawai'i since 1972, said the state's geographic isolation and strong sense of collective identity come into play when a person with Hawai'i roots takes a prominent position on the national or world stage.

"I think Hawai'i still considers itself an isolated, discrete place," he said. "On the Mainland, states and towns tend to blend into each other, but here our physical boundaries are very well defined. I think people here sometimes feel a little off the radar."

Henry Teller, a retired history teacher living in Kane'ohe, said Hawai'i's history as a sovereign nation and later a territory of the United States contributes to a feeling of "us as kind of a second-class state.

"Our history is different," he said. "Racially, our population looks different. We have different protocols and different ways of getting along, and those things have been used against us in the past. So, yeah, it's natural, I think, for us to have an us-versus-them attitude about certain things, even when it's as silly as a talent show."

Small but mighty

Hawai'i residents take inordinate pride when local products do good, be it Duke Kahanamoku at the Olympics, Sen. Dan Inouye as head of the Iran-Contra hearings or Michelle Wie at an LPGA event.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona applauded Jasmine Trias at a ceremony held in her honor at the State Capitol on Thursday.

Associated Press

In fact, Hawai'i, with it's small-town attitude and million-plus population, might be uniquely situated to subvert the Idol voting process. As the end draws near, the difference could come down to hometown support versus home-state support.

"Boy, you guys are really into this, aren't you," said James McKinney, a visitor from Louisiana who walked into the middle of Jasmine Trias Day in Waikiki on Friday. "This is unbelievable."

Standing nearby on Kalakaua Avenue, Paulette Noho of Maui laughed. "That' right," she said. "You tell that ... Simon, 'Don't mess with Hawai'i.' We're small, but we take care."

Still, not everybody feels so rah-rah about the Hawai'i angle.

"I'd hate to think that people only vote for Jasmine because of where she comes from," said Terri Romeo of Mililani. "I think we should be beyond that by now. We're a major city, and Hawai'i is very prominent in TV and movies. I don't think people look down on us anymore, so we shouldn't look down on ourselves either.

"If you're going to vote for Jasmine, do it because she's a cool kid with a lot of talent who deserves to keep advancing."

But for Shields, the fan on the street, voting is a matter of state pride and honest personal preference.

"I only started watching 'Idol' because there were three Hawai'i people on," she said. "I vote for Jasmine mainly because she's from Hawai'i, but also because she has a fabulous singing voice and she's very attractive."

Shields said she got up extra early on Friday so she could catch Trias on one of the local morning news shows. Then she packed up her things — including a copy of Entertainment Weekly with the "American Idol" finalists on the cover (in case Jasmine was giving autographs) — and headed straight to Maryknoll.

Although she never made it past security, she did have a front-curb seat when Trias and her small entourage left the school.

"She has such a beautiful smile, and her personality is Hawai'i," said Shields. "She sends the aloha spirit out to everyone every time she's on TV. That's what helps her to succeed, no matter how much negativity there might be."

Well, that and those 1.3 million Hawai'i votes.

"Oh, yeah," Shields said. "I vote every week. I redial and hang up, redial and hang up, over and over for two hours. I usually get through three or four times."

Conspiracy theories

The voting results have been a source of controversy since the show's first season, spiking last year when Ruben Studdard beat out Clay Aiken for the American Idol designation.

Maryknoll High School's Student Senate president Brian Klein gives his classmate a big hug. Fans descended on the school Friday in hopes of catching a glimpse of Jasmine Trias while she is in town.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

This season, conspiracy theories abounded as red-haired crooner John Stevens survived longer than many anticipated. Host Ryan Seacrest chastised voters when talented Jennifer Hudson was eliminated three weeks ago.

The show's reluctance to release the official vote tallies has only fueled suspicion. Asked Friday how votes are collected and tallied, a Fox spokesperson would confirm only that she couldn't confirm anything.

The show's official position is spelled out in the frequently asked questions area of the "American Idol" Web site. It reiterates the rule that voting is handled by time zone, with two-hour voting windows opened immediately after the show airs in each region.

Recent rumors had Hawai'i voters getting Trias' designated voting code from friends and relatives on the Mainland and calling before Hawai'i's voting period opened.

According to the "Idol" site, this would be possible only if a voter had a cell phone with an area code for a different time zone. Someone with a mobile phone account from California could use that phone to vote when lines are open in California. But calls from that same phone would be rejected during Hawai'i's designated voting time.

Got it?

"I don't know," said Howard Hoke of Kailua. "I still think something is kind of rotten about the whole process. But as long as it works out for Jasmine, I guess that's OK."

Backlash brewing

Actually, with Stevens finally out of the running and Mainland viewers outraged over the ouster of Hudson and La Toya London, some conspiracy theorists are singling out Trias as the beneficiary of a behind-the-scenes fix.

A writer for the Arizona Republic last week referred to Trias as the "No. 1 despised female on prime-time TV" for outlasting London.

While Trias still receives plenty of support on Internet chat boards and other forums built around the show, there has been growing sentiment that she is, or should be, the next to go.

It may even cost her a few votes at home.

"I think if it gets to the stage where people are turning on her, maybe it's better for her to bow out now, while she's still on top," said Glenn Umemoto of Kapahulu. "You'd hate to see her tainted by criticism, the way (Stevens) was. It got pretty cruel, and I don't want to see that happen with her."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.