Team runs afoul of viewers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After so many reality shows and so many reality show villains - from Survivor's treacherous Richard Hatch to The Apprentice's backstabbing Omarosa - it was only a matter of time before a Baltimorean would step forward and stun the television nation with her outrageous behavior.

That time is now, and that person is Mirna Hindoyan, a lawyer from Timonium. Mirna and her cousin Charla Fouddoul of Hunt Valley are competing to win $1 million on The Amazing Race, which airs tonight at 10 on CBS. In just a few episodes, the cousins have emerged as the most polarizing - and reviled - contestants on the show, the evidence mounting by the week.

They lie!

They cheat!

They bully!

Mirna and Charla, as they are known on the show, have demonstrated a willingness to do whatever it takes to win - including telling white lies and exploiting Charla's physical condition (she is a dwarf) - while at the same time bitterly complaining about teams that they think are not playing fairly.

In other words, some say, they're hypocrites.

Mirna and Charla cannot defend themselves from such attacks because they're not allowed to talk to the press until the show is over or they are eliminated. The show, a round-the-world race in which teams complete tasks in various countries, started with 12 teams last month. The last team to complete each week's task is kicked off. Eight teams now remain.

The teams often form loose alliances to help each other, but those bonds often break. In last week's installment, Mirna said that she and her cousin would ally only with other "God-fearing people," apparently implying their moral superiority. Shortly after that comment, the cousins found themselves in an Argentinean airport, jockeying with the other teams to get on the earliest possible flight to Patagonia.

Charla told a ticket agent that she needed to see a doctor - which she didn't. "Usually people help me when they see me," she later told the cameras. The ticket agent gave Charla and Mirna priority on the waiting list for the early flight, and they made it on.

"Unbelievable," wrote Linda Holmes, who recaps the show for televisionwithoutpity.com. "You can either choose to run the race like a racer (my personal preference), or you can run it like a Scout, but you cannot demand that you get to run like a racer and everybody else has to run it like Scouts. That is utter nonsense. Man, I do not like these girls at all. At. All."

Those comments are echoed on dozens of pages of Internet message boards, where the cousins have sharply divided fans of the show. Some find the 27-year-olds amusing and applaud their eagerness to compete in the face of Charla's physical limitations. But most just find them obnoxious.

They point to a situation last week in which Mirna and Charla got lost. Instead of blaming themselves for not being able to read a map, they blamed another team, one of their allies, for not helping them out.

"Now we're lost," Mirna whined, "because we trusted somebody."

Even Charla has not been spared from Mirna's outbursts. Last week Mirna told Charla to "hurry up" several times, including during a stop at a chocolate factory, where teams had to find a white-center chocolate among thousands with dark centers.

Charla gamely agreed to do the task after Mirna said the candy would make her vomit. Mirna showed her appreciation by yelling at Charla as she ate the chocolates: "White! White! Bite 'em! Bite 'em! Just spit them! You don't have to eat them! Hurry up! Do it fast!"

Writes Holmes on the Television Without Pity site: "This is not Mirnaland, where Mirna is Queen and gets to wave her Mirna-Wand and straighten her Mirna-Crown and tell everyone what to do."

While Charla and Mirna haven't spoken publicly, their friends and family are stepping up in their defense. David Fouddoul, Charla's husband, said that he thinks the cousins are playing fairly. He suggested that Charla was not so much taking advantage of people's sympathy as using her skills of persuasion to get her way.

"The way she talks, she makes people help her in a way that they are giving her more than she asks," said David Fouddoul. "Sometimes, for example, when we miss a flight, she explains [to ticket agents] what happened. If I talk to them, they don't believe me. But the way she talks, nice and polite, with a big smile, makes them help her."

Charla is a district manager for Gary's Sports Wear. She lives with her husband of four years in Hunt Valley. She was born in Syria but grew up in Timonium, attending Dulaney High School and Towson University.

"I kind of describe Charla's life as an amazing race against all people," said Mary Beth Hernandez, who lived across the street from Charla's family in Timonium and often hired Charla as a babysitter. "She has a lot of tenacity. She's adaptable and gregarious and funny. She has all her life just beaten the odds, and I'm not at all surprised she's in the race and doing well."

Charla's supporters also include some little people who are excited to see her holding her own against the other contestants, said Dan Okenfuss, a vice president of Little People of America. He said Charla is just doing what it takes to win.

"We're very proud of her because it shows little people in an event that is mainstream," he said. "What Charla is doing is what we do every day - to work something to achieve a goal."

Mirna has taken the brunt of the criticism, both on and off the show. She was called a vulgar name by another contestant, Marshall, last week. He later said, "I hate her so much I can't even begin to explain to you. When I have the opportunity, you watch, I will get even."

Mirna's supporters say it's not her behavior that's turning people off but the fact that she is a strong, successful woman. Christina Burden, who attended the University of Maryland Law School with Mirna, said Marshall and his partner appeared threatened by Mirna.

"It's probably very difficult for them to see a woman who's as smart and successful and strong as Mirna, and I bet they find that pretty intimidating," Burden said. "She won't allow anyone to push her around, and I think that's really difficult for people at times. But she's just standing up for herself."

For its part, CBS is happy with the show. The network said that ratings for the show, now in its fifth season, are the highest in more than two years, and the show now ranks in the top 10 in the weekly Nielsen TV ratings. Bertram van Munster, the executive producer and co-creator of the show, said Mirna and Charla were cast partly because of their obvious devotion to each other. But he also said they have the attributes to win.

"Is Mirna manipulative? Yeah, probably," van Munster said. "Hey, she's a lawyer, what can I tell you? She's playing the game and she's very protective of Charla, which I think is a very redeeming quality. She will not take any [garbage] from anybody."

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