Sarah Palin angered Alaskans by quitting as governor and snubbing them on her recent book tour, but in her home town, the former vice-presidential candidate can still draw a crowd, with many happy to hitch a ride on her bandwagon. Sarah Maslin Nir reports. At first glance, a drive through Wasilla, Alaska, confirms many stereotypes about its most famous local, the town's former mayor, Sarah Palin, who held the post from 1996 to 2002. Though the population hovers at only 7,000, nearly a dozen gun shops hang out their signs, advertising deals on shotguns and rifles. They're matched in number by taxidermy shops, macabre dens where you can stuff and mount wildlife, such as that prize bull moose you felled with your discount .300 Winchester.
But the town Sarah Palin used to rule, and Alaska, the state where she was governor when she was tapped to become the Republican vice-presidential candidate alongside Senator John McCain in 2008, has a milder side - a soft underbelly where residents are more concerned with their cappuccinos and their coifs than partisan politics or mounting moose heads, as I found when I spent an icy few days there last month. On the morning of December 22 when I first stepped on to the strip mall-lined streets of Wasilla, the small city seemed hushed. With snow banked up past the tops of the tyres of many cars parked along the roadside, I thought perhaps it was the weather keeping the hunters and shoppers off the wide highways that serve as the town's main streets. I was wrong. Sarah was back. Palin, who collects controversy like a dryer collects lint, infuriated many Alaskans by stepping down from her role as governor last July. She had continued to fan the flames of local ire, residents told me, on the book tour for her autobiography, Going Rogue, by going, well, everywhere else. On her nearly two-month nationwide tour, they complained, she hadn't scheduled a single book-signing stop in her home town that was open to the public. Then, days before I arrived, the Twitter-happy politician's tweet resonated around Wasilla: "AK book signing is Dec22, 11-2@local Sports Arena... very excited about this bc we'll get 2see old&new friends&share holiday cheer@same time!"
So that's where everyone was. It seemed that the entire town had headed to Palin's book signing. At 5am, I was told, fans were already lined up in the dark outside the Curtis D Menard Sports Center, though the event was more than six hours off, and the winter sun would not rise here until about 10am. The car park was packed, and people continued to arrive by snowmobile as the sun slowly rose over the gargantuan building. Inside, hundreds, including some burly bikers wearing leather jackets embroidered with the Palin/McCain catchphrase, "Drill Baby, Drill" queued patiently. Some families toted a half-dozen copies of her book awaiting her scrawl.
The site, formerly called the Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex, boasts an indoor track and heated seats from which "pit bulls in lipstick" (Palin's favourite analogy for her beloved hockey moms) could watch their kids slap pucks across the ice in toasty comfort.
True to form, the centre itself is not without controversy. The lavish US$15 million (Dh55 million) arena where Palin's son Track and almost-son-in-law Levi Johnston once played ice hockey, is sometimes referred to as "the house that Sarah built". It was built when she was mayor, and paid for by a tax hike she championed. And outside, once again, a controversy brewed. "We are on the banned list!" a camera-toting man exclaimed incredulously into his mobile phone as he and a companion exited the place. The man was Dennis Zaki, a local videographer whose blog, the Alaska Report, ran unfavourable articles about Palin. On arriving at the event, he was confronted by a guard who, he said, had his picture on file as a blacklisted member of the press. Apparently, not everyone in Wasilla loved - or was loved by - Palin. Inside, the throng awaiting her signature were oblivious to the media kerfuffle, news of which was to race through the blogosphere for the next week. But I had a problem. Since I hadn't known Palin was here, I had not arranged for a press pass. As I scrambled to find a way into the sports centre, a cheery woman in a Santa hat popped by, offering me a homemade cookie. I told her my predicament: I was on assignment to cover the very woman who had jettisoned several reporters from her event. Without a word, she slid her arm through mine and we walked arm in arm into the packed gym, where security guards tipped their hat to her: my mysterious benefactor was the Alaska state senator, Linda Menard, after whose father the sports centre was named. With a furtive "she's with me" to the guards, she whisked me upstairs to the press pit, a couple of metres from the table where Sarah and her husband Todd were receiving visitors who had made their way through the long line and signing their books.
Palin, in a ruffly red suit jacket made of cloth roses, hugged and thanked every supporter, and patiently listened to their every adulation, before they moved on to Todd for a firm handshake. But that was all I saw. The press, cordoned off to a small area and not allowed to speak to the ex-governor, were quickly shooed away by Palin's successor, Wasilla mayor Verne E Rupright, complaining about the astoundingly brief time we had been permitted to film and report. I'd been within a hair's breadth of her, and my impression of Palin hadn't changed: she had all the time in the world for her supporters, and none for any potential detractors.
Shunted downstairs, the cheery legislator found me and grabbed me again. "Come meet someone, he's attractive and single," she hissed, dragging me over to where Palin's father, Chuck Heath, and one of her brothers, Chuck Heath Jr (the attractive single, according to Senator Menard) were fielding reporters and chatting to locals. As Senator Menard turned jauntily to leave me to my reporting, she winked at me and said: "Am I your new best friend or what?" Out of nowhere, this woman had shown herself to be not just a friend of the free press, but my fairy godmother. I nodded furiously.
The day after Palin was picked by McCain, her father said, 81 reporters came to the family home, and her mother at first dutifully invited them in for coffee. "After about the first 15, she knew that she better slow down," he laughed. Such was the clamour, he said, that the Secret Service relocated them after two days. Heath still gets more than 100 telephone calls a day, he says, from people with advice, requests for signed memorabilia and "just five minutes with your daughter".
For the self-styled "hunter, a fisherman, a common, plain old guy" it was a lot to bear. Her brother, an elementary schoolteacher in Anchorage, agreed. "I am still in awe over everything that has happened over the past couple of years," he said. "From the governorship - which is a big deal to a family - to erupt on the national scene; it's completely surreal." He continued with a chuckle: "It's kind of ironic to me. I used to be introduced as 'Chuck' and Sarah used to be introduced as, 'Aren't you Chuck's sister?' He gestured to the hundreds milling in the gym. Things have changed.
Those in line were treated to hot beverages and pastries and attended to by what looked like several mini-Palins. In a nod to Palin's background as a one-time beauty pageant contestant, Alaskan teen beauty queens like "Miss Forget Me Not", 15-year-old Angelina Klapperich, greeted guests. "I'm a big Sarah fan," she beamed, with a sparkling tiara on top of her Palin-esque pompadour and a pageant sash across her cherry red business suit, the same hue as the tailored jacket her idol was sporting.
But Sarah Palin's tiara has been tarnished by a candidacy littered with flaps, missteps and scandal. "You know how much garbage we put up with, too," said the younger Heath, "From the family's point of view, we just wanted to watch Sarah be Sarah. She got some stupid guidance from every angle and some of it not so good, and the thing we wanted to see more than everything was to just let her be herself."
Though Angelina, whose pageant talent was playing the piano (Palin's was the flute), once aspired to a political career, watching her idol fall has changed that. "All the scrutiny Sarah has gotten has kind of turned me off a little bit," she said.
Angelina wasn't the only one taking her cues from Palin's personal style. From the moment Palin stepped centre-stage to announce her vice-presidential candidacy at the Republican National Convention, her gravity-defying up-do was the must-have hairdo, going on to become a top-selling wig.
The hair that launched a thousand snips was teased to its towering heights by Jessica J Steele in the piglet-pink confines of the Beehive Beauty Shop she owns. Inside the kitschy salon where Palin was a frequent customer, women with skunk-striped hair spritz and snip beneath black chandeliers that offset the fuchsia walls. The lavatories are plastered with posters of pin-ups with "don't-mess-with-me" stares, and superwomen fighting crime.
An hour's time and US$40 (Dh150) is required to assemble the Palin hairdo, plus, a generous dose of hairspray and follicles of steel. My strands were teased and combed against the grain into a snarl resembling tumbleweed by a young stylist named Roxanne Wintz, 20, who assured me the finished product would be presidentially sleek. Sure enough, the tangle of hair served as a sort of bulkhead for the smooth pieces she combed over it and fixed in place with hair grips (plus hairspray and more hairspray). The finished look was a polished peak atop my head. Topped off with a strategically timed wink, and I was fully Palin-ified.
Palin copycats can shop like her, dress like her and even get caffeinated as she does, here in Wasilla. At Mocha Moose Coffee Company and Roastery, owner Ben Harrell, 58, serves Palin's favourite drink, a piping hot skinny white chocolate mocha (hold the whipped cream) for US$3 (Dh11). When she's in town, he says she pulls into his drive-through espresso shack every day. "Once you get started, they're a little addictive," says Harrell. Her patronage inspired him to go into a side business of cross-promotional T-shirts that touted his caffeinated beverages and her candidacy. Wooden barrels filled with US$8 (Dh29) T-shirts emblazoned with "Official Coffee Supplier of Sarah Palin," and "Got Lipstick?" still line the register.
Things have calmed down now that Palin is somewhat removed from the media spotlight, although that might pick up again now that she has been announced as a Fox news contributor. But, during her political heyday, says Harrell, it seemed as if he spent more time answering reporters' questions than roasting beans. "It was an ordeal," he said of the barrage of news coverage to which even his humble shop was subject. "We're just a kind of quiet town," he added, shaking his head. "This poor town."
But others felt that the increased traffic Palin brought to the town was worth its weight in gold. At Double J Mining, the small jewellery shop owned by Gail and Todd Edgerton, she was, in a sense, their best customer. Her father Chuck had been a longtime patron, buying baubles made from the Alaskan gold the couple unearthed themselves from the mine they've owned for decades, as birthday and Christmas presents for his family. In her many televised events, Sarah Palin sports their creations - US$395 (Dh1,450) earrings in the shape of the state of Alaska, studded with nubbly miniature gold nuggets. They've been top sellers ever since. "She's an Alaskan through and through," says Gail, explaining Palin's choice of design.
Pricey accessories tripped Palin up in her bid for the vice presidency. In Going Rogue, she claims she was reluctant to submit to an expensive wardrobe makeover that campaign staffers insisted upon. Whatever her reservations, she and her family were nevertheless retrofitted with top designer duds, and the Republican National Committee footed the roughly US$150,000 (Dh550,000) bill.
When she repented and abandoned the fancy clothing, she defended herself by saying that she usually bought her clothes in a second-hand clothes shop named "Out of the Closet" in nearby Anchorage. Alas, hapless Palin inadvertently caused another flap. The shop was sued by a Los Angeles-based franchise with the same name, for trademark infringement, and has since changed its name to "Second Run."
Whatever the risks of associating with the self-described "maverick," Megan Vincent, 36, the owner of "Younique Boutique," wants to be Palin's new second-hand shop of choice. Accordingly, just for the chance to invite Palin to her shop, where she might buy clothes with more Average American-friendly price tags, Vincent said she had bought the book and waited for hours on the Wasilla book-signing line. The chance to advertise to her town's most celebrated daughter "was worth the $30", she said with a laugh.
But according to her book, the kit that Palin is more interested in involves Day-Glo orange reflectors, or comes in the mottled greens and browns of camouflage; that is, hunting gear. She is an avid hunter and photo ops of her toting a rifle dogged her campaign. She was both derided by detractors and lauded by those who champion the right to bear arms. At Chimo Guns, the manager Craig Pell stocks more than 300 rifles and 400 shotguns, some a startling hot pink. Pell said that Palin's husband, Todd, has bought the family's guns here over the years.
Near the vaulted ceiling, a gargantuan moose looks over the shop, his metres of antlers casting a shadow across racks of fearsome steel traps and vials of foul-smelling wolf bait with names like "Widowmaker". Palin loves hunting for meat. As she puts it in her tome: "I always remind people from outside our state that there's plenty of room for all Alaska's animals - right next to the mashed potatoes." But in her home town, Palin's father Chuck offered a different take on the root of his daughter's passion. "She hunted not for the killing," he said, "but mainly to go with me. She was my little girl."