It remains to be seen whether the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held on Saturday, will draw a celebrity crowd this year under the current conditions (i.e. Donald Trump being president, Donald Trump disliking the media, Donald Trump being the first president in 36 years to skip it), but the “nerd ball” has been a Hollywood favorite for years.
While it’s really a night in which the journalists covering the White House can have fun with the current administration — and in which journalism awards are handed out (this year by icons Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) and funds are raised for scholarships for journalism students — Hollywood talent has long attended to provide entertainment (this year, comedian Hasan Minhaj, of Daily Show fame, will serve as host) and star power. News outlets started inviting celebrities to sit at their tables in the ’90s and that opened the floodgates — stars from Scarlett Johansson to Ozzy Osbourne have accepted the hot ticket. And, yes, there have been Kardashians aplenty.
This year could be different
The evening’s festivities usually involve the sitting president poking fun at himself (last year, President Obama literally dropped the mic after lampooning himself), but Trump wanted no part in that. He’s not going and neither is his administration as a sign of solidarity. In fact, he’s actually holding one of his rallies on the same day. (See, I have something better to do anyway! Noted.)
While there was talk celebrity attendance would be low anyway (you may have heard, Trump isn’t popular in Hollywood), it seems it will be even lower as some of the typical events that take place before and after the dinner have been canceled. Vanity Fair‘s hot afterparty (think: an Oscars-style bash for the D.C. crowd) was nixed as were bashes typically thrown by the New Yorker and Bloomberg. People magazine, which usually teams up with sister publication Time, pulled the plug on its annual pre-party, which obviously draws a big celebrity crowd considering the typical coverage, and announced that instead of attending the dinner, a donation would be made to the association. (Makes sense. A former People reporter says she was sexually assaulted by Trump while covering a story for the mag.)
In light of the political climate — and the fact that Trump despises the mainstream media, constantly grumbling about “#FakeNews,” the focus will be less on the pretty famous actors and singers doing the step-and-repeat and more on the First Amendment. This is probably good news as some Washingtonians reportedly had griped about the “celebrity stink” at the event. Actual journalists couldn’t get seats at their own media outlet’s table because the brass wanted to have a big-name celebrity seated at their table, to boost stature, instead.
Another criticism of the dinner has been that it promotes a (too) friendly relationship between the press and administration (the New York Times stopped sending journalists in 2008), so with Trump not in attendance, some view that as a good thing for journalistic integrity.
A brief history of the WHCD
Without trying to sound too much like your high school social studies or journalism teacher, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) was founded in 1914. The first dinner was held in 1921, and it was attended by all men. That didn’t change until pioneer journalist Helen Thomas pushed for a change in 1962. She pressured President John F. Kennedy, who then threatened to boycott the dinner. She scored an invite, and that was the end of the boys’ club.
The first sitting president to attend was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Every president has since appeared at least once (so the Donald has three more years not to break with the tradition). Over the last several decades, the president has always attended. The last time one skipped was in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was recovering from his assassination attempt. He actually did call in though. (Even he didn’t miss it!)
Bob Hope became one of the first entertainers to host in 1941 — and other big names, from Frank Sinatra to Milton Berle, later did the honors. Comedians are typically on the menu (Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, Stephen Colbert, Joel McHale, and many members of the Saturday Night Live crew), including some odd ones like Paula Poundstone and Sinbad. (Fun fact: SNL alum Al Franken is the only keynote speaker to later become a member of Congress. He performed at the dinner in 1994 and 1996.)
As for Trump, despite refusing to go this year, he’s embraced the event in the past, attending on multiple occasions with his wife, Melania. (His children Ivanka, along with husband Jared Kushner, and Donald Jr. have also attended with and without dad.) While it was reported that Donald was unhappy when Seth Meyers made him the butt of jokes (for all his Obama birther comments) in 2011, he told the New York Times last year, “I loved that dinner.” Not everybody loved having Trump there, though. In 1993, he was seated next to model Vendela Kirsebom at one of the Vanity Fair tables and she said he was so vulgar (making comments about breasts) that she changed seats.
The celebrity boom
The Boston Globe links the rise of celebs attending the event to 1987 when Fawn Hall, the secretary for Oliver North and a player in the Iran-Contra affair, was invited to the dinner by Baltimore Sun writer Michael Kelly. After that, news organizations began to invite high-profile guests. Just a few years later, in the early ’90s, Vanity Fair started hosting its popular party, and that really started to attract the A-list crowd. It didn’t hurt that C-SPAN began televising the dinners in 1993, as celebrities love seeing themselves on television.
For those covering celebrities, like us, we can further pinpoint it to a few years later when John F. Kennedy Jr., then the editor in chief of George magazine, attended with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, in 1999. That year, the late president’s son made waves inviting Hustler publisher Larry Flynt as a guest (along with Sean Penn), but his canoodling with his wife at the event (kind of a rarity with those two) was an even bigger deal as, at the time, they were the most photographed couple around. Pictures like the one below, taken at the event, were everywhere — as well as a mention of where they spent their night out. We really started hearing about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner after that. (Sadly, it was rerun many times over when they died a few months later.)
Those things sort of opened the floodgates. Models (Gisele Bündchen, Christie Brinkley, Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Ashley Graham, and Kate Upton) and sports stars (Serena and Venus Williams, Tom Brady, Apolo Ohno) have always been popular guests. Some years, entire casts (the top tier anyway) of shows attended, including the West Wing, American Idol, and Modern Family.
The odd mix of celebrities, newspeople, and politicos became a great breeding ground for funny photo ops. Think: Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne sitting with Greta Van Susteren. Sofia Vergara and Bill O’Reilly. Jenny McCarthy and Colin Powell.
The list of attendees is truly a who’s who list: George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck (with Jennifer Garner in happier times), Forest Whitaker, Kerry Washington, Steven Spielberg, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis, Emma Watson, Justin Bieber, George Lucas, Mila Kunis, Katy Perry, Ashton Kutcher, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn, Mariska Hargitay, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, Jane Fonda, Eva Longoria, Salma Hayek, Demi Moore, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Jon Bon Jovi, Damien Lewis, Demi Lovato (with all three Jonas Brothers), and Claire Danes, among many, many others. (Honestly, the list of attendees is just so long we had to stop typing.)
On the other side, we can also pinpoint 2012 as the year the event jumped the shark, as they say. That was when the Kardashians attended as guests of Fox News. (Kim previously attended in 2010.) They shared a table with Lindsay Lohan, who was with her lawyer that night — and pretty much around the clock with all her legal woes.
Though in 2008, The Hills stars Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt were there along with celebrity blogger Perez Hilton (real name: Mario Lavandeira), so that it’s hard to tell for sure.
Looking back, there were certainly some random attendees. In addition to Speidi, someone let Gary Busey in one year. Then there was a Bachelor summit another year with Andrew Firestone and Trista and Ryan Sutter.
Of course, some great celebrity news has been born out of the event — and that’s all that really matters isn’t it? (It is to us.)
ScarJo and Sean Penn were in the middle of a hot and heavy fling in 2011 when they attended the dinner together. Us Weekly reported on their “intense” makeout session right at the table as “the main course of the dinner was being put on the table.” An insider said, “Scarlett was pawing at Sean, holding on to his hip while he was smoking. She gave him a short kiss. But then they took a walk some 30 feet away, broke off from the group, and kissed some more.”
Of course, it’s also the place where Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello met in 2014. Well, he checked out her booty there as she hung with the Modern Family cast. She was actually there with her former fiancé (yes, that guy), but when she was single and heard Manganiello was interested, they had a funny moment talking about the photo taken of them that night.
One of the best photos we came across in our search back in WHCD time is this shot of Sylvester Stallone and Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White. Yes, they dated — and they brought their love to Washington in 1988. Check out Sly’s ponytail!
Then there was Arrested Development‘s David Cross, husband of Amber Tamblyn, who made headlines after the fact for bragging that he did cocaine under the table at the dinner — some 65 feet away from President Obama — in 2009. Though he told Playboy that he didn’t really get high. “The jolt was similar to licking an empty espresso cup,” he quipped. He felt a little bad that his politically active wife could no longer attend. “I was her date, her plus-one, and she got dragged through the mud because of what I did,” he added. “She had nothing to do with it. And because of that she’ll never be invited to the White House again. That’s not cool.”
And, this is just sentimental, but Carrie Fisher arrived on the arm of Tom Hiddleston last year, but the Star Wars actress, who died in December, secured an invite for her beloved pup, Gary, too. So they were the most adorable trio of all time at the event.
What will happen this year? Will any big stars be in attendance? Will there be more than 100 Trump jokes? We’ll have to stay tuned for that.
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