Robin Givhan On Fashion: Salahis' had the look that opens doors

CHARM OFFENSIVE: Michaele and Tareq Salahi fit the bill for White House guests, which might explain how they made it past the Secret Service to mingle at the Obamas' first state dinner.
CHARM OFFENSIVE: Michaele and Tareq Salahi fit the bill for White House guests, which might explain how they made it past the Secret Service to mingle at the Obamas' first state dinner. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Few of the stories that have been written and produced about Michaele and Tareq Salahi have failed to mention Michaele's platinum blond locks and her reed-thin figure. She is, indeed, a striking woman who maintains a shade of blond that typically isn't seen on anyone over the age of 2. She also has the kind of lean body that, while not voluptuous or curvy in a va-va-voom way, is reminiscent of a model's. She has chiseled cheekbones and an enormous smile. And while one could debate whether she is attractive -- to each their own, after all -- she conforms to the cultural standards of what a wealthy, privileged, important person is assumed to look like.

Call it tall, thin, white, blond privilege.

When the Salahis arrived without an invitation at the White House on the night of the president's first state dinner, they had an enormous advantage. They looked the part. Tareq Salahi, who cleans up well and has the bearing of a confident and self-important fellow, was dressed in a tuxedo. Michaele was wearing a bright red and gold sari. It was an eye-catching dress and one that exuberantly celebrated the evening's guest of honor, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Her blond hair was ironed straight and practically gleamed. Indeed, she'd spent the equivalent of a full work day at her salon primping and prepping for the evening. The Salahis didn't look like interlopers, which is to say, they didn't look like poor cousins who had scraped together their last dime to buy some fancy frocks from the local thrift shop. They looked well-off.

As much as people hate to admit that decisions about who belongs where, who is important and who should be believed without question are based on appearance, it happens all the time. The fact that we make instant judgments because of the way people look has allowed the fashion industry to thrive, the cosmetics business to profit and the plastic surgery world to offer facelifts on credit.

Appearance trumped caution, skepticism and safety, that drizzly night of the state dinner. The Salahis weren't on the guest list. But instead of turning them away, the Secret Service waved them in. Would they have been so gullible if it had been a young black man in a tuxedo or a short, squat, gray-haired woman in a modest black dress standing out there in the mist insisting that they were on the guest list? Maybe. But probably not. Rain be damned.

Women who look like Michaele Salahi get more than their share of lucky breaks. That reality probably aggravates those beautiful blondes who hate that their accomplishments go ignored because folks can't stop talking about their legs. It undoubtedly frustrates women who have to face down jealous types who assume that they could not have risen through the ranks of business based on their résumé and intelligence, rather than their long, flaxen tresses. Indeed, the women of Hollywood -- Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron -- have talked about the burdens of beauty, a complaint no average-looking person really wants to hear. Yet, they weren't taken seriously as actresses until they'd uglied themselves up for roles, bravely performing without benefit of their good looks.

Yet the privileges of pretty come in handy precisely because of the stereotypes that come to mind. Arm-candy, socialite and airhead are all insulting characterizations. Yet these assumptions can work wonders to break down barricades. Owners of a nightclub with aspirations of exclusivity will tell you that they manage their crowd for just the right mix of characters. So the pretty, flighty blonde gets to circumvent the velvet rope with a wink and a winning smile because what club owner doesn't want some lovely young thing decorating his bar? Joe Security Guard gives her a pass because her sunny gratitude makes this muscle-bound worker bee feel important and chivalrous. She is the archetype for so many of the cultural touchstones of male-female interactions. The damsel in distress is not typically depicted as a dark-haired, middle-aged woman, after all. The Bergdorf blonde -- that high-maintenance prima donna -- still wins the wealthy prince. Why? Because even with her demanding, narcissistic ways, she's still the epitome of the trophy wife. He who has her wins.

Michaele Salahi flounced into the White House with her blond hair streaming down her back. She posed for photographs with calm satisfaction. She was unhurried and at ease. By all indications, she felt that she belonged there. Secret Service certainly thought she looked like she did.

The Salahis got into the White House because of lax security. But the hole they stepped through was smack in the middle of a cultural blind spot.

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