The state determines legal and culturally appropriate uses of the historic site.

The use of Iolani Palace as a backdrop for an advertisement in Modern Luxury Hawaii magazine has exposed a loophole in the state’s film permit system for culturally sensitive locations. 

The advertisement featured a photo of Maria Kawananakoa posing in front of the palace under a headline that described her as a “Princess” and promoted her personal real estate brand. 

Maria is married to David Kawananakoa, a nephew of the late Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, who claimed descent from a line of Hawaii’s monarchy. 

Taking personal photos or selfies at Iolani Palace is allowed, and basic approval is needed with professional shoots like graduations and weddings. 

Iolani Palace in honor of King David Kalakaua's November 16th birthday.
Any use of Iolani Palace as a backdrop for commercial photography needs two levels of permission. DLNR said it monitors these requests because of the sensitivities around the the building’s significance. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

However, commercial photography — or any commercial purpose — requires a special permit with approval from both the Friends of Iolani Palace and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The Friends of Iolani Palace did not make a permit request to DNLR because Kawananakoa claimed the photos would fall under her personal use. 

Nevertheless the photos ended up in the advertisement for her real estate business.

Alan Carpenter, a DLNR assistant administrator, said the agency determines legal and culturally appropriate uses for the historic site. However, the agency was unaware of the photoshoot or the subsequent ad.

“We’re careful about what we approve as a nexus to the monarchy or palace history or culture — we had no idea this was happening,” Carpenter said. “We never got a chance to say yes, no, maybe or apply any conditions.”

Jon Osorio, professor of Hawaiian Studies at University of Hawaii Manoa, felt assuming the title in the format was problematic. “Maria Grazia Kawananakoa’s claim to a royal status is amusing on one level, and on another level offensive to Hawaiian sensibilities that still think of alii as models of decorum and dignity.”

Kawananakoa denied writing the advertorial’s content and stated the magazine chose the backdrop, but did not comment further on the photoshoot.

The palace occupies a sensitive cultural position, as both a symbol of Hawaii’s pre-colonial history and as a place of imprisonment for the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.

David and Maria Kawananakoa have in the past donated to the palace museum, including a 2020 gift that ranged between $2,000 and $3,750. The Kawananakoa family has long patronized Iolani Palace, and in January 2023 Princess Abigail’s widow donated $500,000 to the palace and $250,000 to the Hawaii Community Fund, part of which will also be used on the palace.

Iolani Palace was built in 1882 and was home to the last of the Hawaiian reigning monarchs. (Hawaii State Archives)

The Mantle Of ‘Princess’

Maria Kawananakoa appeared in Modern Luxury Hawaii’s July/August Power Players advertorial. Participants pay for their spot and provide the messaging without editorial oversight, according to representatives from the magazine.

There, for the first time publicly, Kawananakoa styled herself as “Princess Maria Grazia Kawananakoa” and a champion of Oahu’s history whose “influence stretches across the island and beyond.”

She had previously appeared in the magazine, as recently as the March/April issue, under the name “Maria Kawananakoa” and without the palace backdrop.

While she admitted the recent ad was the first time she had identified as Hawaiian royalty, Kawananakoa said her marriage to David meant she has long been known in private circles as a princess. She said her husband would be king if there was still a monarchy.

According to multiple biographies, Kawananakoa is from Canada and holds U.S., Canadian and Italian citizenship. She has run a pilates studio for 25 years in Kakaako.

Kawananakoa boasted in the recent advertorial to have made $127 million worth of property sales and “acquired the island’s most coveted properties for her esteemed clients.”

Fallout over using the photo in the advertisement is uncertain.

Carpenter from DLNR noted a penalty structure exists for violating the rules of a permit or the right of use rules, but that enforcement is another matter.

Osorio felt divided on her intentions.

“The questionable taking on of a title is behavior that we consider ‘Maha’oi’. So this will not endear her to the Hawaiian community — which may or may not matter to her,” Osorio said.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect the split of the donation made by Abigail Kawananakoa’s widow to the Iolani Palace.

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