Shhhhhhhhhhh. It was taken up by Jill Sorensen, a Ford model-turned-interior decorator in a plunging black gown. The slow, deep-exhaling shhhh used to calm a newborn, here attempting to hush the chatter in a hotel ballroom vibrating with excitement Thursday night — shhhhhhhhhhhh — so her fellow Knock Out co-founder Cheryl Masri, in a bronze and silver sheath, could hold forth from the podium on the event’s do-gooder mission. Soon, it caught on with the table up front (FedEx lobbyist and gala chair Gina Adams; former pinup and BET host Rachel Stuart), shhhhhhhhhh-ing the rest of crowd for the sake of keynote speaker Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Not a lot of Washington rooms need to be shhhh-ed for Gillibrand these days. The possible 2016 contender, in a plain charcoal pantsuit, seemed a little dazed by the field of ostrich feathers, sequins, diamonds, cleavage and big hair rustling noisily before her.
“I heard this event has a lot of naked men?” she joked tentatively. “But that’s not why I’m here.”
There were no naked men at the 20th anniversary Knock Out Abuse, but that was unusual — maybe they didn’t fit this year’s “Great Gatsby” theme? Shirtless male models have been a touchstone at past galas, along with pink lights, free-flowing champagne, adorable puppies and other girly things. Also: A heavy dose of women’s empowerment.
It’s one of the most unusual galas in a conservative town — where all the clichés of “boomtown Washington” are on proud display, from the designer gowns to the high-quality boob jobs to the silent auction featuring Botox bargains and weeks on Nantucket — uniting socialite tribes that rarely mix: Georgetown scenesters, Chevy Chase preps, Fairfax real estate barons, the wives of pro athletes.
“I feel like this is a vacation for me,” said Susanna Quinn, wife of a prominent lobbyist and frequent attendee, “because I’m not surrounded by all the political people.”
“It’s outside the dignified Washington norm,” said first-time guest Alethia Jackson, a lobbyist for Walgreens. “I like that.”
Knock Out — the female counterpart to Fight Night, D.C.’s infamous annual men’s party — started almost by accident: In October 1993, a few dozen women whose husbands were out at the boxing-and-cigars fest (founded by Sorensen’s then-husband, the late real-estate investor Joe Robert) convened at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano for dinner. As talk turned to raising money for women’s causes, a guest in a red dress seized the moment.
“She got a hat, passed it around the bar and came back with $5,000,” recalled Masri. Emboldened, the woman went next door to Morton’s, “and came back with $7,000. . . .
Then we knew we had something, if men are just willing to hand over cash.”
Their cause became domestic violence and the party grew, moving to a succession of ever-larger hotel ballrooms before settling at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, where ticket sales in some years have topped 700.
It’s not a fundraising juggernaut on the level of Fight Night, which raised a record $4 million for children's charities this week. Masri said Knock Out has raised $6 million in the 15 years since it was granted nonprofit status. The numbers dipped after 2007 — from a peak of $670,000, receipts have been closer to $475,000 in recent years, but an early count indicated this year’s gala raised $560,000, organizers said. Masri said about 40 percent of the gross — $2.5 million over 15 years — has gone to local shelters such as Crossway Community, Safe Shores and Bethany House, reflecting the overhead that goes into splashy galas.
Ann Walker Marchant, a public-relations exec with a deep network in Democratic circles, chaired the gala in 2005 and explained that the domestic abuse message makes it a politically integrated event.
“There were several times I had guests at my table who became very emotional, telling stories I hadn’t heard before. . . . They hadn’t talked about it before.”
But a party as lively as this one generates a lot of other kinds of stories.
There was the time guest speaker Kathleen Turner, in unusually convivial spirits, dropped an f-bomb (“I’m so . . . happy!”) to herald President Obama’s 2008 election.
And there were the many visits by former Redskin Clinton Portis — one of the few male guests — who habitually worked the ballroom like a pro, with a wingman circling back to offer certain ladies party invitations.
But back to the night’s message. As the annual testimonial video rolled on Thursday night, featuring interviews with battered women, Kelly Lovallo blinked hard over her flute of bubbly.
“This is the saddest part,” said the McLean woman, owner of a mobile tanning salon business, done up in a short silver dress and big blonde curls.
“I like to support women,” said her pal Kat DeMarco, a mortgage broker and self-described “girls’ girl” in fishnets and a feathery dress. (“I’ve been in 38 weddings and maid of honor in seven.”) “I love seeing all these great women support a great cause. There’s no other scene like it.”
Though at 10 p.m., Lovallo warned, “the men come swarming in — like bees on honey!”
“And you're swatting them off!” laughed DeMarco.
On stage, R&B singer Eric Benét was getting the crowd hot and bothered with his 1999 hit “Georgy Porgy,” stripping off his shiny suit jacket and grooving with the ladies from the head table — a performance underwritten by FedEx. Later, a lunch with Benét was auctioned off to a large group of women for $30,000.
A Halle Berry ex, a possible Hillary Clinton rival — could the night get any weirder? “We have a special treat for you,” Roane announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, from CNN — Wolf Blitzer!” Whoooo!
The anchorman was there to serve as auctioneer, but it was a tough room to command. It was 10 p.m., after all, and a brigade of tuxedos — men from Fight Night — was slowly mustering along the back wall, casting long liquid stares around the ballroom.
“Dude!” exclaimed one young guy to his friends. “You didn’t tell me all the girls were here!”