Monday, June 21, 2010

Washington Social Diary

CJ, interviewing Michaele and Tareq Salahi at The Q&A Cafe.
by Carol Joynt

As Popeye says, I am what I am what I am, and since 2001 that’s been host of a talk show in a restaurant, where men and women eat lunch while I interview a notable person. To me “notable” can mean anything from creating a global delivery service like Fred Smith did with FedEx, to being among the architects of a controversial war, like former Pentagon officials Douglas Feith and Kenneth Adelman, to writing acclaimed literature like Erica Jong, or to being a successful but indicted “madam,” like the late Deborah Jeane Palfrey. They are among the almost 300 people I’ve interviewed since The Q&A Café began.

But notorious White House “gatecrasher” and soon-to-be reality TV star Michaele Salahi is the first guest to growl at me. Not once, but twice. It was a good growl, too, in the style of Eartha Kitt. Literally, “grrrrrrrr.” It came midway through an interview last week with her and husband Tareq Salahi. She thought my questions were hostile. They were meant to be pointed, not heated. If I wanted to give her hostility I could have produced a dozen or so of the hate emails that arrived after scheduling the interview in the first place.

“I am appalled that you will give those losers another platform for their crap,” said one message that reflected the tone of most. “I have come to your Q & A's for years and thought you were a decent person. Wow.”

Wow, indeed. Nobody questioned my decency when I interviewed the Bush Administration’s war hawks.

Stepping into the vortex of the Salahis was an extraordinary journey. At times bizarre, frustrating or amusing, but nonetheless a look inside the bubble of modern celebrity, where you’re nobody unless your life is on camera. Andy Warhol warned us this would happen, but his fabled forecast of everyone getting 15 minutes of fame seems quaint and charming in the shadow of reality TV. We reside at the moment not in Stephen Spielberg’s future of “Artificial Intelligence,” but instead in a world of Artificial Significance, where reality TV mints superstars.

Scott Fitzgerald supposedly said to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from us,” and Hemingway supposedly replied, “Yes, they have money.” Well, here in the early 21st century, reality TV stars are different from us. They have cameras.
The media surround the Salahis at the Georgetown Ritz Carlton.
Inside the Salahi vortex I encountered a cast of characters that ranged from their personal entourage to their bosses at Bravo. No doubt a group of talented and fine people, but the mere announcement of the Salahi interview got Bravo in a lather, especially when a media outlet with which I have no relationship printed misinformation. A day’s worth of emails went back and forth, with Bravo trying to control the flow of everything, including incidental mention of the name “Real Housewives of Washington, DC.”

“If you want to book anything associated with the Real Housewives of DC you would have to go through Bravo,” said one missive, and “This event isn't sanctioned by Bravo,” warned another. I replied that I booked it directly with the Salahis (through Facebook, actually), and besides, it is my show, not Bravo’s. My final message was to the heads of PR, Business Affairs and Legal to say they were “obsessing,” their behavior bordered on harassment, and to please “stop.” They did.

A cast member said the Bravo brass “realize they don’t understand Washington.” That’s okay. Most of the world doesn’t understand Washington, but it helps to come at us with kid gloves rather than sledgehammers.
Lights, camera, action.
Michaele moments before she growled.
The “Real Housewives of Washington DC” premieres August 5th, and the Salahis are ready with layers of handlers and gatekeepers. Email messages are answered by an agent in Australia. They move about with staff to handle clothing, hair, make-up. I wanted to say “its okay to be low-key,” but sensed that’s not how they believe “celebrities” walk through life. I’ve interviewed plenty of powerful people, including movie people, who simply showed up on time, without handlers, and did the interview. The late C.Z. Guest flew down from New York and arrived at the show alone and unadorned except for her self-confidence and natural beauty. In the real real world, that’s all you need.

Once upon a time people became celebrities due to worthiness. Reality TV allows celebrity to be an end in itself. If a person signs up for a reality show where the cameras tag along into the bedroom and the bathroom its fair to assume they have a yearning for celebrity. It can’t be the money, because the money is under proportion to the invasion of privacy. Some reality stars have marketed themselves outside the shows, like “Skinnygirl” entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel, and some – like Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth – have made it a profession, appearing in serial reality shows. The Salahis said reality TV impresario Donald Trump got in touch after the White House episode but they were already under contract to Bravo.
Coverage of the Salahi interview in The Washington Post. From's Click column by Kiki Ryan.
On Politics Daily.
Who knows how long the fascination will last or where it will lead. One cast member speculated that perhaps down the road “Housewives” would evolve into the pop culture icon of this era and air forever in re-runs. Imagine a future of endless Jill Zarin, Nene Leakes, Vicki Gunvalson, Teresa Giudice and, of course, Michaele Salahi? The Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes screened the DC show’s first episode and reported – no surprise – that Michaele is the featured player.

I’ve been asked, “Why do the Salahis make people in Washington so angry?” Whether in or out of power this is a town of courtiers, the White House is the palace, and anybody even remotely in the glow of officialdom hopes – no, lives – for a state dinner invitation. Crashing goes on here all the time, but the White House is sacred. The courtiers believe the Salahis walked all over the process with reckless disregard. The White House steadfastly maintains they were not invited to the State Dinner. Michaele and Tareq steadfastly insist they were, even though they’ve never produced the de rigueur engraved invitation, only some emails.
Short of Bravo’s Andy Cohen giving them an on-air polygraph test, we may never know what really happened that fateful night. They took the Fifth before a House committee. For the U.S. Attorney’s office it is still an active case, and the couple could face federal misdemeanor charges for unlawful entry and felony charges for lying to a federal officer, with possible sentences of 6 months or more. The statute of limitations is 3-5 years. A lot could depend on how Bravo portrays the incident.

While the Salahis occasionally exasperated me in the process of trying to get the interview confirmed, I never felt contempt toward them. Interestingly, the day before the show I bumped into them completely by coincidence. They were at a Georgetown restaurant having a late afternoon meal. No make-up, no entourage, no faux fabulousness. They were, frankly, down to earth and likable. But the next day, when they arrived for my show at the Georgetown Ritz Carlton to a stake-out of cameras, they came alive – like a jolt of special vitamins had been administered. The attention, the drama, the flashbulbs – it was their happy place.
I never met them before last week and don’t know what the Salahis lives were like before Bravo came along. There are stories that harken to the days of Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but there are also dark stories of bankruptcy, law suits, including within his family and the family winery, and allegations of fraud and flim flam.

The press release for RHODC claims “Michaele has met numerous political leaders across the globe. Additionally, the two are involved in running the Salahi family vineyard, Oasis Winery .... A family girl at heart, Michaele loves spending time at the family vineyard with her stable of horses and beloved dog Rio.”
After the interview, the Salahis eat some lunch and pose, here with James Packard Gomez.
A few days before the interview I drove to the Oasis Winery outside Hume, Va. The gate was yawning open. The grapevines, many of them at least, were dead or dying. The buildings were closed up tight and empty. An old newspaper sat weathering on a table. Grass grew in cracks in the empty parking lot. I saw no horses. No dog. I expected to see tumbleweed.

I brought this up to the couple and for a moment – and only a moment – they lost the polished up-ness of being fabulous, confessing there are problems, that the winery is closed and needs to be re-started. Tareq said his mother is now suing his father, who suffers from dementia. Now that’s reality.

Click to watch The Q&A Cafe with the Salahis.
What struck me most these past few weeks was the ferocity with which people wanted me to be mean to the Salahis. After the actual interview there was dismay I hadn’t given them a piece of my mind, been cruel, shamed them.

The public’s view of journalism’s role has been warped by so much on-air yelling and rudeness; an interview’s integrity is judged not on tone and what’s learned but whether the guest is torn to shreds. Bad behavior is reflected in the “Housewives” franchise, too, where the women are routinely portrayed as wacky harridans who upend tables, pull hair and make each other cry, but rude equals ratings.

In addition to having my decency questioned I was called a lot of other names last week – “celebrity journalist,” “socialite blogger,” “Washington insider.” Well, sticks and stones and all that. In the end, I am what I am, an interviewer who asks questions and hopes for revealing answers. I didn’t expect to get growled at, but there’s a first time for everything. This week the guest is Oliver Stone. Will he growl, too?
Photographs by Debbie Weil & Sally Hosta. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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