Jackie Kennedy’s crystal balls were up here. Nancy Reagan’s luscious red ribbons were down here. Barbara Bush’s dangling orbs were over there.
Yes, you’ve guessed it, right? I was in the White House holiday storage facility, where they keep all the holiday décor from White Houses past. It was amazing. Pat Nixon’s little beaded orbs... It was just beyond.
So how did I get there?
In January 2009, I got a phone call from Desiree Rogers.
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“Bonjour. Desiree Rogers.”
I nearly dropped the phone. I thought it was one of my friends pretending to be Desiree Rogers.
She said, “We want you to come and decorate the White House for the holidays.”
I hope you noted the “we want you.”
I couldn’t believe it. I thought, My God. I came to this country when I was 25 years old, in the ’70s, and I just had a little Dorothy bag and a dream and a little bit of cash. And now I’ve clawed my way up through the cutthroat world of window dressing, and at the age of 57, I’m getting a call from the White House press secretary asking me to come and decorate the White House.
I’d just become a citizen, actually, about two months before the election. I’d pulled the lever for Barack Obama and thought, “Finally. I’m a citizen. And now I’m going to decorate the White House!”
I had visions of myself showing Sasha and Malia how to thread popcorn. I got carried away really quickly. I saw myself in the organic garden clutching Bo the water dog as the first flakes of snow fell in the fall.
My fantasy was interrupted when Desiree said, “Of course we’re going to have to vet you first and look through your background and everything.”
And that’s when I thought, Well, forget it then, because with my rap sheet, that reckless driving conviction and the getting arrested in a railway station in 1968 on my way to a pot festival, yada-yada.
Plus, my reputation as a provocateur in the field of window dressing—I’d done all these insane things. They only have to hit Google image “Simon Doonan” and up is going to come all this bananas stuff. I’m never going to get this job if they’re going to vet me.
But somehow, miraculously—I think the vetting machine must’ve been at the repair shop that day—I got the job.
So I went down to Washington in the spring of 2009 and went to the warehouse, rummaged around, met all my collaborators, spent days measuring things in the White House. It’s so huge! I had to measure mantle pieces and windows, and I had great collaborators, Kimberly and Sally. We went back and forth to the warehouse and unearthed things. We thought, we’ll reuse some of these things because, why not? Hello, recycling!
I’m getting more and more wound up about this project because it’s so huge. It’s such a responsibility. But I’m determined to do the Obamas proud because, you know, it’s not about me. It’s about them. It’s their house.
So I find crates and crates and crates of these huge, plastic, silver balls that are so tacky and horrible I can only image that they came from Betty Ford—bless her heart, this must’ve been her era because she was going to Studio 54, and she probably thought, I want some sparkle. I want some silver.
And there they were, these hideous plastic orbs. In a hundred million years, would you ever think, Oh yes, White House holiday décor, if you looked at them?
So I thought, This’ll be great. There’s 500 of them. We’ll take them and ship them to community centers all over America, and people can decoupage them, and it’ll involve America and yada-yada. So along with all the pine berries and pepper berries and Douglas fir, and this, that, and the other—all the incredible things we were spec’ing and ordering and designing—we’d have this participation component. And all these 500 balls would go on the Blue Room tree.
I’m obviously really wound up, flying back and forth to Washington, etc. And Desiree says, “We have to go and present all of your ideas to Mrs. Obama.”
So I have a meeting with her, and as I stood there, between Mrs. Obama, so beautiful, so chic, so fun, so intelligent, and Desiree, so wonderful for giving me this job – j’adore!—they are literally twice as tall as me. So I’m between the two of them, and I realise at that moment: “Oh, my God. I am the First Elf!”
The autumn goes by in a blur of anticipation. I have to do all my stuff at the store Barneys because, obviously, being in retail, we install the holiday decorations on about August 15th. But actually the White House is very chic and restrained, and they wait until after Thanksgiving.
So I’m all revved up, ready to actually install all this stuff we’d been prepping. And so I go down to Washington. But then two days before the installation, the Salahis—yes, the, the chick with the sari and the ironed blonde hair—allegedly crashed a big White House party, and it changes everything.
Suddenly there is a total lockdown on any kind of publicity—not that I cared about that or anything—the cover of People Magazine with me and Bo the water dog and the snow falling. So me and all the incredible volunteers—many, many women in Christmas sweaters and me, incredible people, fabulous volunteers—we pile into the White House. We start installing. And Oprah’s film crew comes through and we all have to hide in a cupboard, because they don’t want any publicity.
And then TV channel HGTV comes through. At one point I’m on a scaffolding in the Blue Room, and we’re throwing these balls on the tree, all the ones that have come in from all the community centers. And they’re incredible. The theme that we gave people was American Monuments, so there’s the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. And people have done these fantastic Indian reservations ornaments. Amazing, amazing stuff has come in. We’re throwing them up quickly. We have a day to do this whole installation.
And I get a call from this journalist, and he says, “I just spoke to the press office and they’re denying that you’re involved.” And you know what? I thought, This is a time to show that elves can take the high road. And as I trudged through the snow that night, back to the W Hotel across the street with my little elf boots on, I thought, I don’t care that much, you know? What’s important is we knocked it out of the park.
The whole White House looked unbelievable. It was so chic, so gorgeous. I felt really good. Who needs publicity when you’ve done such a fantastic job?
So cut to December 20th. A conservative blogger who has a major conservative site sends a mole into the White House with an iPhone and takes some little, tiny pictures of some of these decoupage balls that have come in from the community centers: to wit, a picture of a Pittsburgh ball. And, as we all know, Pittsburgh is the birthplace of Andy Warhol. And on this ball is a tiny, postage-sized stamp of an Andy Warhol’s “Chairman Mao.”
Then, somehow or other, this clever little mole gets their little iPhone and finds another ball with a drag queen on it. They find a ball with Hedda Lettuce on it. So Hedda Lettuce—yeah, you know, those old jokes, Bertha Ofa Nation, Anne Chovy. And then they find a ball with Mount Rushmore, and somebody has cleverly, creatively decoupaged Barrack Obama’s head onto one of the presidents.
And so these pictures are then blown up on this website and the headline is, “Simon Doonan Introduces Communist Agenda and Anti-Family Values into the White House.”
Suddenly there’s this banging on the door of my apartment. The doorman says, “You’re on ’Fox News.”
So I turn on the TV. And they’re screaming things like: “Crazy Window Dresser Introduces Communist Agenda.” I mean, nothing could be further from the truth, I’m such a relentless capitalist shopping lunatic.
And then it explodes on the internet, it’s on a million websites:
At this point I’m in the fetal position under my toadstool. It was horrifying.
And then the death threats started. “Somebody should bash your brains out with a baseball bat,” and blah, blah, blah.
I forwarded a few of these to the White House and they responded, “Buy a helmet.”
So, fortunately this had an ending because Christmas ends, so this horrible nightmare of unwanted publicity ended. There was a finite ending: it’s called December 25th.
And my takeaway from all of this is there are really two types of people in the world. There are little elves that go around and make everything fabulous and brilliant and gorgeous and wonderful. And then there are people who sit on their ever-widening asses, blogging and tweeting about the efforts of the first group.
My other takeaway from it is that really no holiday is complete without at least one drag queen and a bunch of elves.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email email@example.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.