Gate-crashers seem to be top dogs in fifth incarnation of 'Housewives'

Tareq and Michaele Salahi were at a party the other night — one they were actually invited to.

The infamous White House gate-crashers were the center of attention at an event put on by NBC Universal to promote its upcoming shows to TV critics. That includes "The Real Housewives of D.C.," the fifth — and by far most anticipated — version of Bravo's seemingly endless docu-soap anthology, which debuts Thursday.

"Washington, D.C., is the culture of the world," Tareq Salahi said while Michaele posed for pictures nearby. "You have everyone there, from every religion and belief, this melting pot.

And when you're all together, you have this explosion of culture that's unlike anywhere else."

Just how explosive would become clear later in the evening when, at a post-party gathering, he chucked a glass of wine at "Housewives" cast mate Lynda Erkiletian, who returned fire with her drink.

What exactly sparked the exchange of fluids wasn't clear. Eyewitnesses were told to mind their own beeswax, which is understandable given the intense scrutiny "D.C. Housewives" has come under since the Salahis attended a White House state dinner to which they hadn't been formally invited.

The Salahis' winery is in bankruptcy protection, and reporters have uncovered debts the couple owes all over town. But all of that comes later, much later, in the first season of "D.C. Housewives," according to Lauren Zalaznick, who oversees Bravo for NBC Universal.

"There's so much going on in this show," she said. "It's not a single drumbeat marching to this one story everyone knows about."

That's mostly true — Thursday's episode, for instance, features a racially tinged incident involving two other cast members — but from the get-go it's clear that "D.C. Housewives" intends to treat the Salahis as first among equals. One of the show's opening scenes takes place at the D.C. PoloFall Classic in September 2009, one that both illustrates the couple's eagerness to impress the upper echelons of Washington society and the way they are actually perceived by that society.

With the National Mall in the background, the Salahis preside grandly over the event, greeting attendees and serving wine. Cut to Erkiletian, confiding to a cameraman that the event isn't nearly as classy as it appears.

"A goat rodeo," she sniffs — and you start to understand how Erkiletian, a modeling agency owner who's known the Salahis 15 years, might wind up with wine stains on her blouse.

The other three "housewives" were at the NBC party as well, and to a one they pronounced themselves satisfied with their experience so far.

"Quite honestly, if the show were a complete bust and didn't come back, it would be OK, because the people I met were worth it," said Stacie Scott Turner, a real estate agent.

Now you know

'the real housewives of D.C.'

The new reality TV show debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday on Bravo, cable Channel 61.