On the flat-screen TVs, the presidential debate fades to black. The fired-up suits stream out of the downtown Washington restaurant, and a new scene takes over.
In come the music execs wearing bleached mega 'fros and jean jackets studded with Donnie and Jimi Hendrix buttons. Here comes the actor from HBO's "The Wire." Singer Gerald Levert's manager walks in, checking his e-mail on a palm-sized T-Mobile Sidekick.
"So where is your client?" publicist Natasha Rennie asks.
Tracy Press is tonight's birthday girl and guest of honor. Press, wearing a sexy floral dress, crimped hair and spiky heels, is surveying the growing party at Ginger Cove, the swank new Penn Quarter restaurant. "I don't know," answers Press, whipping out a cell phone with the urgency of a woman who forgot a pot on the stove.
It's approaching 1 a.m. Saturday, around the time when most people would be celebrating their won't-say-how-many-years birthday by relaxing with friends over drinks. But Press is hard at work, schmoozing her entertainment consulting clients -- and the evening's corporate sponsors.
To Press, a birthday is just another shot at promotions. It's life. It's marketing. Or, as Press puts it, "marketing myself without looking like I'm marketing."
Two weeks ago Press, who owns the consulting firm Sweet Soul Entertainment, e-mailed "colleagues, friends and associates" an invitation to her birthday party and presented a variety of payment plans for folks to "get involved."
For $25 to $100 you could get a spot on the host committee and your name on the online invitation. Two hundred bucks would buy you the chance to perform for guests. Drink sponsors could pay $350 to provide guests "unlimited sampling opportunities" for spirits. "Premium sponsors" would get six VIP passes, and could put product samples in gift bags, and their company logo on all party marketing materials -- all for just $750.
So where exactly, one might ask, is the line between personal life and professional hustle? How different, really, is this from a member of Congress frisking lobbyists for donations toward pet projects? Millionaire actresses demanding free designer gowns?
Last month TV host Star Jones made headlines for attempting to turn her upcoming nuptials into a product-placement bonanza at a considerable profit to herself. When her detailed sponsorship proposals became public, Jones was widely denounced as greedy and uncouth.
But given the current value of celebrity, it's hard to say who's pimping whom. "People pay for the privilege of association," says Tracey Austin, a Washington marketing consultant.
The crowd of guests and sponsors Friday night seemed to offer proof of this. There were free CDs courtesy of the music distributor BMG. T-shirts by AOL for Broadband. Wine by Sutter Home, white cake courtesy of U Street's CakeLove. The glitzy venue was secured by the promotions company the Usual Suspectz. Two dozen people had signed up to be on the host committee.
"Somebody is making money off of Tracy Press," Austin says, "or she wouldn't have the [nerve] to" sell sponsorships to her own party.
It's worth it, guests said, because a Press party draws a who's-who crowd of executive movers and shakers in media, music and entertainment.
The Bronx native and onetime Howard University business student started hosting events when she was 19 and working for Washington hitmaker Chucky Thompson, who produced songs for Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans and Sean then-"Puff Daddy" Combs. Press went into business for herself in public relations and event planning, and eventually started a free e-mail newsletter with entertainment industry news, corporate mergers, executive hirings and firings, jobs listings, and company and personality profiles. She also writes a entertainment column heavy on name-dropping and shoutouts.
"It's a who-knows-who industry," Press explains. She's only as powerful as the connections she can make -- for herself and others.
Many of the executives on the Sweet Soul newsletter distribution list are clients for Press's consulting business for public relations, event planning, marketing and promotions. She has 300 subscribers who pay about $40 for an industry job list she compiles regularly, but she makes the bulk of her money from the 12 or so clients she promotes, including recording artists and radio station program directors, music industry executives and event planners.
Rita Lewis is a paid subscriber to Press's newsletter and a member of Press's birthday host committee. "She's in the know," says Lewis, who says she got the lead for her current job in marketing for BET from Press's newsletter. "She's not stingy with information. She's like, 'Hey, if I've got it, you've got it.' She's very pleasant and she's always open."
Rennie, the celebrity publicist whose clients include radio personality Big Tigger and Luther "Luke" Campbell, says: "Tracy is definitely the trendsetter of D.C. Everybody either knows her or has heard of her. If I want to get plugged in, I call Tracy. "
"Every person who I've met who has been of benefit to me has been someone who I've met through Tracy," echoes Rashard Reed, who does sales and marketing for BMG, the music distribution company that is a "premium sponsor" of Press's birthday party.
"I call her the mayor of D.C. She's everywhere and she has her hands in everything."
Press was philosophical, but not surprised, about how many companies and individuals opened their wallets for her birthday. "I wonder if it's about me, or if it's about the people they think I know," Press says. "And that's okay. As long as I can get paid for it."