The ‘soft sensuality’ of Trump’s inauguration

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The chairman of President-elect Trump’s inauguration committee says to expect a tone of “soft sensuality” at Friday’s inauguration. What on Earth does that mean?

President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration will be held this Friday. We don’t know much about what will happen. We’re told the focus will not be on celebrities.

The little we do know comes from Tom Barrack, chairman of the inauguration committee. He’s an LA-based real estate investor, whose company Colony Capital has focused on real estate-related debt.

He told reporters that “instead of trying to surround it with what people consider A-listers, what we are going to surround it with is the soft sensuality of the place.”

Soft sensuality? What might that mean?

“I have a vision in my head,” said Mayer Rus, West Coast editor for Architectural Digest. “I’m seeing toxic gold spray painted polyester taffeta, the stained velvet foot covers from Roy Cohn’s playroom, pillowy breast implants on Estonian prostitutes, and I’m seeing Sarah Palin.”

That’s one view.

We also turned to someone who has worked with Tom Barrack. Joan Behnke is an interior designer who created the interiors of a home for Mr. Barrack in Montecito – in Santa Barbara – and hotels in Sardinia.

“When I heard that term I was I was a little bit perplexed by it, because obviously I think of an inauguration as something that is more stately and not about sensuality,” Behnke said. “And so the only thing that I could think of is that Tom is a very sophisticated man. He’s a very understated, intelligent man that is not bombastic in any way and therefore he potentially is bringing to the inauguration something that is a little more unexpected.”

The 2009 inauguration of President Barack H. Obama on the West Front of the Capitol. Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol.
The 2009 inauguration of President Barack H. Obama on the West Front of the Capitol. Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Some of the performers at the inauguration – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rockettes, the band Three Doors Down – hardly suggest “soft sensuality” or subtlety. Behnke suggests that Trump appointed Barrack to the job in order to bring in large audiences to watch the inauguration.

“Trump obviously had a very strong media background and has relied on media-savvy people to help get him elected. And he’s aware of ratings,” she said. “Using words like ‘soft sensuality’ is more than likely a hook.”

DnA visited Behnke, 63, in her office in Beverly Hills, filled with examples of the art and objects she gathers from global trips on behalf of her clients. Barrack once told Forbes, in a profile of Behnke, “I don’t view her as a decorator; she is a cultural scientist.” She has worked on houses as large as 50,000 square feet, and says billionaires think differently than the rest of us.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work with quite a few billionaires and they’re all very smart people. Billionaires think about the world in terms of business,” she said. “Their personal lives sometimes are more challenging because you find people who they have a hard time trusting. They know that people like them because they’re rich. And I think our personal success in working with many of these people has been from the point of view of being very down to earth.”

There’s a conversation right now about how to cover Donald Trump. Some ask, should we “normalize” a president-elect who in so many ways in not normal? And that conversation is taking place among editors of shelter and lifestyle magazines. Should they write uncritically gushing articles about Ivanka Trump’s apartment in New York or Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate?

Rus says this is time to get serious.

“We are headed into a national nightmare,” he said. “And as much I joke about the vulgarity of Donald Trump and Melania and Ivanka, the base vulgarity of those people, what’s happening in this country is no laughing matter.”

Behnke agreed that “normalizing” Trump should be a concern.

“I think we have to be so very careful about the ethics of this new world order that we’re in,” she said. “I think that’s where there’s tremendous conflict of interest, where you have his daughter having a jewelry line and it being for sale in the hotels and where there’s people of influence staying and potentially buying things like that.”