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Filipinos in a Lather Over Mexican Soap Opera Star

August 16, 1996 GMT

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ A Mexican soap opera star who has become a Philippines television sensation arrived today with the wallop of tropical typhoon.

Thalia, the 25-year-old Mexican star of ``Mari Mar,″ is on a nine-day trip that promises as much pomp as many state visits. President Fidel Ramos has invited her to the presidential palace, area mayors want to dine with her, and Channel 9 TV _ which carries her show _ plans regular live updates.

Since debuting in March, ``Mari Mar″ has become a national obsession that has knocked aside all competition, including the once-invincible ``TV Patrol″ news magazine program.

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Shops close early so owners can watch ``Mari Mar″ each day. Parents name their daughters after her. And a Manila man gave his life for her, stabbed by a drunken cousin when he refused to change the channel.

While foreign soaps like ``Dynasty″ have been popular here before, the ``Mari Mar″ phenomenon has reached an entirely different level, becoming the most popular serial on Filipino television ever.

``I love you all,″ Thalia told the crowd who greeted her pre-dawn arrival in Manila, recorded by more than 50 photographers and TV cameras.

She posed and primmed for several minutes in a skin-tight black Chanel halter top and leggings.

``It’s wonderful, very exhilarating and incredible,″ said Amaya Michel, the wife of Mexico’s ambassador to the Philippines, who met Thalia at the airport. ``She’s our best PR right now.″

During the trip, which Channel 9 is sponsoring at a reported cost of $400,000, the actress and singer will give two concerts _ one, in a 10,000-seat coliseum, will be free. All 8,500 tickets for the other concert are sold out.

``Mari Mar″ tells the story of a peasant girl who moves to the city. She falls in love with her Prince Charming, but his stepmother separates them. The girl eventually discovers she is actually the daughter of a rich Mexican landlord and is reunited with her love.

Entire households have rescheduled their lives to watch the daily soap, which is dubbed into Tagalog. Hospitals report a wave of babies named Mari Mar, Thalia’s role in the show. Nationwide, stores and offices have begun closing early.

``I even sell my vegetables at a discount so I can get home early to watch Mari Mar,″ said Delia, a vendor at Manila’s Paco market who would give only one name. ``The story is very Filipino and it gives me a good cry.″

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The civil service has warned that government employees found sneaking away to watch the show will be reprimanded on the first offense and face dismissal on the second.

Lawmakers in the town of Guimba, north of Manila, ordered the local power company not to schedule any routine power outages during the daily broadcast.

``Very seldom do we see our people in Guimba preoccupied and mesmerized with such a soap opera, and to deprive them of such enjoyment would be to act like a killjoy,″ city council member Benny Rillo said.

President Ramos has invited Thalia to the presidential palace, and wrote a letter to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo saying that the series has created a ``new kind of Philippine-Mexico connection.″

``It’s almost unbelievable how Mari Mar and her TV series have become so popular in the Philippines,″ he wrote.

A shared culture from 400 years of Spanish colonialism may help explain the connection. But the Philippines passed from Spanish to American hands in 1898. Few people now speak Spanish and most feel closer ties to the United States than to the Hispanic world.

Commentators differ on why the show is so wildly popular: the fast-paced plot, the glamorous settings, Thalia’s Latin beauty _ or even the living conditions of many Filipinos.

``The majority of Filipinos live such dreary, monotonous barren lives that they need something like `Mari Mar’ to gladden the end of their working day,″ says Teodoro Benigno, a columnist and former spokesman for ex-President Corazon Aquino.

But one thing is certain: it’s taken television here in a new direction.

Another station already has snapped up an older soap opera starring Thalia, ``Maria Mercedes.″ A newer drama, ``Maria La Del Barrio,″ will replace ``Mari Mar″ on Channel 9 when it ends its run in October.