What struck me about the White House “gate crashers,” Michaele and Tareq Salahi, was not just their ability to pierce security checkpoints but also a report that Tareq had been spotted around town in a stretch Hummer.
Reality show culture, with all of its ostentatious trappings, has gained a foothold in the nation’s capital, and it’s probably here to stay.
We still don’t know exactly how the Salahis got in or what their definition of “crasher” is, but their drive for fame as prospective stars of Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.” signals a Los Angelesization of Washington, one that has been accelerating since the arrival of the pop-culture-friendly Obamas in the White House. The past few months alone have seen the emergence of a new breed of paparazzi, à la TMZ, and the inevitable exploits in a Jacuzzi on MTV’s upcoming “Real World: D.C.” are set to debut late next month. Are nightclub catfights far behind? Reality show producers have tried for years to mine Washington for material, creating shows based on campaigns (Showtime’s “American Candidate”) or lobbyists (HBO’s “K Street”) that came and went. But instead of bringing reality shows to D.C., the solution is actually the other way around, with an ample pool to choose from. That’s best proved by the zest with which Tom DeLay joined “Dancing With the Stars,” even if he didn’t get very far.
D.C. may be facing something now commonplace in Hollywood: a true bifurcated standard of fame, i.e., real movie stars and those who reality producers refer to as “celebrity adjacent.” The former try their best to stay out of Us Weekly; the latter crave it. One is defined by a certain suaveness and subtlety; the other, by red carpet revelry.
And while reality TV’s initial years started with a flood of prospective contestants trying their best to land spots on “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” it’s now become a much more sophisticated game, one in which agents, publicists and producers plot story arcs before a show has even been shot. Contestants going into auditions know whether they will be the “hookup girl” or the “bad boy,” and 13-episode shows are pitched with little unknown regarding the outcome, says one veteran reality show producer. “The whole thing has become as far from reality as possible,” he says. Just the idea that the Salahis are not officially on “Real Housewives” strikes him as hard to believe, given that the cameras were following them. “These shows have limited budgets, and there is no way in hell that would happen if they were not on the show,” he says.
Former “American Idol” star Jennifer Hudson performed at the state dinner, and she is one of the few reality alums to actually carve out a real showbiz career. The handicap for most reality stars is that their newfound fame usually is fleeting. Casting agents for scripted (really scripted) TV and movie projects have trouble erasing the stigma from their minds, leaving Los Angeles littered with aspirants and their broken dreams.
So what is D.C. in for? Certainly more stunts. They have been going on for some time now, with Sacha Baron Cohen’s satire traps and Michael Moore’s ambushes — or even the group that recently infiltrated a health insurance meeting to sing a biting rendition of “Tomorrow” from “Annie.” But what is different about the Salahis — if they did, indeed, crash the event — is the apparent publicity for publicity’s sake rather than a social commentary or cause.
The test will be when this reality TV actually does bump up against reality. A late friend of mine, press agent Howard Brandy, loved to tell the story of working with Jay Ward, the creator of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “Dudley Do-Right.” In the early ’60s, the two made a cross-country trip to create a national referendum urging statehood for Moosylvania, a publicity stunt if ever there was one. By the time they got to the White House, in full costume, the Cuban Missile Crisis had just erupted. Their effort ended.
Surely today’s publicity seekers wouldn’t let the course of events stop them.
Ted Johnson is managing editor of Variety and author of the blog Wilshire & Washington.