At the American Portrait Gala, held Sunday night at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., two Anna Wintours made an appearance.
One was the actual Anna Wintour, who wore an elegant sequined top, a long skirt, a pair of her signature sunglasses, and that familiar bob that frames her face like a pair of drapes. The second was James Corden, who walked onstage to present the Portrait of a Nation Prize, one of six given out during the event, to the longtime Vogue editor while dressed … like the longtime Vogue editor.
“Anna Wintour has not had much impact on my life,” Corden deadpanned while wearing a long black coat, a pair of identical dark shades, and a blond page-boy wig. “Seriously, I have never felt more powerful than walking backstage dressed like this,” he continued. “It’s incredible. I’m like, ‘Bezos, get me a coffee!’” Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, was at the event, too, and, like Wintour, also receiving a Portrait of a Nation Prize.
Certain annual events in Washington are famous for their star power. The Kennedy Center Honors is one. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner used to be one, though its celebrity wattage has dimmed almost completely in the Trump era. The American Portrait Gala is a relatively new entry to the roster. Last night’s event, which raised more than $2 million for the museum’s endowment, was only the third American Portrait Gala, a biennial event that began back in 2015 and honors contributors to American culture who are featured in portraits recently commissioned or acquired by the gallery. Past galas have featured plenty of high-profile award recipients and attendees. Aretha Franklin, Carolina Herrera, Maya Lin, and Hank Aaron were among those honored in 2015. In 2017, Spike Lee, Madeleine Albright, and Rita Moreno were among the prize recipients.
This year, the gallery did a heavier PR push at a moment when its attendance and image have been on an upswing. With some help from the unveiling of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which are still on display at the museum, Kim Sajet, the gallery’s director, says attendance has doubled since she started in the position back in 2013. Part of her mission, with the biennial gala and the museum in general, is to make sure the artists and subjects represented within it reflect more than, in her words, “presidents and dead white guys.” This year’s honorees were alive and present at the gala and only one of them, Bezos, was a white guy.
In addition to Bezos and Wintour, the others fêted at the gala were Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was presented with his award by former First Lady Michelle Obama; the band Earth, Wind & Fire, whose tribute came from Clive Davis, the legendary producer who elevated their career; former PepsiCo CEO and Indian-American businesswoman Indra Nooyi; and Frances Arnold, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Though no one mentioned our current president by name, a few did allude to the political climate he has engendered during their remarks.
“Lin’s energy is, to borrow a phrase, nonstop,” Obama said. “And Lin doesn’t just keep that energy all for himself. He projects his energy outward, raising our spirits, helping us feel a deeper connection with one another. And that is so rare, and it’s something I think we can all agree we could use a lot more of right now.”
Gayle King, who emceed, acknowledged Hillary Clinton’s presence at the event, jokingly referring to her as president before checking herself and saying, “I mean, Secretary Clinton.” (For the record, the crowd was bipartisan. Spotted among the hundreds of black-tie attendees were Democrats like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and chef and noted nonfan of Trump José Andrés, as well as Fox anchor Bret Baier and current Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.)
During their remarks, several honorees also made a point of highlighting the fact that they and/or their family members found success only after immigrating to the U.S.
Bezos acknowledged his parents, who were both seated at his table, and noted that his father immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as part of Operación Pedro Pan in the early ’60s. Nooyi talked about her own experience as someone who moved to the U.S. from India.
“I never dared to think that as a South Asian immigrant woman that I would be embraced in this way,” Nooyi said, later adding, in reference to her portrait, painted by Jon R. Friedman, “I genuinely hope that any girl, any person of color, any immigrant, any American who looks at this portrait will not only see me and my family. I hope they will see that anything is possible.”
Wintour, who put down roots in America after growing up in London, got most blatantly political on the subject. “Like James,” she said, referring to Corden, “I am an immigrant in this country. I was welcomed here, provided with chances to do good work, and given opportunities to raise an American family and call this country home. The United States believed in me and I, in turn, came to believe in the United States. That belief has been harder for many people to sustain recently. This country no longer supports those who arrive here with dreams as much as it did, and hope in certain promises has begun to dim. But this museum stands as a testament to the many parts of being an American: the many colors, the many backgrounds, the many ways our imaginations can be remade.”
Beyond this emphasis on the great American melting pot, the evening also provided an opportunity to learn new things about the luminaries present. During a predinner interview with the media, every reporter in the room learned that Jeff Bezos has an incredibly boisterous laugh that he deploys frequently in conversation. I also discovered that Bezos, who danced happily during a performance by Earth, Wind & Fire, has the capacity to get his groove on; before last night, I assumed that Bezos couldn’t buy a groove even with access to Prime one-day shipping.
Everyone also learned that Corden and Wintour have apparently been friends for almost a decade, ever since, as Corden recalled in his speech, she promised to be a friend to him when he moved to the U.S. from England.
“I know that people find it odd that we’re friends,” Corden told me during the cocktail reception that preceded the dinner and awards presentations. “Because she’s high fashion and I’m me. But we have a lot of common interests and I love her dearly, and I will always be grateful for the support that she’s given me and my career.”
We also learned that Wintour, the woman of the bob-and-sunglasses mystique, has a sense of humor about herself.
“I wouldn’t dare say whether you or Meryl did it better,” she said to Corden, referring to Corden’s Wintour cosplay and Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada. “But I can say that I’ve never in my life felt so incredibly flattered and yet, at the same time, frightened.”