CAPITAL CULTURE: Move over Kate, Michaele's here!
"I love to just make an entrance," declares one of the new "Real Housewives of D.C." on the show's debut episode, set to air in August.
Quick, guess which one!
Of course, that grimace-inducing line, given what we all know, comes from Michaele Salahi — whose uninvited "entrance" into the White House last fall threw Washington into a tizzy, raised serious questions about presidential security, caused major fallout at the Secret Service and led to the departure of the White House social secretary.
And it isn't over: A federal grand jury has been conducting a criminal investigation of Michaele and Tareq Salahi and how they got into the White House. But for now, all that trouble seems SO last year.
Because, judging from a sneak peek at the first episode of "Real Housewives," Michaele is the unquestioned star of the new franchise. In fact, on a show that sets out to profile well-connected players in Washington — well, rich, beautiful, catty well-connected players in Washington — the newly famous Salahi is perhaps the closest to a player they've got. Heck, at least she's met the president!
But let's pause for a little history. It was back in May of 2009 that Bravo, already home to the "Real Housewives" of Orange County, Atlanta, New York City and New Jersey, let it be known it was coming to the nation's capital.
Immediately, tongues started wagging in Washington's social circles. Who would the show find to equal the wealthy, colorful, surgically enhanced, backbiting, table-flipping heroines of those other cities? Was the wonky capital interesting enough? Some were horrified the show was coming, others a little proud, and some both.
A production company, Half Yard Productions, meanwhile, was searching for women who, in Bravo's words, "have their hands on the pulse of what's going on culturally and politically." They knew, of course, that it would be tough to get to the center of political power. "I imagine it would be a challenge if we were trying for, say, (social secretary) Desiree Rogers," Bravo programming executive Andy Cohen told The Associated Press at the time, a comment that seems a bit eerie now.
In a secretive process — candidates weren't told initially what show they were "auditioning" for — camera crews followed women into parties, leading to talk that they might be "Housewives." The buzz led to more invitations, making their notoriety rather a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Enter Michaele Salahi — and excuse the pun. After she and her polo-playing husband from Virginia wine country made their way into the November state dinner, Bravo said they were being considered for the show but that the cast was not yet set.
What they didn't say then was that shooting was already almost finished, as Cohen said last week when the cast was announced. There was no way at that stage, Cohen said, to replace her — and during editing, it had become clear how connected Salahi was to the other characters' stories.
And how important she would be to ratings, he might have added. "The Salahis are the golden egg," says Carol Joynt, who writes a column on Washington society for the New York Social Diary. Especially because prominent Washington players wouldn't go near the show, she says.
In fact, Joynt, who interviewed the Salahis last week for her local cable interview show, had never heard of any of the five chosen women until Bravo started shooting the show in September, two months before the White House incident. "If people in America think these are players in Washington, they're delusional," she says.
Cathy Merrill Williams, publisher of Washingtonian magazine, agrees. "They tried hard to get political women, to capture the politically powerful part of Washington," Williams says of the show. "Did they do it? No. Because in Washington, the currency is not money, it's not exposure. It's brains and reputation, and powerful women are very protective of their reputations. They're not going to turn their lives over to a television editing room."
Of course, getting powerful, accomplished women might be boring, Williams adds. "You could follow Nancy Pelosi around for a year, and nothing would happen," she says. "Washington is full of really smart women who are making the country better. They just don't make good television."
So who are the other "Real Housewives?"
—Mary Schmidt Amons, a suburban mother of five. She's a granddaughter of the late TV personality Arthur Godfrey, but more interesting to viewers will probably be the biometric lock on her clothes closet — opened only by her fingerprint — to keep her own daughter out. "When you have a daughter who shares your same size and your same style, you have to take measures into your own hands," she explains.
—Lynda Erkiletian, who heads a D.C.-area modeling agency — given the limited number of fashion clients in D.C., she says, her business caters to ambassadors and diplomats. Whatever that means, it should be noted that she bears more than a passing physical resemblance to LuAnn de Lesseps, the countess-turned-etiq uette author-turned songstress on "Real Housewives of New York City."
—Stacie Scott Turner, a high-end real estate broker for Sotheby's, who seems the most down-to-earth of the bunch: Watch for her priceless look of horror when a tipsy Mary makes an impassioned speech about how black and white women (Stacie's the only black cast member) should share the same hair salons. Turner went to Harvard Business School, and somewhere along the way met Barack Obama long enough for a photo to be snapped. "I just knew that man was going places," she says.
—Catherine Ommanney, a British interior designer who once hit the British tabloids because of a "long and lovely" kiss she says she shared with Prince Harry, and whose nickname, Cat, is apparently quite apt. Of the Salahis' polo party, she notes drily: "I was expecting something a little bigger." She expounds on her romance with her husband, political photographer Charles Ommanney, who took photos of Obama, and disses Obama for not having responded to their wedding invitation. (Maybe he knew something: The Ommanneys have since reportedly separated.)
Clearly, the biggest draw is Salahi — 44, blonde, willowy and fashion-model thin. "When you first look at me, you think I have no substance," she says, assuring viewers that isn't true. At her polo charity event, she runs about the room hugging everyone in sight. "I'm a hugger," she explains.
The show hints that her White House foray will be, like her role on the show, front and center. A coming-attractions shot features the couple in back of a car on the way to the state dinner, her in that famous red sari, and then, on the audio track, her voice at a congressional hearing, saying: "I respectfully assert my right to remain silent."
It's not hard to imagine that the gatecrashing episode will be a huge ratings draw — even for those not already fans of the show.
But will Salahi and her cohorts be enough to carry a full season? That remains to be seen. In Washington, at least, Joynt predicts people will be watching — albeit quietly.
"To a one, they claim they have no interest," Joynt says. "But I imagine most will watch. It'll certainly be something to dine out on after Labor Day. And really, who wants to talk about BP?"
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