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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Palin incident showed new, unwelcome presence on Maui

The Maui News

The Sarah Palin visor flap last month may have been just another political gotcha, but it revealed the presence on Maui of a new, aggressive and unwelcome breed of paparazzi.

Maui has had the reputation as a place where celebrities could hang out without much fuss. But after the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate was photographed at Kaanapali Beach wearing a Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visor with "McCain" covered in black ink, she decamped abruptly, saying her holiday after her "Going Rogue" book tour had been spoiled by aggressive photographers.

In the superheated world of political blogging, that explanation was doubted, but Mike White, general manager of the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, said it was "absolutely correct" that obnoxious photographers chased the Palin family off Maui.

Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, apologized to other guests for the antics of the photographers. White said other guests began complaining about the photographers, who created turmoil for two days on the beach.

The photographers where thrown off the Kaanapali Beach Hotel grounds, but the beach is public and open to anyone.

It began Dec. 16, when Sarah Palin and her children were sunning themselves on the beach. Rick Leeks, an old-time, low-key Maui paparazzo, described what he knew about the event.

His tipsters told him that the Palins were at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, but "I just didn't believe it, and I didn't go right away." He said three paparazzi who have been on the island for a few months did go and took as many as 2,000 pictures, which they quickly sold to TMZ, an Internet celebrity gossip site.

Then, said Leeks, the photographers began deliberately making themselves obnoxious, hoping to drive the Palins away. He calls that "burning it."

By that he meant that if the paparazzi could drive the Palins away, then no other paparazzi could get photographs of them, driving up the value of the exclusive images.

"They didn't leave her alone," he said.

Here's where it gets complicated. Palin apparently put up with the intrusion, but as it happened, she was wearing the blacked-out McCain visor. When that image hit the Internet, political theorists exploded in a frenzy of commentary about the supposed insult.

The next day, Dec. 17, Palin released a statement, which appeared on The Huffington Post. It said: "In an attempt to 'go incognito,' I Sharpied the logo out on my sun visor so photographers would be less likely to recognize me and bother my kids or other vacationers.

"I am so sorry if people took this silly incident the wrong way. I adore John McCain, support him 100 percent and will do everything I can to support his re-election. As everyone knows, I was honored and proud to run with him. And Todd and I were with him in D.C. just a week ago.

"Todd and I have since cut our vacation short because the incognito attempts didn't work and fellow vacationers were bothered for the two days we spent in the sun. So much for trying to go incognito."

But in between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening, much happened.

Leeks said that when he went to Kaanapali on Thursday, the Mainland photographers were there, and they "caused a scene," trying to keep him from getting a shot.

White described it as "fighting with each other," although he did not see it himself. Leeks said the other paparazzi held up a towel to block him and otherwise tried to keep him away.

He did get pictures of the Palins, by leaving the area, putting on a wig and different clothes and approaching down the public beach from another direction.

Meanwhile, hotel staff were "making it clear" that the Mainland photographers were unwelcome on hotel property, he said.

That evening, the Palins left.

White said: "I found the Palins to be just wonderful people. Our hospitality staff was totally taken by them and by the attention that Todd and Sarah paid to the kids."

He said it was other guests who complained to his staff about the paparazzi.

The Maui News did not report that the Palins were vacationing on Maui (celebrities visit Maui frequently), but the newspaper did report on the visor flap on Dec. 19, including Palin's explanation about the visor and why she had cut her vacation short.

Not everybody bought that. Craig Medred, a veteran Alaska journalist who writes for Alaska Dispatch.com, said: "Every self-respecting Alaskan knows that if you want to cover something up, you put duct tape over it. You don't waste a whole bunch of time when you could be doing something funny trying to black it out with a Sharpie."

Others pointed out that she could have bought a visor without McCain's name on it in the hotel for $5.

More noteworthy was the revelation that aggressive paparazzi were on the island. "It was a surprise to me," White said.

Now forewarned, the Kaanapali Beach Hotel is prepared. "We pride ourselves" in taking care of guests, said White, "and every employee is part of security." The Mainland photographers "were kept off the property by a wide variety of people," he said.

Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, was traveling when all this happened and said this week that she, too, had not heard about pushy paparazzi on the island.

"I'm a little bit stunned," she said. "We don't want anybody bothered, celebrity or not. . . . We would hope that anybody would show respect to their fellow human beings."

The behavior was "not the kind of aloha we're known for," she said.

Leeks, a papparazzo himself, agrees. He has been quietly shooting celebrities for about 15 years, doing it full time for the past four. He said he never goes on resort properties but only takes pictures on public beaches.

He said he wants celebs to keep coming, and he doesn't want to make them camera shy on Maui.