washingtonpost.com
Who are these people? The climbers at the gate

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

Michaele Salahi spent seven hours in a posh Georgetown salon getting ready for her big night out. She was going to the White House for the Obamas' first state dinner. Creating the perfect hair and makeup for the glamorous blonde for such a special occasion would take time, of course. But then there were the cameras, the takes and retakes.

The Northern Virginia socialite was being taped by a production crew for Bravo cable channel's forthcoming "The Real Housewives of Washington."

"It was a lot of schmoozing with the staff," James Packard-Gomez, CEO of Erwin Gomez Salon, said Thursday, explaining why the hair and makeup session lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The salon was abuzz because Michaele and her husband, Tareq, were among the 320 VIPs invited to join the president and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "They were asking, 'So, what do you think of them getting invited to this?' "

The stylist doing Michaele's hair asked to see the White House invitation, Packard-Gomez said. "She starts rummaging through her purse, and then said, 'It must be out in the car.' "

Would the film crews get into the White House, too? " 'We tried,' " he says she told them, " 'but they wouldn't let them in.' "

But the White House says there never was an invitation. Somehow the aspiring reality-TV stars managed to get themselves in Tuesday night and were photographed with Vice President Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, causing an international uproar about security at the executive mansion.

The Secret Service said the Salahis crashed the party and that the agency is investigating how the couple penetrated presidential security. The Salahis' attorney, Paul W. Gardner, posted a statement on the couple's Facebook page: "My clients were cleared, by the White House, to be there. More information is forthcoming."

The Salahis did not respond to e-mails Thursday. But their publicist, Mahogany Jones, said in an e-mail: "We will be addressing this specifically with several media platforms." Meanwhile, CNN announced that the now-famous couple would appear on "Larry King Live" on Monday night.

Bravo and the local production company it has contracted, Half Yard Productions, said the production team was aware that the Salahis were headed to the state dinner and took the couple's word that they were on the guest list. A film crew followed the Salahis on the drive to the White House but did not attempt to follow them onto the grounds.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams, an invited guest at the dinner, told the "Today" show that he noticed the couple's SUV being turned away from the East Gate entrance. A camera crew was with them, and a woman touched up the Salahis' makeup and hair, Williams said.

It is still unclear whether the couple managed to meet or be photographed with President Obama, Michelle Obama or the guest of honor. Guests went through a formal receiving line in the Blue Room before dinner, but a White House official said Thursday that he did not know if the couple went through the line. India's embassy did not respond to a call for comment.

This is not the first time the Salahis have represented themselves as power players: On the couple's joint Facebook account are pictures of them in the first family's glass-enclosed viewing area after the inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Tareq & Michaele were honored to be invited to President Obamas private viewing box at the Lincoln Memorial," the posting reads. "Naturally this picture was taken after his departure . . . The glass is not only bullet proof, but also electrified. Never try to touch this special protective glass."

Other images from inauguration weekend show them with Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Forest Whitaker and Gayle King.

The Salahis got a foothold in D.C. society with their Oasis Winery in Hume. That was before a nasty family feud shut down the vineyard. The couple also attempted to establish social bona fides with their America's Polo Cup events, which led to sniping among D.C. polo insiders about the organization's legitimacy and charitable giving.

People who attend exclusive Washington parties with administration or congressional insiders say the Salahis haven't been seen there; Tareq gave just $1,600 in political contributions ($600 to George Allen, $1,000 to Jim Moran) over the past nine years.

But they have made no secret of their dreams of reality-TV stardom. Bravo announced this year that it would bring the "Real Housewives" franchise to Washington after series set in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta and Orange County, Calif., proved wildly popular. The shows have made mini-stars of unknown women, some of whom have leveraged the fame into dishy memoirs and merchandise lines. In Washington, cameras for Half Yard have taped a half-dozen women at parties, workplaces and homes. Michaele, a former Redskins cheerleader, has been one of those most conspicuously followed.

No casting decisions have been finalized -- meaning that without compelling footage, any one of them could be cut at any time. It's unlikely, however, that the Salahis went to the state dinner in hopes of securing a place on the show. "I don't think they're afraid of being cut: They create a lot of drama on the show," said a source who has known the couple for years.

The Secret Service said Thursday that its procedures to ensure a tight bubble of security around the White House were not followed for the state dinner when the couple entered with other guests on the southeast side of the White House, but the agency did not provide details. "We're being intentionally vague on that," said spokesman Ed Donovan. "All we are saying is that procedures we have in place weren't followed."

The Salahis' joint Facebook page, where so much of Tuesday night's adventure unfolded and unraveled, was lit up with scores of messages Thursday: some teasing, some comforting, many exulting over the couple's newfound fame.

"I have to give it you guys ;) that's how you make an entrance, LOVE IT!!! Happy Thanksgiving!!!"

"Wow . . . National News . . . NICE!!!"

"I just saw you guys on the local San Diego news channel! Nice job!"

"That was truly an unbelievable caper -- this should get you either: 1) A one year gig on a reality show, or 2) A one year gig stamping license plates."

Staff writer Michael Shear contributed to this report.

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