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At the National Portrait Gallery’s third biennial American Portrait Gala on Sunday evening, stars from the worlds of entertainment, fashion, science, industry and technology converged to celebrate a diverse roster of portrait-worthy icons who are helping to lead our nation forward and define our culture — among them Anna Wintour, whose award was being presented by fellow British expat and late-night funnyman James Corden.
When asked about their friendship, Wintour told The Hollywood Reporter: “He sent me a very seductive email.”
Corden attempted to give it context: “Anna had organized … a fundraiser for [London’s] National Theatre [in 2015], and I was in a play in New York, and after that production I sent Anna an email. I was sort of on my own — just my wife and I and my one-year-old in New York — and I sent Anna an email saying, ‘Would you like to become best friends?’ And Anna said sure,” Corden told THR. “There are very few friendships that mean more to me. It’s a wonderful thing to be here to celebrate a woman who spends so much of her time celebrating others.”
The portrait of Wintour goes a long way toward letting us see the softer side of the famed editor: an informal photograph directed and chosen by Annie Leibovitz (“Imagine telling Anna Wintour what to wear,” the photographer quipped) taken in Wintour’s home against the backdrop of her art collections, with her family in the room but just outside the frame. “She’s a great businesswoman and champion for the arts, but you never get the chance to see how unbelievably warm she is as a person,” Leibovitz said.
The gallery’s Portrait of a Nation Prize strives to capture the people who help define the American experience, both culturally and politically — and sometimes both. Michelle Obama, presenting the award to Lin-Manuel Miranda, whom she claims to have been “fangirling” ever since seeing him perform at the White House in 2009, noted that the creator of Hamilton had, “in melody and rhyme and connection, painted as honest a portrait of our country as I have ever seen.”
Miranda credited the Obamas for championing his efforts to tell this story, describing how in May 2009, when he was invited to perform at the White House, he was told, “’We’d love for you to do a selection from In the Heights … unless you have anything on the American experience?’ I had 16 bars about Alexander Hamilton. I had not finished writing this song. But I thought, if this weird song I’m writing about the first treasury secretary as narrated by Aaron Burr doesn’t work in this room, I should just pack it up and write something else.”
Miranda described the moment his photograph was taken by Mark Seliger on the roof of Seliger’s building. Miranda is wearing the costume Paul Tazewell designed for his role in Hamilton, his coat flapping in the breeze. “There’s a four-story drop behind me, and I’m scared out of my mind in that picture,” Miranda said. “A snapshot does not tell you who we are. It’s a moment. And what’s amazing about the National Portrait Gallery is that it’s moments upon moments of people who tell our story.”
Despite the nonpartisan stance of the Smithsonian, there was an inescapable political element in the crowd. “Where else could you be where you have two former first ladies in the room on a school night?,” said the evening’s emcee, Gayle King, giving a shout-out to attendee Hillary Clinton. “She is the first former first lady [to have ever had a portrait] commissioned to be in the gallery. Once again, there you go, Madam President — um, I mean, Madam Secretary — paving the way.”
Many presenters and recipients noted the progress the gallery has made in shifting the focus from “dead white men” to include a diverse representation of people of all ethnicities, from all industries and stages of their lives. Award recipient and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Frances Arnold took a moment in her acceptance speech to point out that “without diversity, we move down a path that’s a sure route to extinction.”
Prabal Gurung, the Nepalese designer whom Michelle Obama helped put on the map, was the evening’s honorary fashion designer. When asked who he’d like to dress from the list of 2020 presidential candidates, Gurung demurred but offered this: “I came here to America 20 years ago as an immigrant. I didn’t know anyone here. I had a dream of becoming a fashion designer, and I believed that the only place in the world that could possibly happen was America. I am an immigrant, I am a minority, I’m a citizen. I’ve been in business on my own for 10 years. I make the majority of my clothes in America, the majority of my workers are women. So somebody who celebrates that, who appreciates that, that’s the kind of candidate, you know? Somebody who’s able to see us, see all of us.”
Other awardees included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, and the members of Earth, Wind & Fire. The band members received their award from music industry legend Clive Davis, then stuck around to perform their greatest hits for the well-heeled gala crowd.
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Jamie Lee Curtis