"Celebs descend on D.C. for White House Correspondents' Dinner," is what the blinking headline read on the tiny taxi television screen in front of me as I arrived in D.C., Rent the Runway dress in hand, ready to embark on my first WHCD weekend. Having only ever watched the slightly awkward, always hilarious event unfold on TV, I was curious: what happens at the the White House Correspondents' Dinner, really? Sure, you can watch the President give his spiel on C-SPAN (kind of a joke in and of itself, am I right?), and gawk at red carpet galleries of celebrities wearing their D.C. finest, but when you get all of those power players (and egos) together in one room, you kind of have to wonder what everyone talks about once the dessert plates have been cleared away. Does Barack Obama chit chat with Martha Stewart about the latest heartbreak on Grey's Anatomy? Maybe Sarah Koenig and Chrissy Teigen discuss new developments in Adnan Syed's case (IDK, I just feel like Teigen would be a Serial fan), while the casts of Scandal and House of Cards sneak shady glances at each other over bubbly champagne glasses. Yes, celebs "descend" on D.C. ... but then what?
By chance, I had also descended on D.C. this weekend — though I'm about as no-name as they get (my mom likes the majority of my Facebook posts, but she's the only regular fan I have). I had managed to snag an invite to one of the evening's pre-parties, and I stood there in the lobby of the Washington Hilton in a dress not totally unlike the one I wore to my junior prom, preparing myself to go downstairs and do some serious party reporting (and by "reporting," I obviously mean "selfie-taking"). The party took place in a ballroom on the lower level of the hotel, and I pictured myself gracefully going down the escalator, waltzing on to the red carpet, and then casually nibbling on fancy hors d'oeuvres while pretending not to stare at the swarms of unbelievably famous people letting loose to the tunes of Meghan Trainor and Katy Perry before heading into one of Washington D.C.'s swankiest affairs. (I think it's kind of safe to assume at this point that anything by Katy Perry will always be a party favorite, no matter what the crowd.)
But in reality, the whole thing was surprisingly.... normal. Nerd prom ended up being a lot like regular prom, minus the carnation corsages and the cheap "Midnight in Paris" party decorations (although, WHCD Association, if you're looking for a theme for next year's shindig, I hear that one's usually a hit). So how did the night live up to this noob's nerd prom expectations? Let's have a look. Here's what actually goes down at the White House Correspondents' Dinner shuffle.
Expectation No. 1: There will be a glamorous, plush red carpet that goes on for miles
Not only would it go on for miles, it would be packed with the most eclectic pack of celebrities you've ever seen in your life — Cecily Strong rubbing elbows with, like, Madeleine Albright and Aziz Ansari. A girl can dream, right?
Reality: There is a red carpet, but, uh, it looks like this
That's a tile floor, y'all. Not unlike the one you probably had in your high school cafeteria. See? I told you the WHCD isn't that much different than the night of fancy dresses and broken dreams that was your senior prom. Although to be fair, I took this photo at the very end of the evening, after everyone had sauntered off into the cool D.C. night.
Expectation No. 2: The night's events would be held in the swankiest venue you've ever seen in your life... like maybe, I don't know, the White House
Sparkling chandeliers that cast a flattering soft light upon the crowd, velvet table cloths and gold leaf china, competing string quartets, maybe... only the finest for D.C.'s finest.
Reality: It takes place at the Hilton Hotel
I read that some celebrities who get invited to the White House Correspondents' Dinner are surprised to learn that the event doesn't actually take place at the White House (an honest mistake, really). The dinner happens in a large ballroom on the lower level (read: basement) of the Washington Hilton, while the parties sandwiching the event rage on in smaller ballrooms nearby. And as for the sparkling chandeliers?
There was a lot of glowing blue and purple light emanating from the walls that made everyone look slightly space-age (even Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and I was kind of expecting a strobe light to go off at any second because hello, we're at prom.
Expectation No. 3: There would be at least one person with a selfie stick
It's 2015! Embrace new technologies or get left behind, right?! If you're gonna take WHCD selfies, you're going to want to make sure they're as amazing possible. Like I'm sure this photo Julie Bowen took of herself probably turned out great, but imagine the angles she could have gotten armed with a two-foot-long metal bar holding that smartphone.
Reality: The selfie stick trend hasn't really latched on here in D.C., I guess
No selfie sticks. Not a single one. BUT there was a photo booth! Which makes sense, of course, because it's 2015, and if your party doesn't have a photo booth, then it's not really a party at all.
Expectation No. 4: There wouldn't be any actual journalists
Do a quick White House Correspondents' Dinner google search, and you'll find all kinds of articles lamenting the decline of the whole affair thanks to the onslaught of celebrities and corporate moguls who have made the evening all about them... ugh, the WORST! I mean, remember that time Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber were BOTH invited?!?!
Yes, a quick glance around the room is all you need to recognize 10 people you've probably seen on TV before, but the majority of the crowd seemed to have at least some tie to media. And while you had your big namers like Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos rubbing elbows with Supreme Court justices, they were outnumbered by amazingly talented writers and reporters from the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and The Atlantic. If you're into nerds, this truly is still the place to be.
Expectation No. 5: Nerds don't know how to party
Sure the drinks are flowing, but try to picture a room full of people with reputations to uphold going nuts on the ballroom floor doing the cha-cha-slide, or whatever. You can't.
Reality: Nerds LOVE to party
OK so no one was doing the cha-cha-slide, but nobody was standing in clique-y circles or sticking to their respective corners in the dark, either. Whether you're Jenna Dewan-Tatum or Chief Justice Antonin Scalia, you're gonna let your inner nerd fly free at nerd prom, and it's going to be an amazing time.
Nerd prom? That big glamorous event that happens every year NOT at the White House (as we learned)? The one time of year where you'll find the President of the United States in the same room with people like Lindsay Lohan? (Who must have had better things to do this year — my favorite red head was nowhere in sight.) NOT at all different from regular prom. You've got your cool kids and your nerdy kids, and the kids who don't really want to be there but their parents made them. At prom we had to walk through the gym with our dates while our teachers took pictures... at nerd prom, you walk through a hotel basement with your dates while Getty photographers take pictures. Like prom, you probably see your crush standing across the room (ahem, Jaime Lannister), but are too afraid to actually go up and say anything. You take a couple of pictures in front of a backdrop plastered with sponsor names, and then? Well then that's it! Steal a program as a memento, and hope that Facebook doesn't ever shutdown because that's where you've decided to upload all your photos for safe keeping.
Come Monday morning, Washington D.C. had pretty much returned to normal. The descending celebs had left, the nerds had gone back to work, and the universe once again made sense. To steal a line from Mean Girls, girl world — or whatever the Beltway equivalent might be — was at peace.
Images: Getty (7); Kathryn Kattalia (6)