When an 80s rock star and a reality show princess decide to solemnize their feelings with a wedding ceremony, it stands to reason that they will do it on pay-per-view and charge each customer $14.95.
“It’s a musical event of love, laughter and music,” says the future groom, Neal Schon, the longtime lead guitarist and songwriter of the venerable pop-rock band Journey, best remembered for such hits as “Wheel in the Sky” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “It won’t be cheesy in the least.”
“It’s exciting,” says bride-to-be Michaele Salahi, best remembered as the breakout star (or villainess, take your pick) of Bravo’s Real Housewives of D.C., who somehow, with her then-husband, litigation-prone polo enthusiast Tareq Salahi, insinuated her way into a White House state dinner for the Indian prime minister.
The feat prompted all manner of official embarrassment, not to mention a congressional hearing, and thus appended her name forever to the early history of Barack Obama’s presidency. Subsequent publicity portrayed the Salahis as narcissistic grifters who constantly sought the limelight and the high life while dodging creditors and lawsuits—retreating into their vast (or in this case petty) carelessness like a cut-rate Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
“I think it’s brilliant. Genius!” Michaele (pronounced “mikhail”) says about her latest exploit. Her voice is low and smoky. “It’s about watching our lives for real instead of tuning in and watching a network edit us down to a moment.”
Michaele had bitterly complained about the editing in Real Housewives, which tended to reveal her in an unflattering light. “That was probably the plan,” Neal says. “Bravo,” he adds scornfully, practically spitting the word. “I can’t stand Bravo. I watch it and I think I would never go on there or allow her to do it again. I look at that and I think, they just set her up. She’s the nice girl on the program and the others aren’t. This is the nice one that everybody picks on! That’s what makes all these shows. Because all they want to see is the drama. We’re not interested in any drama.”
“No drama,” Michaele echoes.
“That’s why we haven’t gone into the reality thing,” Neal presses on. “This is real. This is my vision.”
“Big vision,” Michaele murmurs.
The “Winter Wonderland Wedding and Music Event,” as they are billing it, will be viewable live in 90 million households on Dec. 15 from the Palace of Fine Arts in Schon’s hometown of San Francisco. Executive-produced by Schon (pronounced “shawn”), with the nuptials staged by celebrity wedding planner Sharon Sacks (whose clients include Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and Kim Kardashian, hardly paragons of marital longevity), the three-hour show will feature performances by Journey, Tower of Power, and an unnamed “surprise musical guest.”
A “portion” of the proceeds—Schon is vague about how much—will be set aside for survivors of the recent killer typhoon in the Philippines, the native land of Journey’s current lead singer, Arnel Pineda. The band has already announced a $350,000 donation for Typhoon Haiyan relief, and Schon says he’s paid upfront for the wedding celebration out of his own pocket. Schon is equally unwilling to put a number on the hoped-for audience, which could range anywhere from a stratospheric high of 1.5 million paying customers to the half-dozen friends and relatives who couldn't make the trip; his publicist says "80,000 buyers is a good conservative benchmark."
“It’s the talk of the industry, is what I’m hearing, because it’s brand-new,” says Schon, noting that nobody until now has ever tried to sell a wedding on pay-per-view television, better known as a venue for ritualized violence. “I like to do things that people have not done. Thinking out of the box.”
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Michaele predicts. “I welcome everyone. I love the whole world.”
President Obama, alas, will not be among the 400-odd invited guests at the Palace of Fine Arts. “He can buy it, too,” Schon says.
The blindingly blonde Salahi—who continues to use her ex-husband’s surname despite their epically nasty divorce, which involved accusations of kidnapping, a phone call from the FBI, a $50 million lawsuit, and allegations that her paramour emailed a photo of his privates to taunt her cuckolded spouse—looks wonderfully smooth and youthful for a woman of 47.
“She’s healthier than she’s ever been,” says Schon, who is 59 and boasts five children from four previous marriages.
It’s happy hour when they show up in the noisy bar of their midtown Manhattan hotel—though they drink only water: Schon, who is recovering from some of the occupational hazards of rock‘n’roll, notes that “I’ve been sober going on seven years.” They’ve just landed at Teterboro airport in a chartered Gulfstream IV. “We just flew in,” Michaele confides. “They told us tonight is the Christmas tree lighting—so we brought light to New York!” Journey had performed at a corporate event in Cincinnatti, and was booked for another private show in New York. “It keeps the kitty going,” Schon says with a grin.
He’s a compact man, tricked out head to toe in black raiment—a black leather steampunk hat in docking position over his curly brown coif. She, slightly taller, is arrayed all in white—creamy slacks and a virgin wool sweater. Throughout the conversation in an out-of-the-way banquette, she continually kisses and caresses her inamorato, possessively throwing her arms around him, occasionally gesturing in a way that fails to conceal her 11.42 carat diamond engagement ring, which reportedly cost more than a million dollars and was delivered in an armored truck.
“It’s been a big journey,” says Salahi, who presumably uses the word in its generic, non-trademarked sense. “It was March 2009 when I signed on to Real Housewives and from there on my life just kind of …” she trails off. “Like everything NBC and Bravo said—‘Get ready! Buckle up!’ I think what I learned from that whole process is follow your heart. And I learned to be strong. It was a lot. But it brought me the strength to be with the person I love.”
“The past is the past,” Schon chimes in.
“I don’t look back,” Salahi agrees. “Since that night when I came to Neal, I’ve never looked back.”
The nation’s tabloids, and especially the celebrity gossip web site TMZ (whose founder, Harvey Levin, Schon derides as “the King of Cheese”), have meticulously chronicled the couple’s comings and goings since the night of Sept. 13, 2011, when Michaele disappeared from the Salahi homestead in the Virginia horse country and Tareq, her plump husband of eight years, called the cops to report her missing and possibly kidnapped.
“She fled and came to me,” Neal says, “and the FBI was following us and all that. I’m like one day on the phone with the FBI and they’re like, ‘Are you holding her at gunpoint?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not. Would you like to speak to her?’ And it was unbelievable. Surreal.” Michaele starts laughing. “Anyway, she fled to me. I didn’t steal anybody. She fled to me. I want to say that. And we’ve been together every day. She’s been on tour with me every day. And if we’re not on tour, we’re still together every day.”
“Oh yeah,” Michaele chimes in. “And people are wondering how that is. It’s amazing when you love someone like I love Neal. Your home becomes wherever he and I are together.”
They are reported to have met after a Journey concert at Washington’s Constitutional Hall in 1995—though they are mysterious about the precise timing.
“We just say ‘in the 90s,’” Michaele instructs.
Michaele Holt, as she was known then, when she was a model and former Washington Redskins cheerleader, was apparently dressed to kill. “I saw her walking in as I was playing,” Neal recounts. “It was a big place and usually nobody catches my eye like that. I actually had someone go find her and her girlfriend Susan—that I’m still great friends with, and who is her maid of honor.”
“Maid of honor!” Michaele echoes.
“I just wanted to say hello,” Neal continues, “so we met there and went back to the hotel. Just for a second. To have a fast drink of water. Or whatever we were drinking.”
“We did have water. Yep,” Michaele confirms.
“I had to take off,” Neal resumes, “and she had to take off. And that was it. And then we reconnected about a year later.”
“Yeah, and he had never done that,” Michaele says. “A lot of people wonder, ‘Oooh, is that the rock’n’roll thing?’ That’s not his style.”
“It’s the honest-to-God truth. I never had done that.”
If this G-rated version of an encounter between a rock musician and two female fans is to be relied upon, then Schon must surely have been among the most chaste and abstemious rock stars in history.
“You know what? We get the bad rap,” he tells me. “What are you? You’re a journalist.”
I assure him that journalists, for the most part, don’t have groupies trailing them from assignment to assignment.
“I’m sure you do—in your own little funnel,” Schon insists. “Everybody does. I mean, if they’re athletes—anybody that’s professional, you have people that follow you.”
Michaele comes to the rescue. “I think I did that. I stereotyped and it was wrong.” She fixes her limpid baby blues on her amorous bethrothed. “And I said I was sorry to you because you are a rock legend. You are iconic. You are a brilliant genius of music. But you are the kindest, most beautiful man with the biggest heart.” A side comment to me: “And he is, by far, next to my dad, the greatest man.” She turns back to Neal. “I love you.”
Which, inevitably, is the signal for yet another moist shmooch.
Neal, who didn’t stop believin’ in the hallowed institutions of both marriage and divorce, even as Michaele entered into her own entanglements, ultimately proposed on stage in October 2012, in the midst of a Baltimore charity concert in which Journey, along with Michaele, helped raise almost $500,000 for the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.
Even now, he seems surprised that she ended up with him. “She never divulged her feelings to me, you know? She was trying to be too cool.”
“Cool doesn’t work for me,” Michaele says.
“We were just friends, you know?” Neal says.
Michaele: “We were always best of friends.”
Neal: “We had things going on.”
Michaele: “Yeah. Yeah.”
Neal: “And we talked once in a while. Sometimes a couple of years would go by, and then we’d talk again. ‘How ya doin’?’ But she never told me how she felt until after she ran.”
Michaele: “People should never be cool. You should just say what’s in your heart. I could have saved a lot of time and pain and maybe have been here a lot sooner. Sorry. I love you.”
She goes in for the kiss again.
The Salahi connection has visited upon Schon more negative publicity than he’s used to, and proved a windfall for various lawyers who sued Britain’s Daily Mail (for a story claiming erroneously that Schon had stiffed an ex-wife and three kids out of child support; Schon got damages and a public apology), and settled with Tareq (who received a rumored $12,000 and a year’s worth of mortgage payments despite having his lawsuit against Schon and Journey tossed out of court). But Schon stands ready to do more battle if necessary.
“Because I’ m serious when I’m serious,” he says, recalling his encounter with the Daily Mail. “I said, ‘I will sue you if you do not settle with me.’ And I don’t care if it costs me $2 million. I will win. And when I win, I’m going to win $6 million, okay?”
“We forgive the media,” Michaele says.
I ask her what she thinks now about Tareq, who when not dealing with his own problems, such as a recent local television report on customers who accused him of bilking them on a tour of Virginia vineyards, has surfaced every so often to say something unpleasant.
“I wish him the best,” Michaele answers with a laugh. “I’m thankful where I’m at … We don’t care about any of our exes. They’re exes for a reason.”
“We’re, like, so beyond all that,” Neal agrees.
“I’m so excited,” Michaele blurts out, by way of changing the subject and steering the interview back on message. “Did you know I’m getting married in two weeks?”