Kate Michael answers the door to her top-floor co-op wearing pre-party sweatpants and flip-flops, yet somehow managing to look like the beauty queen she once was. Her purple T-shirt has a crown splashed across the front, and she’s in full makeup, her deep brown eyes expertly lined and painted in shades of plum.
The former Miss D.C. — and current writer, model and local cable talk-show host — even has a schedule like a pageant champion’s. On this night in late March, she’ll appear at Zaytinya restaurant’s Greek Easter celebration in Chinatown, the Pink Tie Party at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel and something called Emerald Spring at Erwin Gomez’s Karma salon in the West End.
As the editor of the online K Street Magazine, Michael, who goes by the moniker “K Street Kate” when she’s not referring to herself as a “D.C. Darling” or “Concierge of Cool,” will run the party gantlet in high heels, with a clutch in one hand and camera in the other. Snapping photos left and right, she’ll document her evening — the people, the food and, in the case of the Gomez event, the free manicure — and post the results on her Web site, where the party recaps will address the curiosity of invitation-less readers, give exposure to those captivating enough to be caught on film, and provide publicity for the cause or business the parties are being held to promote.
But first she has to pick out an outfit. Michael, who is 31 and has long, dark, shiny hair, heads to her dressing area, a narrow hallway between the living room and bathroom of the Foggy Bottom studio apartment, which has a Murphy bed and sweeping views of the Watergate. “I have two closets,” she says. “One is just for cocktail and evening gowns.” The other, stuffed with outdated business suits and more casual items, is rarely entered. During the day, Michael is usually dressed in other people’s clothes, promoting designers such as Oscar de la Renta while parading around Tysons Galleria for $75 an hour, or donning wedding gowns as a fit model for David’s Bridal in Philadelphia.
“I’ll get a gazillion e-mails a day from people asking me to do things. I try and do three things a day and do the best three things.”
Flipping through an impressive amount of glitz, Michael considers wearing the obvious to the Pink Tie Party before deciding to buck the trend. She settles on a bottle-green Elizabeth and James dress so short it appears as if she has forgotten her pants.
“If everyone is wearing pink,” she reasons, “I want to stand out.” That will be easy to do in the four-inch heels she straps on, which make her a neck-craning 6-foot-2.
Negotiating all the places to go and people to see over the course of just a few hours will be harder. For that purpose, Michael sets the alarm on her iPhone to sound at intervals, reminding her to move from one party to another.
“I’ll get a gazillion e-mails a day from people asking me to do things,” she says, swiping on more blush. “I try and do three things a day and do the best three things.” Because this particular Wednesday night features more than three parties, she’ll dispatch a small team of K Street bloggers to cover what she considers the lesser events, including a benefit for veterans and a happy hour for an organization that fights multiple sclerosis.
Michael says she decides which invitations she’ll personally accept based on “who the VIPs in attendance are, who’s giving a keynote, who can I get a quote from.”
“No one cares about some Joe Schmo at a fundraiser for breast cancer,” she adds with what seems like completely unintentional glibness.
Kate Michael is one of a small crew of Washington women who — through eponymous blogs and sheer force of will — are working hard to establish themselves as social leaders and influencers, a band of Zeligs in stilettos who pop up in the middle of Washington’s inextricably linked social, charitable and professional circles armed with nothing but a palm-size camera and an unabashed desire to mix business with pleasure.
If you’re still scratching your head about what she does, allow Michael to explain, in a voice-over for a Cadillac advertisement that has run locally on a handful of social Web sites. “People ask me all kinds of questions. ...” she says from behind the wheel of the 2013 Cadillac ATS she was paid to test-drive for a day, her hair whipping in the wind. “I get, ‘Where should my girlfriend and I go to dinner tonight?’ ‘What movie should I watch?’ I answer every single one of them, and I think in order to answer them authentically, I actually have to live that life.” It’s a life she lives every night of the week.
- Kate Michael talks about “how alive this city is” in her advertisement for Cadillac.
Although she would never acknowledge it, Michael’s competitors in the social and virtual worlds include Pamela Sorensen, who has a similar Web site called Pamela’s Punch, and Andrea Rodgers, whose site, Ask Miss A, has the tagline “Charity Meets Style.”
While several newer sites, with names such as Guest of a Guest and B----es Who Brunch, have arrived at the party, Michael, Sorensen and Rodgers are generally acknowledged to be among the first to document Washington’s boldfacers on the Web: Sorensen and Michael started in 2006; Rodgers in 2008, as an offshoot of earlier Web writing.
“They pioneered the idea of social news and saw the potential of providing insights into D.C.’s charitable and social scene on the Internet long before anyone else did,” says Daniel Swartz, founder and self-proclaimed “lifestyle architect”of Revamp, a party pic site he began four years ago. “How do you insert yourself into that world?” he asks self-reflectively. “Well, you take pictures.”
It was a game changer, says Kevin Chaffee, senior editor of Washington Life Magazine, a party-photo-packed glossy that was joined on the scene by Capitol File and DC Modern Luxury in the mid-2000s. “You have a computer, you have a cellphone to take your pictures, and voila! You have a magazine.”
The parties Michael and her competitors cover feature a modern-day cafe society of ballplayers, boutique owners, DJs, high-end stylists, local TV anchors, restaurateurs, club promoters and professional pretty people. It’s a crowd several rungs below the elite dinner-party milieu of senators, diplomats and A-list pundits that outsiders consider to be real “Washington society.” Yet Washington is a town obsessed with power, and according to Linda Roth Conte, president of public relations and marketing firm Linda Roth Associates, the bloggers have a new one: “Their power is they know what’s cool.”
Of course, power also comes from followers and influence, factors that in this case are difficult to measure. As of press time, Website Outlook, an online analytic site, estimated that K Street Magazine gets an average of 326 page views a day; Pamela’s Punch, 682; and Ask Miss A, which has a presence in 21 cities, 5,351.
Rodgers, who prefers to be called a publisher, also had the most Twitter followers, 18,604. Michael, who prefers to be called a writer, had 8,799, and Sorensen, who is fine with being called a blogger, 6,926.(People are stymied when asked how to refer to the women, who have been described as “media mavens,” “socialites” and “blog-ebrities.”)
Then there’s each woman’s Klout score, a number compiled using proprietary algorithms, with 100 being the Justin Bieber-level pinnacle. The three bloggers come in close, somewhere around 60, which is considered the tipping point for influence. It was Michael’s Klout score that brought her to the attention of Cadillac, and it is perhaps the Klout scores, as well as the women’s sociability, attractiveness and style, that makes them perennials on many Washington invitation lists.
Roth Conte often invites Michael and Sorensen to functions promoting her clients’ businesses. When asked what the women could do to make her stop inviting them, she quipped: “Move.”
None of the bloggers can support herself from her Web site; each has a day job, or three. (All are single; Sorensen and Rodgers are divorced; Michael is dating Michael Andrews, a bespoke clothier based in Manhattan.) But their goal, speculates Barbara Martin, a principal in the public relations firm BrandLinkDC, goes beyond self-sufficiency. “They all want the glory of Graydon Carter,” Martin says, referring to the longtime editor of Vanity Fair. “They all want to be considered the premier social Web site.”
- Zeligs in stilettos, amid the social swirl.
Michael races into Zaytinya, drops her coat, yanks out her Canon PowerShot and begins snapping away. The restaurant is not crowded, and she operates quickly and efficiently. “I don’t do names,” she says. She also doesn’t carry a notebook: “If I don’t remember it, it’s not worth telling other people about it.”
She tries to capture people she has never met in the hope that they’ll check the site for their image the next day, which builds traffic and attracts advertisers. Subjects, however, should not expect to see their entire head in the photo. Nor should they hold their breath waiting to view their images the next day; Michael will not post any until close to cocktail hour.
“Gotcha!” she tells a woman who’s sampling a drink garnished with a pickled quail egg. Later, Michael will rely on a press release for menu specifics.
She reaches for her coat in less than 20 minutes. “I was here for way longer than I thought,” she says, power-walking to the Renaissance hotel for the Pink Tie Party, a $200-a-head fundraiser to support the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “But I had, like, three real conversations.” That’s her aim, besides taking at least three usable photos.
“He’s a Redskins player. Now I have to figure out which one.”
At the hotel, which is decorated like a Disney princess wedding, Michael clips her pass onto her snakeskin clutch, tosses her hair over her shoulder to cover a smudge on her dress, and makes a beeline for a handsome man wearing a pink patterned tie and a perfectly cut hounds-
tooth suit. They spend about a minute talking about Ashburn, where he lives, Michael snaps a photo, and then she’s off.
“He’s a Redskins player,” she says a few strides later. “Now I have to figure out which one.” (Turns out he’s receiver Pierre Garçon.)
Taking a quick break at a food station, Michael somehow manages to balance a square plate, a pair of chopsticks, her clutch and her camera, as if she were one of those Hindu goddesses with all the arms.
And then she’s off again. She spots Cori Sue Morris and Becca Clara Love, the duo behind the popular B----es Who Brunch. She stops to chat with Leo Schmid, the wildly charming D.C. editor of Thrillist, testosterone’s answer to where to eat, drink and shop, established in Washington in 2009. She waves to Revamp’s Swartz, who, saddled down with some major camera equipment, has his own hands full, photographing a trio of women who seem to be all thighs and cleavage.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s joint MA/MBA program in government, Michael works the room as if she were a seasoned politician, a career path some observers think she might follow. After all, she has steadfastly sought office before — the office being Miss America. Though she had moved to Washington in 2003 for her first job here, on Capitol Hill, she competed in her home state of Georgia for the Miss Georgia crown in 2004 and 2005. Then, in her last year of eligibility, she entered and won Miss D.C. in 2006 (failing, however, to capture the Miss America title). Seven years later, she has continued to volunteer for her platform cause of literacy and refer to herself as “an ambassador for D.C.” (Michael is an avid reader; she and the author have been members of the same book club for several months.)
Still making the rounds, Michael says, “I love your tie!” to a barrel-chested man flanked by two women. “I’m Kate!” she adds brightly, offering her hand. The man asks for her last name.
“Why do you need to know that?” she asks, slightly taken aback.
“There is no other Kate,” one of his companions chides him.
Pamela Sorensen also considers herself an ambassador of sorts: a brand ambassador. She describes this role as “someone who represents the brand but who doesn’t work for them.”
In early April, she is playing that role at the Park Hyatt Washington, where there is a party celebrating the opening of the terrace.
The 40-year-old Sorensen, a statuesque brunette with expensive taste in shoes, introduced Pamela’s Punch in 2006 aiming to deliver the “who, what, when, where” of Washington’s social and philanthropic scene. When she’s not promoting events and causes through the site, she earns a living by helping organizations such as the Artists and Athletes Alliance plan meetings, recruit members and sell tickets to their galas.
Sorensen, who moved to Fairfax with her family in 1990 and graduated from Penn State, also serves on a mouthful of host committees, emcees a ritzy assortment of fundraisers and sits on the boards of five nonprofit groups.
“Everyone knows Pamela!” exclaims Ernie Arias, area director of sales and marketing for the hotel. In fact, Sorensen can often be found conducting brand ambassador business, and drawing new customers, out of the glass-enclosed “Capitol Hill booth” in the hotel’s Blue Duck Tavern, where there’s a drink on the menu named after her (Pamela’s Punch, of course). In this gleaming fishbowl, Sorensen holds client meetings, blogs, makes phone calls, answers e-mails, has coffee, eats lunch with business partners, and sometimes ends her day with a glass of wine and another meeting.
At the party, as the hotel’s chefs prepare small plates of food under a canopy of canvas umbrellas, Sorensen, in white-cropped pants and a jaunty Panama hat, begins snapping pictures of delicately arranged asparagus (a visual for the story that will appear a week later on her site).
Kate Michael is there, too, wearing a sliver of an orange lace tank dress and holding court at the terrace’s communal table. As soon as she spots Sorensen, Michael skips over to say hello, and soon they are both taking photos of the asparagus. The women maintain a business-friendly relationship. Sorensen was a short-lived co-host on Michael’s D.C. cable show “The District Dish,” which FishbowlDC once described as “a combination of local news and ‘90210.’ ”
On the perimeter of the terrace, Thrillist’s Leo Schmid, 29, surveys the food-blogger-heavy crowd, beer in hand. “You’re in this big city,” he comments, sounding slightly exhausted, “and you’re still seeing the same 20 people over and over.” As if on cue, B----es Who Brunch co-founder Morris arrives with Guest of a Guest’s Sophie Pyle.
Andrea Rodgers, however, is not one of those 20 people. The 41-year-old former debutante, Wake Forest University graduate and self-proclaimed self-made socialite from Shelby, N.C., moved to the Washington area in 1998 to work at a software training center. A blonde along the lines of Jayne Mansfield, she now spends her days promoting clients such as dermatologist Tina Alster and many of her nights giving webinars to the 300 writers who provide most of the content for her site. “I’ll be taking Ask Miss A global,” she says. “Dubai, Paris, London, Rio, Tokyo.”
Rodgers knows both Michael and Sorensen, she says, and prefers not to be lumped into the same category, which she describes as “social-climbing a ladder that goes nowhere.”
She reconsiders the comment. “Maybe it goes sideways,” she says.
“Hey, hot stuff!” calls Michael to a woman in a champagne-colored dress. “So good to see you!” And so begins Michael’s running chorus of “You look spectacular/how are you/you look great/hello, hello!”
Tonight, the National Building Museum is filled with over-the-top floral arrangements and more lights than the Vegas strip. It’s the setting for Fashion for Paws, an annual fashion show/fundraiser for the Washington Humane Society that is one of the spring social season’s biggest offerings. Sixty-five do-gooders have each raised at least $5,000 for the privilege of dressing in designer duds lent by Tysons Galleria and pet boutique Wagtime, and walking dogs down the catwalk.
Sorensen, who sits on the event’s board, is the master of ceremonies and will take the stage dressed in a white Karen Millen confection paired with black shoes so lushly sculptured they look as if they were designed by Gaudí.
Rodgers, who helped co-found the event in 2007, is again absent, in part because of a long-standing dispute with the other co-founders about who should take credit for coming up with the idea for the fundraiser.
“I don’t pay to model. I get paid to model.”
Michael, who is neither board member nor founder, is happy to point out she will not be stepping on the runway, either, though she is decked out in an eye-catching chevron-patterned dress so short she’s not sure she can sit down. “I don’t pay to model,” she says blithely. “I get paid to model.”
Besides, she’s here to work. “I’m going into that,” she says, heading toward the VIP bar and instantly slipping into a mob of sequins and hairspray and too much cologne. When she reemerges a few minutes later, she has scored a $500 table seat through connections.
In between the salad and pasta course of the vegetarian meal (dessert will be “pupcakes”), Michael chats up Maggie O’Neill, the creative force behind Lincoln restaurant’s million-penny floor, and Michael Clements, the former editor of Washington Life and founder of ArtJamz.
Michael has already taken her requisite three photographs, including one of “E! News” personality Ashlan Gorse and her fiancé, Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques and president of the nonprofit EarthEcho International. So, she focuses on capturing the runway show — dogs in costumes, and models, both male and female, in varying degrees of grace under spotlight — on her Flip cam.
And then worlds start to collide. Despite more than 1,600 people in attendance, it is, as Leo Schmid suggested, the same people over and over again. There’s Pamela Sorensen posing for Revamp’s Swartz, who then photographs Michael, who then captures the eye of Guest of a Guest’s Pyle, who is roaming the room with a look of blasé weariness.
Pyle’s colleague Becca Thorsen, who compiles the best-dressed list for the site, tells Michael she’s giving her a “shout-out” for her attire. “She has a fun and sparkly dress on,” Thorsen says. “And it’s short.”
As the night progresses, however, the attention seems to be wearing on Michael, and Miss D.C.’s crown loses a bit of its polish. She complains about the “weirdos “ who will descend upon her if she stands in one place for too long and decides to seek refuge on the dance floor. She disappears just as the lights go on, casting the room and the people in it in a much harsher light. It’s midnight, and the party is over.
Over the next few days, photos will slowly appear on the sites, and the night will start coming into focus. Michael will augment her five thumbnail-size photos of partygoers with her Flip cam video, an almost three-minute production that’s so overexposed, the runway models look as if they are walking on the surface of the sun. On Sorensen’s site, Punch correspondent Hannah Roth will post an item titled “Just try to walk down a runway with a yellow lab,” with a handful of photos, including one of her boss, the master of ceremonies, being hip bumped by irrepressible radio personality Tommy McFly. Ask Miss A will run a recap by one of Rodger’s writers, Vivian Leslie, with another smattering of photos.
Swartz of Revamp, however, will post 443 shots of the event, which he will describe on his site as “one of the city’s most eagerly anticipated events,” a “blowout runway wonderland” inhabited by “politicos” and “Washington notables.”
Tonight, as he packs up and looks around at the nearly empty room, he seems confident that he has captured the special essence of the evening. “Someone who doesn’t understand this world,” he says, “could get it wrong.
Cathy Alter, who lives in Washington, is the author of the 2008 memoir “Up for Renewal.” Readers can send e-mail comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.