White House party crashers fit a new mold: Fame at all costs

On the heels of ‘Balloon Boy,’ the White House party crashers reveal that all the world is an episode of ‘Punk’d’.

Samantha Appleton/White House Photo
President Obama greets Michaele Salahi at a state dinner last week. Salahi and her husband Tareq were not on the guest list.

Tareq Salahi, a polo-playing winemaker, and his wife, Michaele Salahi -- the White House crashers who sashayed into the most closely guarded party in the world -- fall into an emerging mold: Those who'll risk jail time for a fleeting shot at fame.

So why are people crashing the White House and setting off silver helium balloons for a show? Call it the Punk’d Age, where propriety cries out for a good prank and where all the world -- even the White House -- is a stage. And as “Octomom” has shown, getting noticed works.

Harry Shearer, the radio host and himself a famous guy, takes note on the Huffington Post: “It was obvious something was adrift, or ajar, when the phrase ‘reality-TV star’ began to be written and uttered with no trace of irony, even as more and more of these folks became involved this year in various serious crimes.”

The Salahis follow in the footsteps of others desperate to shake their obscurity in order to become one of a rather crowded field of household names.

The “Octomom,” Nadya Suleman, parlayed an in-vitro procedure and an Angelina Jolie obsession into a pop culture phenomenon and a lucrative British documentary. Colorado dad Richard Heene, who falsely claimed that his son had boarded an errant breakaway helium balloon, pleaded guilty to a felony after admitting it was all a hoax intended to drum up buzz for a potential TV show.

Reality TV is even being broached by fading personalities in order to revive their public careers.

Tom DeLay, the former Republican House leader, competed last season on “Dancing with the Stars,” and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich turned his legislative hijinks -- including the alleged selling of a US Senate seat -- into a stint on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Moreover, an increasingly desperate and fragmented media world is ready to push any Internet phenom out onto the broader waves, driving the growing obsession with fame at all costs.

Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University, told the Wall Street Journal: "The media business is the new Ellis Island: Give me your talentless, give me your hoaxes and I will put anything on my air.”

But there’s a darker side, too: In the Salahis case, economic troubles may have ratcheted the couple’s predilection for pranks to a new, distressing level. Mr. Salahi is reportedly trying to stave off a $1 million debt in order to save his winery.

The couple apparently managed to convince producers for Bravo TV, who are casting for “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” that they had an invitation to the White House State Dinner, the President’s first. The two gatecrashers were seen exiting a car with a TV crew, including a makeup woman. They somehow got past the first line of Secret Service gate checkers and after that it was smooth sailing.

Looking like any other DC power couple in a tux and glimmering red dress, the couple worked the receiving line, and got snapshots with Joe Biden, Rahm Emmanuel and even the boss, President Obama himself, all of which were promptly posted on Facebook. The Secret Service has categorically denied that the Salahis were invited.

Though embarrassing for the Secret Service, it’s clear the couple never posed a danger to the president, other than the notion by some that Ms. Salahi could have given the President a peck wearing poison lipstick.

As most reporters -- many of whom are veteran gate-crashes at parties they weren’t invited to -- are aware, there are always weaknesses in any security cordon. And though the Salahis may be looking at criminal charges, is it really a crime to go to a party without an invitation? Are you at fault if you’re savvy or well-dressed enough to get waved in?

“Crashing a party, even at The White House, does not rise to the level of a federal crime, so much as indicate dismay that the officials in charge were not able to keep the riff raff out,” the HuffPo’s Michael Russnow writes.

Even TV producers seem taken aback by this rash of fame-hunters staking it all on publicity stunts that are both ethically and legally questionable.

Former TV executive Michael Hirschorn told the New York Times that prospective “stars” are becoming smarter about “self-producing” in order wow to producers and maybe, just maybe, score a show.

All of which may be in our historical nature.

"Americans are exhibitionists by nature, and have been so for generations, perhaps as an ongoing, unresolved reaction against the country's original Puritanism, which censured blusterers and showoffs,” writes the Daily Beast’s Tunku Varadarajan. “This is a large and competitive country, in which the most reliable way to catch the eye, or to rise above the throng is … to catch the eye and rise above the throng. Of course, when an entire throng is trying to rise above itself, an epidemic of free-form vulgarity and solipsism ensues."


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