To glitz or not to glitz?
On the one hand, there were 19 years of styling-and-profiling to uphold at last night's party for the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. That means black ties and ball gowns and bodacious bustlines and a bauble or five -- like the diamond necklace, brooch, ring and two bracelets adorning the singer Diana Ross.
How many carats? "Oh, I don't know," the legendary diva said, laughing. "But I'm not wearing earrings."
On the other hand, there's a war going on, which calls for an element of solemnity and restraint not typically associated with this event.
What to do, what to do?
You soldier on.
"It makes you think because you're hearing about what's going on in the war every day," said Ross. "Lives being lost; it's very frightening. Even getting on an airplane to come here there's a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety. But I'm happy to be here."
So the 19th annual dinner went off as scheduled -- complete with the traditional contingent of world-class celebrities. More than 900 people gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel to eyeball the likes of Ross, Muhammad Ali, Motown founder Berry Gordy, hip-hop star LL Cool J, singer Audra McDonald, former labor secretary Alexis Herman, actress Ruby Dee and emcee Kim Coles. "When you look at the large number of African Americans fighting this war," Herman said, "I think it's important to continue with the traditions of the community. I say we need to be doing this now, more than ever."
Unlike the Academy Awards -- which managed to squeeze the life out of the celebration of Hollywood with its empty red carpet -- NABOB embraced the stars and glamour and media lines, where photographers shouted "Miss Ross! Miss Ross!" and the former Supreme turned and broke into that dazzling smile. She wore (besides the diamonds) a burgundy velvet gown wrapped with a flowered petal shawl. She looked good -- no, better than good -- as she casually perched on the arm of a chair next to her mentor, Berry Gordy, and teased reporters.
"I'm honored to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award -- and I'm so young," she said playfully. "Yesterday was my birthday -- and I was 38 again."
Ross was whisked away before we could do the math, so we turned our attention to Cool J (Mr. Cool? Mr. J?) looking very fine in a Gucci suit, hat, sunglasses and a Jacob watch with a face roughly the size of a plum, circled in diamonds. And he was wearing earrings -- diamond triangle studs. Very, very fine.
Cool J was in an exceptionally good mood and smoothly shrugged off any notion of skipping the party. "I don't think we should put our dreams or hopes on hold for -- what? For fear?"
Besides, there was business to be done. The annual dinner is designed to highlight the importance of minority owners and diversity for radio and television stations. NABOB was founded in 1976, when only a handful of radio stations were owned by African Americans. The organization now includes 220 radio and commercial television stations.
"The biggest issue for us is the struggle to maintain minority ownership," said dinner chair Lois Wright. With the FCC set to lift more restrictions on broadcast ownership, NABOB is fighting to preserve smaller stations and independent owners. "One company could control an entire market," Wright said. "We think it's a disgrace that [fewer than] 300 radio and television stations [are] owned by African Americans and that one company from Texas, Clear Channel, owns 1,200."
The annual Washington gathering is a chance to get out the message -- and do a little stargazing in the process. The celebrities all receive awards, which means tribute videos, speeches by presenters and speeches by the honorees.
"I'm so happy and pleased to be part of this dais," said Cool J. He praised the broadcasters for helping to take him from being a kid with barely enough to eat to doing just about anything he wanted. "You've given me life, allowed me to live my dream," he said. "One day, I'm going to be a black-owned broadcaster. Trust me on that."
Ali and Ross received Lifetime Achievement Awards. Cool J and McDonald were named entertainers of the year and Herman was presented with the Mickey Leland Public Service Award. Director Antoine Fuqua and jazz saxophonist Benny Carter were also honored but could not attend.
Ali received a standing ovation, with the crowd chanting, "Al-i, Al-i, Al-i." But the emotional high point was the presentation to Ross.
Gordy remembered the first time he saw her, more than 40 years ago. "The skinny one with the big eyes had a nasal voice, but it didn't matter. Every movement said, 'I am a star. Discover me.' "
She was, he did, and the rest is music history.
"I've had many blessings," she told the audience. "I am truly grateful. When I fell and lost my crown, you still embraced me, and I'm here." Ross thanked the deejays who first played her songs, then paused and said, "I'm well -- for those that asked the question. And I am sober." The singer was arrested in December in Tucson on suspicion of drunken driving.
Ross received another standing ovation, and then everyone sang "Happy Birthday." (Her birthday was Wednesday; she actually turned 59.)
Then the O'Jays hit the stage, just before the sparkly after-dinner disco party. And the only thing to fear was . . . bad dancing.