Chasing fame: The Salahis' desperate 'Housewives' quest

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

From the time the Bravo network announced in May that it would bring its hit series "Real Housewives" to Washington, the buzz around town about possible cast members centered on Michaele Salahi.

Of course, Tareq and Michaele Salahi did a lot to create that buzz.

While most reality shows demand discretion from their stars, the Salahis immediately adopted the calling card of our era's famous-in-waiting: a Facebook "fan" page devoted to Michaele, though she was little known outside Virginia winery circles. Then they posted a gallery of glamour shots -- old modeling pictures, grip-and-grins with celebs like Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson -- with a wink-wink title: "The Real DC photos of MICHAELE in Action."

The Salahis -- reality stars, for real? While the Northern Virginia socialites, now infamous for apparently crashing last week's White House state dinner, had been accused of exaggerating connections to fame and fortune, Bravo's production team soon became a fixture at parties attended by the statuesque blonde and her polo-playing husband. Though the show was far from an air date -- and the casting decisions had not even made official by the network-- the Salahis, along with the series' other likely stars, could bask in the glow of the camera and the anticipatory fame it bestowed.

Path to reality TV?

Now that the scandalous couple has turned into a pair of walking spoiler alerts, what happens to "The Real Housewives of D.C."? When the whole world already knows your story, will it bother to tune in? Or will viewers only hunger for more behind-the-scenes drama with the Salahis?

Bravo's not saying. While the network acknowledged last week that Michaele Salahi was being considered as a cast member -- and that its camera crews followed the couple's state dinner primping, under the assumption the pair were welcomed guests -- a spokesperson declined to say Sunday whether the Salahis remain with the show.

The path to "The Real Housewives of D.C." began more than a year ago, when a local team known as Half Yard Productions began making calls around town. The young production company, started in 2006 by two veterans of Silver Spring-based cable giant Discovery, had a background in middlebrow docutainment ("Chopper Wars," "Say Yes to the Dress") for the likes of the History channel and TLC, respectively.

Originally, the word was that Half Yard was looking to make an all-new documentary series about Washington power players.

"They were looking for larger-than-life characters," said GOP lobbyist and hostess Juleanna Glover, who helped make introductions and allowed them to gather footage at a party at her Kalorama home. Half Yard producer Abby Greensfelder already had entree to media and political circles via her husband, New Republic editor Franklin Foer. Several sociable young reporters and PR types spent hours being filmed by Half Yard for a show they were told would be called "Inside Washington."

It's unclear now whether this was all just a secret scouting mission for "Real Housewives," which has explored the lives of well-off women in Orange County, Calif., New York, Atlanta and New Jersey. But in late May, the network announced that the show was moving to the nation's capital, to be produced by Half Yard.

Who would star? Bravo said last spring it had two dozen potential "housewives" on tape, and made it clear it hoped for a strong political flavor. But many political types in town were revulsed by the idea of the show, which in recent seasons has focused heavily on plastic surgery, shopping and catfights. Susanna Quinn, wife of super-lobbyist and former White House counsel Jack Quinn, had filmed some sessions with Half Yard but sent an immediate no-thanks when she learned what the taping was for. " 'Real Housewives' end up ex-wives," she told The Post.

While casting remained secretive, the identities of the likely stars has been an open secret around D.C. -- they were the ladies followed by cameras all the time. Besides Salahi, the lineup likely includes: Lynda Erkiletian, owner of T.H.E. Artist Agency, a modeling agency; Mary Amons, a McLean mom of five married to a guy in venture capital; Stacie Turner, a successful real estate agent; and Catherine Ashley Ommanney, British wife of a Newsweek photographer.

Except for Ommanney, a relative newcomer to D.C., all rated as modest B-listers on the Washington social scene. None were household or headline names, nor were they closely connected with one another. And none seem to have much connection to politics or government, the city's seats of power.

"I don't know them -- they were never on my radar before this" -- including the Salahis -- said Carol Joynt, a plugged-in Georgetowner who writes about Washington for the Web site New York Social Diary and has closely followed the "Housewives" invasion. Like many, she notes that the capital's culture of discretion would make it hard for producers to find any congressional spouses or power players. Indeed, both Republican fundraiser Lisa Spies and lobbyist Edwina Rogers spent significant time with Bravo before dropping out of the running -- though whether that was their decision or Bravo's is unclear.

"The dirty secret is they couldn't get any real 'Housewives of D.C.,' " Joynt said. "We knew that going in. You couldn't get anyone on the public payroll. At the end of the day, this is a working town."

But if "Housewives" couldn't get any prominent Washingtonians, it had the effect of turning its unknown cast into proto-stars. Blogs and society magazines closely followed casting rumors and the parties attended by cameras. In September, Washingtonian put Erkiletian and Rich Amons, the husband of Mary, on its best-dressed list and threw a party, which it welcomed Bravo to film. Hair salons and boutiques are said to offer freebies to the maybe-stars in hopes of getting publicity -- just a hint of the lucre to come.

While the per-episode fee for exposing your life to reality TV is said to be minor, some of the stars of past seasons have gone on to snag contracts for books or merchandise lines.

"Housewives" relies on lively scenes of its stars socializing, but in Washington, the hosts of most elite events have been reluctant to allow cameras. So "Housewives" parties generally have had a made-for-TV feel. Last month, Salahi and former "Apprentice" star Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth co-hosted a birthday party at The Park for local TV personality Paul Wharton -- a high-cheekboned stylista on the club and cocktail scene, said to have a supporting role on "Housewives." It was mobbed by strangers hoping for a moment of reality-TV fame; meanwhile, Wharton and a select group of "Housewives" stars were cloistered away with the cameras in a private room. The price of admission: Your signature on a waiver saying you were okay with being filmed. Cash only at the bar.

Loads of real-life drama

There's no mystery as to why a reality show would be interested in the Salahis. Long before their adventure at the White House, they were known as a couple who could bring the drama.

The show thrives on drama. Ratings soared on "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" when one wife somehow (with producers' help?) tracked down an out-of-print book that showed another housewife had a secret past as a stripper entangled in an old extortion/kidnapping case. It all devolved into a profanity-shouting, table-flipping fight on camera.

For two years, Tareq Salahi has battled with his parents over control of Oasis, the winery they founded in 1977 in Hume, Va., a bitter feud that has played out in the courts and local media. And it now seems clear he was willing to expose all that on national TV.

On Nov. 7, a small-town newspaperman found himself in the middle of both the feud and the TV show. Dan McDermott, publisher of the twice-monthly Warren County Report, interviewed Tareq's mother, Corinne Salahi, at their home adjacent to the winery. She was upset because Bravo was filming a party at Oasis that day and supposedly scaring off customers. (Tareq, who has filed for bankruptcy under the winery's name, has told people the winery is closed; his parents told McDermott it's still open.)

As McDermott tried to take a few photos of the winery, he said, a producer shouted at him to stop. Later, he walked to the winery with Corinne and the winery manager. As they squabbled with security guards working for Tareq, McDermott was surprised to find that the camera crews had now turned to film him.

Then Tareq approached. He was wearing a mike. "He says, 'Hello Dan,' very charming, very nice, and says, 'Could we have a private conversation?' "

McDermott agreed, and the two went into a glass-enclosed area at the back . . . along with two cameras and a sound guy, along to capture their "private conversation."

"We're both talking as though the cameras aren't there, and I'm like, this is totally weird to me," McDermott recalled. Tareq described his family feud as "a 'Falcon Crest'-type situation" and claimed that his mother was jealous of Michaele. Then, the same producer who shortly before had yelled at McDermott, "came up," he said, "sweet as can be, and asked me to sign a release" -- they wanted to use it for the show.

"It was surreal," McDermott said Sunday. "If they use it, I would just hope they don't make me look like an idiot."

Surreal -- but was it reality? "I can tell you the tension in the winery that day, that wasn't make-believe," he said. "That's real emotion, and I saw it."

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