Kathy Griffin was scared, which was strange, given that she’s supposed to be fearless. There were credible threats to her life in Washington, she confided, with active investigations ongoing. She wondered what would happen when she set foot on her first American red carpet in nearly a year. There was no Kevlar under her vintage black Oscar de la Renta gown. She was armed with written talking points about free speech.
Then, before stepping out of a black SUV to walk the gantlet of the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the 57-year-old comedian misted her pits with Axe body spray, the industrial-strength cologne for adolescent boys.
“Menopause,” she explained. Then she strode into the lobby of the Washington Hilton, declaring to everybody and nobody: “I’m here! I can’t believe it either! Don’t arrest me!”
And Griffin — erstwhile star of a long-ago reality show called “My Life on the D-List,” and a showbiz pariah just one year ago — was greeted like a bona fide superstar.
It was all relative. For nearly two decades, the correspondents’ dinner was Washington’s Super Bowl, a red-carpet happening that lured A-listers (George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Bradley Cooper), zeitgeist curiosities (Ozzy Osbourne, Paula Jones) and the entire casts of the premium cable dramas of the moment to bask in the high-energy room where the president of the United States would jab playfully (or not so) at the press corps and brand-name comedians would try out their best political material.
That’s all gone away in the Trump era. For the second year in a row, the president pointedly declined to attend the dinner, roasting the media from afar at a red-state rally (this year, in Michigan). And the celebrities have stayed away as well.
While a couple of Hollywood types still populated the dwindling number of Friday night parties — Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Mädchen Amick (from “Twin Peaks,” remember?) — they had made themselves scarce by Saturday night. In a tense climate for journalists, media hosts have felt less comfortable decorating their tables with celebrities, and celebrities — well, they tended to be much more into Obama anyway.
That meant that the weekend’s stardust was lent by Trump World evictees such as Omarosa — whose makeup artist carried the train of her voluminous gown through the crowded pre-dinner reception — and Anthony Scaramucci, spotted mingling at a Friday night reception at the British ambassador’s residence. There was also a scruffily handsome actor from one of those shows you’ve been meaning to try. (Steve Howey from “Shameless” — thanks, IMDb.)
That most radiant gentleman on the Hilton’s red carpet? Another big star of the evening, former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, newly liberated from the White House, laughing and hugging and loving life. “I’m great,” he said as he arrived to the dinner. “Never better.”
In other words, a scene in which Griffin, the self-proclaimed D-lister, could triumph as belle of the ball.
It was her first White House correspondents’ dinner, and her first public event in the United States since a certain photo of hers blew up the Internet last May. In it, Griffin held a dummy head of President Trump, bloodied with red goo, like Perseus and Medusa or something out of a jihad video.
Trump and his family went after her on Twitter (“Sick!”). CNN booted her from her regular New Year’s Eve broadcast with Anderson Cooper. Her stand-up tour tanked as venue after venue canceled, some because of bomb threats.
She says she was investigated by both the Secret Service and the Department of Justice, that Trump personally directed a vendetta against her, that she’s on a list monitored by Interpol, and that her mother and dying sister received death threats, too. (The relevant government offices either wouldn’t confirm these things or wouldn’t comment on the matter.) But she said it was important for her to attend the dinner, to stand up for her controversial photo, “because it really is a First Amendment issue.”
“It really is historic,” she added. “A sitting United States president single-handedly uses the power of the Oval Office, the first family, the Department of Justice, the entire right-wing media” to take down Griffin.
Except she isn’t exactly taken down. These days, the exile-comeback cycle spans a season, at most. As she arrived in Washington, Griffin had new American tour dates to boast, including a sold-out June show at Carnegie Hall and a just-announced date at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 1. The ordeal of the past year is now part of her act, of course; when American cities canceled, she tried it out abroad, where she found a surprisingly warm welcome. “Like, I played Australia and London. I never thought I could play the Nordic countries. I never thought I could play Singapore.”
In the lobby of the Hilton, Griffin was met by her media host for the night, Kevin Naff, editor and co-owner of the Washington Blade, an LGBT weekly, who said that “what she did, whatever you think of it, is satire, which is protected speech.” Then it was onto the red carpet, where paparazzi seemed thrilled and relieved to have at least one sort-of celebrity in their midst.
“The first comedian in history to be put through this,” Griffin said to “Extra.”
“I’m on the Interpol list, and now I’m back!” she told ABC 7.
“A lot of people said this was the end,” she was explaining to “CBS This Morning” just before she spotted Kellyanne Conway, whom she had recently parodied on Comedy Central’s “The President Show.” Griffin nodded toward the senior White House aide and said to a USA Today reporter, “I’m going to use you as a human shield.”
There was a dizzying symmetry to all this. Both Trump and Griffin found their fame as trash-talking reality stars, outrageous in hair and dress, with a cynical knack for latching onto the news cycle and stoking the culture wars. She even appeared on his show, “The Apprentice,” back when neither was taken seriously.
Now Trump is president of the United States and Griffin is a free-speech martyr. He was out of town, and she had the run of the Hilton.
“Hey, baby,” CNN’s Don Lemon said as he wrapped her in a hug.
“You call me,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told her. “You got a friend.”
“Is that Kathy Griffin?!” April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, shouted with the shock that accompanies a resurrection.
And, for Griffin, it was open season on any conservative or Trump staffer who walked into her sight line.
“Jason, get over here!” Griffin shouted to Jason Miller, a former Trump spokesman, while displaying her middle finger.
“How do you sleep at night?” she asked a passing Hogan Gidley, deputy press secretary at the White House.
She recalled snarking to Brian Kilmeade of Fox News, “You used to be the [expletive] sports guy,” when he offered her comedy advice.
Griffin was one of about 12 people in a room of 3,000 to give a standing ovation to comedian Michelle Wolf, the headliner. Beaming like a proud mother, she was still clapping, alone, while everyone else moved for the exits.
“He’s the most extreme president of my lifetime,” Griffin said on her way out of the Hilton, with boyfriend Randy Bick holding her train of taffeta. “He deserves an extreme act.”
Griffin has staked her career at the extremes, but now she believes she has work to do. “There’s definitely a feeling like my own country has not forgiven me yet,” she said on the ride to NBC News and MSNBC’s after-party at the Art Museum of the Americas. “I think I’m in a period where I just have to remind them: It’s just me! It’s just Kathy. From ‘Suddenly Susan.’ ”
The after-party was crammed under a clear canopy in the museum courtyard, and Griffin moved through it like a python. Despite enduring withering jabs from Wolf at the dinner, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was present and gamely mingling. So, too, was White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp, whose lobbyist husband Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, had indignantly tweeted earlier that evening that they had “walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us.”
“Elites”? “Enough”? Whatever: There they were again, and Griffin appeared to have words with a stern-faced Mercedes. “I just called her a horrible person,” Griffin said as she walked away. What a party.
Griffin ran into David Hogg, the young anti-gun-crusading survivor of the Parkland school massacre who was Googling images of Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. in hopes of spotting the Pennsylvania Democrat in the room. She made a point of uniting the two of them. Later, a short chat with NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell reduced Griffin to happy tears.
Finally, Griffin met perhaps her only competition for the weekend’s top celebrity — Michael Avenatti, the ubiquitous attorney for Stormy Daniels, the porn star suing the president. He kissed Griffin’s hand and said, “Thank you for your work.”
She posed for selfie after selfie. She called a fan’s mother to say, “Hi, it’s Kathy Griffin!” And then the perfect celebrity for the Trump era, maybe a little less scared than before, concluded that the night had served its purpose.
“Let’s get out of here,” Griffin said to Bick just before 1 a.m., “before Sarah Huckabee kicks my a--.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited the myth of Perseus in describing the controversy involving Griffin holding a dummy head of President Trump last year. It is the myth of Perseus and Medusa, not Perseus and Medea.
Emily Heil and Helena Andrews-Dyer contributed to this report.