Furor swirls over White House gatecrashers

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 01 2009 11:34 AM | Updated as of Dec 02 2009 01:34 AM

WASHINGTON - A week after a pair of Virginia socialites became the world's most famous gatecrashers by attending a White House dinner uninvited, the furor shows no sign of dying down.

The Secret Service, which protects President Barack Obama, acknowledged their mistake a day after the couple showed up to a reception before a state dinner last Tuesday honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Saying they were "embarrassed" by the affair, the Secret Service acknowledged that Michaele and Tareq Salahi had not been invited and "should have been prohibited from entering the event entirely."

An investigation has now been opened into how the Salahis, who are apparently seeking to take part in a reality television show, managed to finagle their way into the state dinner, Obama's first as president.

The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee said on Monday that it would seek to interview the Salahis and the head of the Secret Service as part of an investigation into the incident.

On television, looped footage shows the triumphant entrance the couple made at the reception before a bank of photographers and cameramen.

Michaele Salahi, a platinum blond dressed in a red sari, walks before the cameras clutching her husband's hand, smiling wide with obvious enjoyment as cameras flash.

Reportedly a candidate to participate in a reality television show called "Real Housewives," which follows the lives of rich female socialites in various US cities, she quickly plastered her Facebook page with photos of her night out.

The pair described themselves as "honored to be invited" to the dinner, and posted photographs showing one or both of them with various high-profile guests, including Vice President Joseph Biden.

Despite the lavish lifestyle the pair appear to lead, their financial situation is reportedly precarious after a family spat over a winery business, according to the Washington Post.

Reactions to the couple's exploits have ranged from shock to outrage, but the story has also refused to go away.

"There are so many places that are willing to cover stories like this," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

He attributes the fascination with the story to a 24-hour news cycle.

"We used to just have three networks and now there are 24-hour cable channels and an enormous appetite for stories," he told AFP.

"I expect we are going to see more and more of this, those kind of camera-hungry socialites," he added, pointing out the case of the so-called "Balloon Boy" family, who pretended their son had drifted away from home in a helium balloon simply to attract attention for a reality television show.

"But (in this case) they actually managed to get into the White House, it's a much bigger story," he said. "If somebody else had much more evil plans in mind, could they penetrate the White House so easily?"

A White House photograph shows the couple got up close and personal with the president, who is all smiles as he shakes Michaele Salahi's hand just inches from the also-smiling Indian prime minister.

Pamela Eyring, the director of an etiquette and protocol school in Washington said the incident was almost unimaginable.

"First and foremost the audacity to try it just to be on a reality show shocks me," she told AFP, adding she also found it hard to believe "this couple would even have the stupidity to do it. It was ridiculous."

According to numerous media reports, the Salahis have for weeks been attending cocktail parties and other social events trailed by a camera crew from Half Yard Productions, which is working with cable television station Bravo on production of the Washington edition of the "Real Housewives" program.

A woman describing herself as a spokeswoman for the Salahis, Mahogany Jones, claimed the pair were invited to the dinner, but their names did not appear on an official guest list released by the White House.

Despite an apparent affinity for the spotlight, the couple has been uncharacteristically camera-shy since the event, canceling a scheduled appearance on CNN.

Their spokeswoman later denied reports that they were shopping an exclusive interview to the highest bidder.