White House correspondents’ dinner: star power, but according to who?
Event may have lost its A-list celebrity appeal over the years, but maybe its the critics that fail to recognize what makes a mover and a shaker
Each spring, Washington plays to its aspirations of being Hollywood-on-the-Potomac (though its more often known as Hollywood for Ugly People) with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.
This is ostensibly an opportunity to give scholarships to deserving journalism students in front of the stars and politicians those students aspire to cover. In reality, its a night of inter-Washington camaraderie that makes watchdogs shudder; a dinner during which the Beltway medias sense of self-regard shines brightly; and an opportunity for the DC elite to demonstrate their elite-ness by publishing selfies with the surely-sick-of-it celebrities in attendance.
The last few years, however, the shine has come off the celebrity aspect of the evening: though Barack Obamas first WHCD in 2009 reportedly drew more star power than his predecessors, the rise of social media or at least selfie culture in the intervening years has caused a reportedchill in Hollywood toward invitations to the event.
In 2014, the Hollywood Reporter explained that publicists were telling their clients This is a crowd that gropes and grabs.
According to the source, there are way too many A-listers who have had pretty weird experiences at the dinner. A lot of the people who have gone say theyll never do it again. The room is so crowded. Its uncontrolled. Theres no limit to the number of people trying to get photos and autographs and theres no way to hide from it. Its like the stars are animals in a cage. People go crazy when they see them. They act like a bunch of kids at the Kids Choice Awards.
The same article noted that it was the same for reality stars as for A-listers but that the reality stars perhaps enjoyed it a bit more.
Still, the Washington Post speculated that year that the backlash to the celebrity culture of the dinner meant more reality stars and fewer star-stars, and the Guardian did so in 2015. But the fact of the matter is that the first celebrity WHCD guest in 1987 was Fawn Hall, the Iran-Contra document-shredder-turned-model, who came as the guest of then-Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Kelly. It generated buzz, not A-list celebrity wattage; he followed it up the following year by bringing Gary Harts rumored mistress, Donna Hall.
And though the generators of buzz have changed as the tastes of Hollywood and the paparazzi (who often mingle with the guests just beyond the tiny red carpet of the Washington Hilton) have, its not like every WHCD of the celebrity-friendly Obama administration years has been no-Clooney (last seen in 2012) and all-Nene (a guest of the Washington Blade this year). Stars from teen-friendly television shows and reality television alike have been part of the mix all along.
In 2009, for instance, American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi rubbed shoulders with both Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner (it was reportedly his last appearance because a drunken female guest flashed him), while frequent Fox guest, Gossip Girls Chace Crawford, shared oxygen with real-world hero Captain Chesley Sully Sullenberger.
ABC regularly hosts the stars of its entertainment properties the cast of Modern Family (Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Sofia Vergara, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) have been guests at various points going back to 2010, and Kerry Washingtons has shown up several times since just after Scandal premiered.
The media has played host to Olympians such as Lindsey Vonn (2010) and NFL players such as Cam Newton (2014) and to teen-friendly TV stars like Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries (2011) and the folks from Gossip Girl and Glee, depending on the season. (And, of course, the Jonas Brothers made an appearance in 2010 and promptly became the butt of a presidential joke.)
At the height of Dancing with the Stars popularity, you could spot competitors Bristol Palin (Season 11, 2011), JR Martinez (Season 13, 2012) and William Levy (Season 14, also in 2012), who was still competing at the time of the dinner; the following year, it was all about Willie Jess and Korie Robertson from Duck Dynasty.
Musical stars come and go and sometimes come back again and again: JC Chasez of NSync was Foxs guest in 2013, 2014 and will be this year; and Jon Bon Jovi went in 2009, 2010 and 2013 as the guest of ABC, NBC and the Huffington Post, respectively. CBS brought along then-Senator Scott Browns daughter, 2006 American Idol contestant Ayla Brown in 2010 (the Jonas Brothers year); Fox also had Richard Marx and Rick Springfield join them in 2014.
This year, when last years New Yorker guest Larry Wilmore is hosting, is much of the same: Fox will be joined by WWE stars John Cena and Nikki Bella instead of Donald and Melania Trump, who they had last year; Thomson Reuters has It-Girls Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City; USA Today is playing host to Kendall Jenner, of the Kardashian-Jenners; and the Boston Globe is hosting much of the cast of Spotlight, which is about the Boston Globe.
The event has always been about using the well-known (celebrities) to get press for the lesser-known (the journalists). But those who complain that the star power at the event is in decline have perhaps, with their obsessive selfie-taking, contributed to it. At best, theyve failed to recognize which celebrities are actually the movers and shakers in 2016.
Its been more than 35 years since an movie star captured the Republican nomination and then the presidency: nowadays, its a reality television star who is likely to capture the Republican nomination. Its not just at the WHCD that movie stars are being eclipsed; its, perhaps, in the White House itself.
[In 2015, The Guardian hosted David Tennant and Alan Rickman; it is hosting Carrie Fisher and Tom Hiddleston in 2016.]