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Sunday, February 04, 2007 8:36 AM

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MTV shocked by response to show

KAANAPALI – MTV is MTV. It’s not CNN, and it’s not The Learning Channel.

That’s one of the main arguments among supporters of “Maui Fever,” a new MTV reality series that follows the interactions among a beaching and boozing Kaanapali group of friends.

It’s generated a strong reaction from across the country – from fans of the Valley Isle critical of the show’s portrayal and from fans of the show who say it’s only entertainment.

“It’s music television, not the world news,” wrote Amanda Vassallo, 20, of Margate, N.J. “People are acting like this show aired on ABC or something. . . . It’s fun and addicting. So what’s the problem?”

Since its premiere on Jan. 17, the controversial eight-episode series has drawn response from people on Internet sites, saying MTV is just doing what it does, capturing the lifestyle of young adults – if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Others say the series’ all-white main cast misrepresents the ethnically diverse island population, and the heavy partying portrays Maui as something it’s not.

“Maui Fever” critics have even drafted an online petition calling on MTV executives to cancel the show. The page was closed by creator Angie Platt of Ohio on Wednesday with more than 10,000 entries, and copies will be mailed to Gov. Linda Lingle and MTV corporate offices, Platt said.

The reactions – which are being called the strongest response to any Hawaii production by State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson – came as a shock to MTV representatives.

“It was sort of a surprise,” said executive producer Tony DiSanto during a phone interview from the network’s New York headquarters. “Our goal was not to document or make a statement about Maui or its people in general. It was about telling the story of this group of kids with Maui as the backdrop. On that point, I want to be very respectful to how Maui looks and appears as a backdrop. That was a big concern of ours . . . I think we delivered on that.”

DiSanto, who said the show attracts millions of viewers each week, added that he has taken the concerns to heart.

“I have the utmost respect for the people of Hawaii, the people of Maui,” he said. “(The local response) is something we will absolutely take into consideration.”

Meanwhile, some cast members are catching heat for participating in “Maui Fever” – particularly Cheyne Magnusson of Lahaina, a well-known pro surfer who has brought worldwide recognition to Maui for his surf industry accomplishments.

Magnusson, 23, one of the series’ leads and and actor in the skate film “Lords of Dogtown,” was born in Southern California and moved to Maui with his family at age 7. He said he agreed to do the show as a career opportunity to bring attention his clothing sponsors, and thought he would get teased by his friends and family, at most.

Instead, Magnusson said the negativity is “disheartening,” especially when he hears that people think he is giving a bad name to Maui, the tightknit community he’s known since little-kid days.

“Guys are trying to fight me in my hometown,” he said. “I just think, if I could just talk to everyone and just explain it to them.”

Magnusson said the show is not intended to portray all of the aspects of the Valley Isle; it is a “drama reality show about young kids in relationships, growing up in an extraordinary place and learning life lessons.”

“We’re sorry if it really offends anyone,” he said. “To all the aunties and uncles from here, if you’re angry about it, please don’t get the wrong idea. . . . Uncle and aunty, (to be able to call someone that) is the best thing, I love that aspect of Maui. I don’t want to lose it.”

Orrin Cross, Hula Grill Kaanapali general manager, said cast member and restaurant worker, Sean, was harassed out of the water at Honolua Bay recently after being yelled at for being on the series.

Cross said “Maui Fever” doesn’t depict that Sean is actually a hard worker.

“He’s a great server,” he said. “He’s charming and very nice.”

One of the biggest concerns about the show hinge on MTV’s decision to choose a main cast that lacks ethnic diversity. The debate has sparked a surge of race-related comments on Internet pages and message boards.

“Personally, I have never been in a more beautiful place that was so ugly in my life,” wrote Rob Vuona of Hollyglen, Calif. “Of all the places that I have visited around the planet, Hawaii, specifically Maui, is the most racist place I have ever encountered. Not racist to one specific race either, but to anyone who is from the ’Mainland.’”

On the other end, Steven Charles of Atlanta, wrote, “It’s almost like they’ve desecrated a sacred temple. . . . I can’t believe they could come and completely ignore the diversity of people.”

George Kaimiola, part of Maui theater group Talking Stories and a Native Hawaiian activist, said locals often only get supporting roles or are just part of the backdrop, which adds frustration to already underrepresented ethnicities.

DiSanto said casting decisions were made based two primary issues: MTV sought people who were willing to participate and who were already part of a group of friends.

“Unlike other reality shows were you can handpick people across the country and put them together somewhere in a forced environment like ’Big Brother’ or ’Survivor,’ with this or ’Laguna,’ you have to tap into a group of friends that is already organically hanging out together.”

All of the participants were residents of the island when the show was cast, although there are no born Mauians.

According to MTV, Anthony, 19, was born on the Big Island and moved to Maui when he was 6; Corbin, 24, was born in California and moved to Hawaii when he was 6; Chaunte, 20, was born on the Mainland and moved to Maui at 4; Jesse, 21, is from Chicago and moved to Hawaii about two years ago; Sean, 24, is from California and moved to Maui six years ago; Anna, 21, is from Oregon and moved to Maui about three years ago.

Magnusson said he’s just as proud of being raised here and that it shouldn’t matter whether he was born here: “This is what I know; this is my home.”

After all is said and done, Magnusson said, he hopes people will use the same energy aimed at shutting down the show toward Lahaina community work, such as progress on an emergency room, Lahaina Bypass Now or a new youth center, he said.

“We live in a small town,” said Magnusson, who organized a West Maui concrete skate park fundraiser during the show. “I think we should stick together.”

DiSanto said it’s way too early to be discussing if a second season is in store.

Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at

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