Gate-crashing Salahis' next big entrance: 'The Real Housewives of D.C.'
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Tareq and Michaele Salahi were at a party the other night, and this one they were actually invited to.
The infamous White House gate-crashers were the center of attention at a 'do put on by NBC Universal to promote its upcoming shows to TV critics. That includes "The Real Housewives of D.C.," the fifth — and by far most anticipated — version of Bravo's seemingly endless docu-soap anthology, which debuts Thursday.
"Washington, D.C., is the culture of the world," Tareq Salahi said while Michaele posed for pictures nearby. "You have everyone there, from every religion and belief, this melting pot. And when you're all together, you have this explosion of culture that's unlike anywhere else."
Just how explosive would become clear later in the evening when, at a post-party gathering, he chucked a glass of wine at "Housewives" cast mate Lynda Erkiletian, who returned fire with her drink. My colleague Roger Catlin of the Hartford Courant, sitting at the next table, took collateral damage on his shirt. Always quick with a quip, Catlin turned to the Salahis and said, "The cameras aren't even rolling!"
What exactly sparked the exchange of fluids wasn't clear. Eyewitnesses were told to mind their own beeswax, which is understandable given the intense scrutiny "D.C. Housewives" has come under since the Salahis attended a White House state dinner to which they hadn't been formally invited.
"There were some media that came to the farm," Tareq Salahi said earlier in the night. "They went through the cars, took out our registrations, wrote down the VIN numbers, contacted the finance companies — 'What does he owe? Is he behind?' Some really bad folks."
To be fair, the Salahis' winery is in bankruptcy protection, and reporters have uncovered debts the couple owes all over town. But all of that comes later, much later, in the first season of "D.C. Housewives," according to Lauren Zalaznick, who oversees Bravo for NBC Universal.
"There's so much going on in this show," she said. "It's not a single drumbeat marching to this one story everyone knows about."
That's mostly true — Thursday's episode, for instance, features a racially-tinged incident involving two other cast members — but from the get-go it's clear that "D.C. Housewives" intends to treat the Salahis as first among equals. One of the show's opening scenes takes place at the D.C. PoloFall Classic in September 2009, one that both illustrates the couple's eagerness to impress the upper echelons of Washington society and the way they are actually perceived by that society.
With the National Mall in the background, the Salahis preside grandly over the event, greeting attendees and serving wine. Cut to Erkiletian, confiding to a cameraman that the event isn't nearly as classy as it appears.
"A goat rodeo," she sniffs — and you start to understand how Erkiletian, a modeling agency owner who's known the Salahis 15 years, might wind up with wine stains on her blouse.
Elsewhere in the episode, she calls Michaele Salahi "anorexic" and asks a mutual friend to talk to her about her weight.
I asked Erkiletian if she was comfortable having such exchanges broadcast on national TV.
"If I'm a producer I want ratings," she said. "I want people to have something to talk about. I'm totally OK with that."
The other three "housewives" were at the NBC party as well, and to a one they pronounced themselves satisfied with their experience so far.
"Quite honestly, if the show were a complete bust and didn't come back, it would be OK, because the people I met were worth it," said Stacie Scott Turner, a real estate agent.
For instance, she said, being on the show prompted her to begin looking for her birth father, who was of Nigerian origin.
"If I weren't on this show," Turner said, "I don't know if I would feel confident to go out and get an appointment at the Nigerian embassy, which eventually led to my finding him."
Does this mean that a producer on the show suggested that Turner do this to ratchet up the drama? No, said Bravo's Zalaznick.
"It doesn't happen that way," she said flatly.
Abby Greensfelder, a former programming executive with Discovery, is a partner in the company that pitched "D.C. Housewives" to Bravo. (Unlike other reality brands, "Housewives" has a different team producing each version.) She said the women weren't told what to do as they lived their lives on camera.
"I'm someone who believes in making shows that are authentic to who the people are, and we take that seriously," Greensfelder said.
She and her partner, a former TLC executive, are based in Bethesda, Md. They had pitched "D.C. Housewives" in 2007, and Bravo said no thanks.
"But then after Obama was elected, I got a call," she said.
It's her intention that "D.C. Housewives" be "a little more nuanced" than the other "Housewives" franchises, which are better known for their table flips and profanity-laced outbursts.
"I think it's going to be a different flavor for Bravo," she said. "D.C. has a uni-dimensional view of what it is, but it's actually more layered. Each of these women represents a different part of D.C. society. They operate in this sophisticated world of power and politics. Even if they don't practice politics every day, politics is the wallpaper."
"The Real Housewives of D.C." debuts at 9 p.m. EDT Thursday on Bravo.