Correction to This Article
Previous versions of this article in print and on the Web incorrectly said that a brunch for this year's Kennedy Center Honors recipients was held Saturday. It was Sunday. This version has been corrected.

At State Department Dinner, Recipients Bask in (Or Brace for) Fans' Hunger for a Close Encounter

Diana Ross and Brian Wilson share a moment Saturday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Steve Martin, Leon Fleisher and Martin Scorsese were also feted.
Diana Ross and Brian Wilson share a moment Saturday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Steve Martin, Leon Fleisher and Martin Scorsese were also feted. (By Jose Luis Magana -- Associated Press)
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007

The hair. The face. That smile. It was impossible not to be dazzled by Diana Ross as she walked down the red carpet of the State Department on Saturday night.

Her dress was a magnificent confection of black ribbons, lace and train; her face and figure better than most women half her age. The 63-year-old singer -- here to accept her Kennedy Center Honors -- was every inch a star. "She looks fantastic!" said Paul Pelosi, the speaker's hubby, snapping the former Supreme on his little digital.

Who designed her fabulous gown? Ross said she couldn't remember. What's it like to be adored by fans all over the world? "They're usually very nice and very polite," she said sweetly. Why is it, then, that she has a reputation for being such a diva?

"I don't think I want to talk about that," she pronounced and swept away.

Ah, fame -- that goddess we crave and worship, elevating mere mortals into demigods. Each December at the star-studded Honors, Washington brushes elbows with genuinely talented celebrities. This year's honorees are Ross, comedian Steve Martin, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, songwriter Brian Wilson and pianist Leon Fleisher, and then there are all the bold-face names who come to pay tribute to them.

Accomplished artists all, and yet it always seems to come down to two questions: What do they look like in person? And what are they really like?

Maybe it's unfair to judge character from a five-minute conversation, but that's the price of celebrity: For the average person, the first impression is often the only impression, so stars face constant pressure to be charming, accommodating, on. Even more so during Honors weekend, where their only task is show up, receive accolades, and make small talk.

"I'm terrible at it," said Martin, clutching a cocktail napkin he has folded into tight squares. "It depends on the circumstances. In a room like this, it's fine. That's what we're here for. But if you're rushing your wife to the hospital to have a baby, it's not fine. I always feel, 'That person thought I was rude,' but you learn to live with it."

He was interrupted by a fan who was clearly tickled to meet the 62-year-old comedian. "Can I bother you for picture?"

His pal Martin Short picked up the thought: "The perception is never accurate because it's only in the moment." Short was once running through an airport, shepherding three small children, when a woman asked him to stop for an autograph. "I'm sorry, I'm racing for a plane," he told her, not breaking stride. She yelled back: "And I heard you were nice!"

When people imagine being famous, they usually think of getting to do something you love, having lots of money, the hot dates. (Martin's new bride, 35-year-old writer Anne Stringfield, is an adorable slip of a thing, but Martin posed with Short on the red carpet.) And maybe, after hard work and some luck, there's an Oscar, Tony or Kennedy Centers Honors and a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

That's the easy part of fame. The hard part is figuring out how to straddle the increasingly thin line between public and private life, whom to trust and whom to fear. Ross, surrounded by her four grown children as if they were a cordon, was watched more than approached -- even at a black-tie dinner in the lush Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room filled with the rich and famous. "I want to go over but I'm nervous," said Jordin Sparks. "She's Diana Ross."

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