A Flock of Frocks and One Weepy Warbler

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Can we just start the evening over? Come back out, do it all over again but this time, you know, differently ?

So it went at the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday, not just for Jessica Simpson -- who broke down onstage over some imperceptible flaw in her tribute to Dolly Parton -- but also for Laura Bush, who mysteriously changed dresses right before the gala.

Why? Turns out that earlier in the evening, the first lady walked into the super-exclusive White House reception for the honorees, wearing the exact same red Oscar de la Renta embroidered tulle jacket and floor-length trumpet skirt as three other party guests, including local philanthropist Vicki Sant.

"Evidently Oscar is very popular this season," press secretary Susan Whitson said of the $8,400 ensemble from the designer's fall 2006 collection. "It just goes to show that no one can resist a beautiful red gown."

The first couple laughed about it. "But she didn't want her guests to feel uncomfortable," Whitson said, so FLOTUS dashed upstairs and slipped into a black lace gown before heading to the KenCen.

It was harder to figure out what was going on with Simpson. The 26-year-old pop starlet kept one arm clutched to her midsection while singing "9 to 5." At the end, she blurted, "Dolly, you make me so nervous, I can't even sing the words right," then scuttled awkwardly off the stage.

Witnesses told us she was a wreck before she went on, weeping while the video tribute to Parton played and pacing anxiously during performances by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss and Shania Twain.

Laura Bush
The first lady, dressed in ensemble No. 2 Sunday night with the president at the Kennedy Center.(Jim Young - Reuters)
"She was overcome with emotion performing the song for Dolly because she has idolized Dolly Parton her entire life and she wanted the song to be perfect," her publicist Cindi Berger said yesterday. "When it wasn't, she was upset with herself."

We didn't hear any mistakes. Said Berger: "She did."

Producer George Stevens told us, "She was very upset, so we said, 'Would you like to have another shot at it?' " Simpson then redid the song for the TV cameras (the show will air on CBS Dec. 26) once the audience had left the Opera House.

But it was all smiles and hugs in the Grand Foyer, as the stars filtered out to be seated for dinner. "What a photo op!" Parton exclaimed. There she was with Simpson, Twain, Krauss, Reese Witherspoon and Reba McEntire, arms wrapped around each other in a Country Girl Power lineup for every digicam and Nokia in the vicinity.

"Everybody, look this way now!" chirped McEntire.

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