HEMPSTEAD, NY — Sitting in the press file at Hofstra University during the presidential debate, I can see why Michelle Obama's stylish clothes are such a big deal. Here, it's as though everyone deliberately dressed in the most forgettable things possible — navy suits, argyle vests, medium-wash jeans, button-down shirts. The standard look reminds me of a conversation I had with a man who hates shopping who once told me: "I wear clothes. They're not outfits. It's not style."
Wearing a button down shirt in a pink shade akin to Michelle Obama's and Ann Romney's oddly matching dresses was Republican strategist Bay Buchanan. Approached in Spin Alley, she mistakenly said she remembered me from previous events. I explained I was merely making a cameo on the political scene and "normally cover fashion."
"You're not doing me with fashion? Come on!" she half-kidded.
I remarked that she, too, was having a pink moment.
"It's a good color for TV," she said.
Of course, cameras for TV outlets and otherwise are everywhere in the spin room/Spin Alley. I'm used to attending events with lots of cameras — Fashion Week, movie premieres, etc. — but the weird thing about this group is that no one wanted to be photographed. At Fashion Week, for instance, bloggers and editors make whole careers out of showing up and being on camera for wearing something bizarre/allegedly fashionable. They diet for the occasion.
But here, the attendees' goal seems to be filling up on free lasagna and brownies served out of buffet troughs in a circus tent located a short, chilly walk away from the spin room, rather than secretly nibbling dime-sized hors d'oeuvres (the only food available at Fashion Week events). They also have no interest in getting photographed. Sitting at one of the long tables where my work station was (where reporters eat their lasagna and garlic rolls openly) a Hofstra photographer approached and asked if he could take pictures of the "Hofstra" tote bag I picked up on my way in while I stare nonchalantly at my computer screen. I said okay and once he left BuzzFeed's Michael Hastings said, "You're going to end up on Reddit" — as though this is the most embarrassing fate that could befall a debate attendee.
It's not that there aren't egos in this room. Of course there are! This is politics! They're just different. I love how celebrities here (the politicians) are not presumptuous enough to assume you'll know who they are in Spin Alley — the area in the press holding quarters where politicians mill about for post-debate interviews — without minions at their sides holding giant signs bearing their names. I can't imagine going to a fashion show and watching celebrities walk in wearing their cocktail dresses and spray-on foundation along with a big-ass sign that tells everyone who they are. It's too bad because I cannot state how helpful that would be. I couldn't pick a CW star out of a lineup, much less the 20th person listed in Twilight's acting credits. And a lot of the time, even the photographers don't know who front-row celebs are. They just take pictures of the people posing in front of their chairs that look awkwardly dressed up, because other people are shooting them, causing everyone to assume that person is a "someone."
The other difference between politicians in Spin Alley and celebrities is you don't have to butter the politicians up in interviews. You can go up to them and ask about whatever you want to ask about, whether it pertains to the event at hand or not, and they'll talk to you anyway. When interviewing celebs at fashion shows, premieres, or charity galas, you at least have to ask a few bullshit questions at the beginning that pertain to the event, like: "Why is curing cancer important to you?" "I love your dress. Did [designer putting on show] pick it out for you himself?" "How did it feel to play a love-struck housewife in this film?" Then you move onto what you really want to ask about, like: "How do you feel about slutty Halloween costumes?" "Are you afraid your boobs are going to pop out of that dress?" "So, sometimes, don't you just want to smack Blake Lively?"
In Spin Alley, politicians and reporters feel like they're on equal footing. Unlike celebs at Fashion Week with front row seats, the pols don't sit in chairs during Q&A time, putting reporters in the awkward, demeaning position of standing over them or kneeling at their feet. Here, you sidle up to the pols. Everyone's exhausted and somewhat resigned to the fact that they won't get any good exclusive material. Part of this is because no interviews are exclusive, with so many reporters around.
But more important, the politicians just say whatever they feel like saying, no matter what you ask them. This is a unique and fascinating manner of existing. Even celebs, who are highly media trained and into themselves, don't think to behave like this. Whatever you say to a Republican, you know they're going to say, "Mitt Romney won the debate" — and vise versa for Democrats. Like:
Reporter: Do you keep binders full of women?
Republican politician: Mitt Romney won the debate. Blah blah rah rah I love Mitt Romney blah blah.
Reporter: Do you keep binders full of women?
Democratic politician: Barack Obama won the debate. Barack is the best blah blah rah rah.
Etc etc. They're so accustomed to this method of communicating with people that it's almost creepy. Contrast that with celebs who don't want to answer your questions. Like an exchange I once had with Julianne Moore at a charity dinner:
Me: So that TV show you're working on —
Julianne Moore (not even looking me in the face but smiling condescendingly): We're here to talk about the charity, okay? [Walks away.]
Or this one with Kate Bosworth, at a charity shopping party, even after a requisite warm-up question or two:
Me: Do you get sick of people criticizing your weight?
Kate Bosworth: [Looks off to the side for entourage]
Member of Kate Bosworth's entourage: Okay okay — that's enough! [Ushers Kate Bosworth away like I am a serial killer.]
No one in Spin Alley would get pissed at me for not asking about the debate because they're going to tell me whatever they want to about it anyway. The downside is you're left with robotic, rote answers that are basically meaningless, and leave virtually no room for personal connection that is vital to good interviews. With celebs, since their responses are less canned and memorized-feeling, you have room to bond over shared taste in bracelets or internet cat videos. You can break the ice even in the three or four minutes of face time you might have with them at an event. But with politicians, it's as though their personalities exist in one of those molded plastic boxes that are impossible to open and used as the world's most annoying packaging for things like tools.
Politicians say lines at you. They're not answers. It's not conversation.
The moment with Bay Buchanan was the most bonding I did with any non-reporter all night. And it's funny how, in such a seemingly fashion-averse bunch — that didn't show up to be photographed, and will eat big plates of carbs in public — I did it by bringing up "fashion."