KENNEBUNK – For most residents here, the biggest news of the fall was expected to be the completion of a beautification project on Main Street resulting in wider brick sidewalks, new plantings and a new bridge over the Mousam River.
That was before a mix of illicit sex in an upscale small town, rumors of a list of prominent prostitution clients, the slow release of the names of suspected “johns” and even a hot new fitness routine turned Kennebunk into the setting for “a pretty potent formula for a tabloid story,” said Max Read, a blogger for Gawker, a New York-based website with the motto: “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.”
The story of Alexis Wright, the 29-year-old former Zumba instructor accused of using her business in downtown Kennebunk as a front for prostitution, clearly has taken hold, not only with residents but outside the town as well. It has been a much-discussed topic on television shows, Internet sites and newspapers, in part because the scandal seems so at odds with Kennebunk’s reputation as a quaint tourist destination.
Of course, it has become the focus of most everyone in town, with a mixture of fascination and dread.
For instance, Chris Farr, director of The Brick Store Museum, has been busy planning a new exhibit on the town’s role in the Civil War, but he’s also taken time to keep up with more current town events.
One morning last week, his computer displayed the home page of The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, and its story on Wright’s alleged prostitution operation — a story that unfolded not far from the museum at the other end of Main Street.
“It’s the only thing people are talking about in this town,” Farr said, as he sent off an email with a link to the Australian paper’s story to his brother. He said there’s little competition for topics of conversation because “the political news is pretty depressing.”
Although it has its share of old captains’ mansions, stately homes and beaches, Kennebunk is often overshadowed by neighboring Kennebunkport, with its even wealthier summer residents and renown as the seaside home of former President George H.W. Bush, which drew tourists and world leaders to the town. Of course, many of them passed through Kennebunk to get there.
For years, the town seemed proudest of the fact that it was the only place in the world with the name Kennebunk, a fact noted on the side of a mill overlooking Route 1.
But while Kennebunk’s reputation for now is synonymous with the prostitution scandal, many residents believe — and hope — it will soon be eclipsed by some other media sensation.
“I think it will be over 10 minutes after the last list (of Wright’s suspected clients) comes out,” Farr said.
Resident Mark Nedeau, however, is hoping the interest remains for at least a little longer so he can make some good out of the scandal. Nedeau had printed up T-shirts for sale that read: “I’m NOT on the client list. ARE YOU?”
He said the shirts reflect the fact that almost every man in town has been asked, or asked, that question.
“It’s like deer season,” he said. “Get your deer yet?”
Nedeau said proceeds from the sale of the shirts — as of Thursday he had sold 116 at $10 each — will go to the town’s heating assistance fund.
“I’m trying to make light out of a bad situation,” he said, while hoping that the boost to the fuel fund will also result in something positive coming out of it.
“I love my town, but am I disappointed by what’s going on? Yes, I am,” he said.
It would be hard to overstate the level of interest outside of town. NBC’s “Today” show has covered Kennebunk, along with The New York Times and People.com. Papers around the globe picked up on it, although some seem to confuse the town with Kennebunkport.
Someone even updated Kennebunk’s Wikipedia entry, adding the allegations against Wright to a history of the town that recounts the early settlement by Abenaki Indians, the story of an elm planted in honor of the 1825 visit by Lafayette and an in-depth explanation of how Mother’s Beach got its name.
Matthew Killmeier, an associate professor of communication and media studies at the University of Southern Maine, said already strong interest in the story was likely elevated when an attorney for two of the suspected clients tried to block the release of the first list of summonses issued in the case.
That led people to think that there was a cover-up under way, heightening interest. It also sparked an ethical debate over whether the list should be released and whether it might hurt the families of the suspected “johns” even more than the accused. That debate, he said, kept the issue alive during the few days before a court ruled that the names of those charged had to be released, and then attention turned toward figuring out who was who on the list — and who might be on the next list, expected to be released Friday.
Killmeier said the idea of a sophisticated prostitution operation in small-town Maine runs counter to how the state is typically seen, by residents as much as by people from away.
“It flies in the face of that mythical image of Maine, which is manufactured,” he said. “We like to see ourselves as this state comprised of small communities somewhat stuck in the past — in the good ways, and not the bad ways. This sort of scandal suggests that’s not the case.”
Read said the story strikes a chord with Gawker’s readers. Even a Kennebunk Zumba story put up at night — normally a slow time for the site, he said — shot to the top of the most-read list.
“It outperformed my expectations,” he said, adding that readers’ comments suggest they see the tale primarily as a diversion from the day’s more serious news.
One comment read: “It looks like the only fun thing in Maine was shut down,” Read said.
Paul Harris, a U.S. correspondent for the British paper The Guardian, said the story is “universal.” It’s “a dirty secret that likely involves some of the community’s most esteemed members,” Harris said. “It thus combines sex and hypocrisy, which is a killer combination.”
British tabloids, in particular, have followed the story avidly. Those papers, Harris said, are especially keen on a “secret sex story, and one set in a small, picturesque, idyllic town is perfect. Then you have the added Zumba element. That just makes headlines easier to write — and more popular with the readers.”
Harris said technology also drives the story to an extent.
“Previously, that list of bigwigs would be available only to those who went to court and even then, you would have had to spend a great deal of time tracking them down,” he said. “These days, the list of names disseminates rapidly on social media and anyone with Facebook, Google and Twitter can then search for those involved. Again, that gives the story a great lift with people, meaning newspapers will chase after it.”
But Killmeier said Kennebunk residents should rest easy; this, too, shall pass.
“If this was going to have any effect (on Kennebunk’s image), this is the right time for it to break,” Killmeier said, because it will likely be forgotten by the time summer people start returning next year.
At the Main Street Sunoco, owner Mark Boynton hopes the town’s days as front-page news will fade. He thinks it will, although it might take a few months.
“Once the final list is out,” he said, “I expect that within a few weeks after that, it will be something else.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: