09.15.11

Inside the Salahi Split

White House party crasher Michaele Salahi has reportedly left her husband for a rock star. Diane Dimond, who spent countless hours inside the couple's home, on why she's not surprised.

That Michaele Salahi has reportedly left her husband and, for now, gone to be with Neal Schon, guitarist for the rock band Journey, didn’t surprise me one bit.

Schon, Michaele once furtively told me, was one of the true loves of her life. Long ago, as she dated both Schon and Tareq Salahi simultaneously, she had to make a difficult decision. She chose to marry Salahi on Nov. 1, 2003 because she thought life with him would be more tranquil than living with a rock star. She wistfully wondered aloud to me last year if she had made the right decision.

During my research for the book Cirque Du Salahi, I probably spent more concentrated time inside the Salahis' home than anyone ever had before or since. As an eyewitness to their private lives I saw the cracks in this marriage back in the early summer of 2010 when I travelled to rural Linden, Va., to get to know the couple who, by then, had been branded worldwide as “The White House Gate Crashers.” I wanted the story behind the story and they agreed to speak to me exclusively.

I came to learn a lot about this odd couple whose infamous party crash ultimately landed them on Bravo's Real Housewives of D.C. series.On the surface, the platinum blond Michaele (pronounced Mah-kell) is exactly as the TV show portrayed her—girly, bubbly, animated, and prone to bursts of hugging near strangers and declaring, “Oh, I love you!” She eats junk food nearly all day (chocolate is her constant companion) and never seems to add a pound to her slender frame. As my book also revealed, Michaele has silently suffered nearly 20 years with multiple sclerosis. The public saw less of Tareq (pronounced Tark) during the solo season of the program, and when he was shown it was often in a negative light. He was portrayed as Michaele’s protector, but also as a bully to other Housewife castmates and their husbands.

The Salahis' overriding concern during my time with them was their lack of money. They ruminated about whether the Real Housewives show would go into a second season. At that point they were ensnared in a longstanding feud over control of the family’s Oasis Winery so they no longer realized income from the business that had supported them over the years.

Only in private moments would Michaele openly speak about Neal Schon.

One day when I arrived to pore over documents and photographs at their dining room table, Tareq announced to me that nearby road construction had severed their Internet lines. I learned later that their service had been shut off for lack of payment. Their cellphones no longer worked and they worried they would soon be evicted from their tri-level home. They were also battling several lawsuits filed for unpaid bills. It was a life in sharp contrast to the way Bravo had featured the couple on TV, staging them, for example, in the back of a limousine as they pretended to shop for multimillion-dollar mansions.

During my weeks in Virginia, spending countless hours inside their home, touring the family vineyard, going out to meals with them, it was easy to see Tareq drives the bus in their relationship. I noticed that Michaele would go along to get along—sometimes catching my attention and giving me a silent eye-roll in reference to her husband’s behavior. She’d make an excuse that we were going to make a Starbucks run for hot chocolate and she and I would have time for girlfriend talk.

Only in private moments would Michaele openly speak about Neal Schon. As I wrote in the book, she had a long love affair with him, sneaking away from work as a cosmetics consultant in Virginia to travel with him and the band. Photographs of the two Salahis together during this time show a couple comfortable and happy in each other’s arms. Not even Michaele’s mother, with whom she was very close, knew about her years with Neal. Her mother still hoped she’d get back with Eddie, her college sweetheart.

Tareq, the privileged son of a once-wealthy vineyard owner and the head of a Montessori school, has a natural talent for marketing, and I saw him wheel and deal a neverending set of schemes to capitalize on his wife’s Real Housewives connection. He took calls and emails to set up big splashy events at which Michaele could be featured. He tussled frequently with Bravo executives who demanded he take their logo off his unauthorized promotional material. If Michaele tried to offer an opinion, Tareq’s temper would flare and she would become submissive. When plans were made for Michaele to travel with the cast to Los Angeles for the semiannual Television Critics Association's press conferences, he demanded a first-class ticket, too.

“Michaele needs me to travel. She can’t carry bags, she gets weak and she falls down from the MS,” he told me in an urgent tone. But the Salahis had never revealed her medical condition to Bravo and the TV executives had no way of knowing her needs.

Michaele confirmed she had fallen down walking long airport corridors in the past. Her doctor told me the financial and family stress in her life had caused her MS to flare and left her vulnerable. Her mother, Rosemary Holt (never a fan of Tareq’s) worried she would end up like Annette Funicello, who had been confined to a wheelchair with the disease. Still, Tareq’s almost panicky tone in describing why he had to go to Los Angeles too made me wonder if he might have been more worried about being left behind.

In the end, Tareq got to go to California with his wife thanks to a back-door deal he negotiated for a free airline ticket. While at an event at a posh Beverly Hills restaurant, which just happened to be packed with journalists who had covered the TCA tour, Tareq got into a shouting match with nemesis Housewife Lynda Erkiletian and tossed a glass of red wine at her, ruining her couture dress. As one columnist later asked, “Was it a publicity stunt or sincerely bad behavior?” A bit of both, I thought to myself. Tareq just doesn’t seem to have an internal barometer to help him distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not.

The Salahis told me that once my book revealed her multiple sclerosis to the world they hoped Michaele could become a national spokesperson for MS. A laudable goal, yet after the trip to California I heard talk about a much different direction for her future.

Tareq and others had cooked up a deal for Michaele to pose for Playboy. They’d planted tantalizing tidbits about it with TMZ and other gossipy websites. “I really don’t want to do it, Diane,” Michaele whispered into the phone to me, “but the money could help us keep the house. I guess if it’s done tastefully…” and her voice trailed off.

During a promotional tour for Cirque du Salahi, the couple and I were often booked on the same TV and radio programs. While visiting New York, Tareq thought it would be a good idea if they appeared on an Internet radio show that broadcast from a gentlemen’s club. Michaele asked me privately if she should expect “drunk, old, leering guys” to bother her. At one point she tearfully told me during a phone call that Tareq’s sour moods and their legal and financial problems were overwhelming. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take!” she said.

There was also a brief stint for Michaele on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s TV show Celebrity Rehab, filmed in Los Angeles. Several people close to the situation tell The Daily Beast that Michaele was cast after Tareq convinced producers that his wife suffered from a bona fide addiction. Besides her penchant for chocolate I couldn’t imagine what that might be. Sure enough, she was tossed from the show within a matter of weeks. A furious Tareq went to the media again with his intention to sue and to “blow the lid off reality TV.”

Then there were the low-level fashion and charity events Tareq would advertise on their mutual Facebook page, including an event to open a bowling alley in Bethesda, Md. And there was the embarrassing photo op of the almost 47-year-old Michaele on TMZ posing with a baby crib. An earlier TMZ story screamed, “We’re Gonna Have a BABY!” with the opening line that the Salahis were “on the hunt for a nice clean womb ... because the alleged White House crashers are planning to have a baby through a surrogate mom!!!” I thought the story was particularly cruel since Michaele had put off having a baby because of her MS.

So when I first read the TMZ item that Tareq had reported his wife kidnapped I was immediately suspicious. The story surfaced just four days before their Oasis Winery court ordered bankruptcy auction, and I could easily imagine how difficult life had become in their house in Linden, Va. I instantly thought Michaele had finally had enough.

Michaele Salahi always thought living life on a beautiful Virginia vineyard would be better for her health and less stressful than living on the road with a rock band. I guess she’s changed her mind.