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Kerry Washington, up for the fashion icon award

FashionMoviesArtFashion ShowsScandal (tv program)

Kerry Washington is everywhere.

On the covers of magazines; live-tweeting her hit show, "Scandal," with her fans (who call themselves gladiators); hosting "Saturday Night Live"; and soon to be in ads for Neutrogena as the L.A.-based beauty company's new creative consultant.

She's appealing all right, the enviable combination of smart and pretty with a can-do mentality to match that of her character on TV, Washington, D.C., crisis manager Olivia Pope.

She's also an actress in the modern mold who knows that being a pro at the fashion game is a key to her success. That's why Washington, 36, made a conscious effort to learn her Giambattista Valli from her Raf Simons a couple of years ago by researching, consulting stylish pals and teaming up with New York-based stylist Erin Walsh.

"As an actor, your presence on the red carpet and also in editorial is your marketing division," Washington said during a recent chat in L.A.

Washington has a keen sense of occasion and appropriateness. She spends time scanning runway photos on Style.com and collaborating with Walsh to come up with interesting stories to tell through her red carpet choices. For example, when planning for the lunches and dinners leading up this year's Emmys, they decided on a pink color story, which culminated in the fairy-tale Marchesa gown Washington wore to the award ceremony. And last year, when Washington was on the global press tour for her film "Django Unchained," they gave themselves the challenge of finding a dress made by a local designer in each country that hosted a premiere. (Washington wore Giles Deacon in London and Rochas in France.)

"We try to be creative and have fun with it," said the actress, who lives in L.A. with husband Nnamdi Asomugha, an NFL football player. The couple is expecting their first child next year.

Washington, the daughter of Earl, a real estate broker, and Valerie, a professor, grew up in New York City, where she attended the Spence School for girls and wore a uniform every day. "My focus was on trying to be smart and funny and interesting as opposed to trying to be the pretty girl in the room. And I loved growing up in an environment, both at school and at home, where your insides are much more important than your aesthetics," Washington said.

She graduated from George Washington University in 1998 and gave herself a year to make it in acting. Roles came quickly, on TV, then film. Washington has appeared in "Ray," "The Last King of Scotland" and "Colored Girls," among other films, and has become one of the highest paid actresses on TV with ABC's "Scandal," now in its third season.

Her interest in fashion came late, "which has been a good thing because I see all of this as an art form," she said. "I go to the shows in New York or Milan, and to me it's like going to a great museum opening or movie; you're seeing an artist at work. And when I sit down with my makeup artist and hairstylist, I know that's a collaborative work to create a moment of beauty out of the girl who just rolled out of bed."

"Kerry is as aspirational in beauty as she is in fashion," said Michelle Freyre, general manager of Neutrogena, which is tapping Washington for input on marketing and product development, as well as putting her face in ads.

"One of the things I love about Kerry is that she's such a curious person," said Walsh, her stylist, who also works with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kristen Wiig. "She's always searching and looking for more. She was emailing me couture looks while she was in the middle of her vacation"

But while she is a good student of fashion, she's not a big shopper. "I tend to buy a lot of stuff at photo shoots and fittings. It saves me time. And off the red carpet, I'm a much more casual girl. I couldn't live without James Perse T-shirts, MiH Jeans and my custom Nike sneakers."

One of the first designers to lend her a dress for the red carpet was Giorgio Armani,. "And I love it now because on 'Scandal' I wear a ton of Armani. I love that full circle."

Olivia Pope is a fashion plate too, with her trademark cream-and-beige color palette, Prada bags, sharply feminine suits and luxe loungewear. She is the image of today's newly stylish Washington, epitomized in the real world by First Lady Michelle Obama.

"When we shot the pilot, D.C. was in the midst of its renaissance of fashion with the first lady and [former White House social secretary] Desiree Rogers and all these people transforming the idea of what style in Washington is. I wanted to jump on that and advance it. I remember saying to [costume designer] Lyn Paolo, 'Olivia is her own woman. She used to work for the government but now works on her own. So she can take those Washington rules and spin them.'"

The costumes on 'Scandal' have been so popular that Saks Fifth Avenue designed window displays around them this fall. There has also been talk about Washington and Paolo collaborating on a clothing line. "It would have to be a partnership where I had a voice and Lyn had a voice and we could be authentic about sharing that aesthetic," Washington said. "I'm obsessed with the Olivia Pope loungewear world. That's so special and different. That may be one impact she's had on me. I've always worn a lot of comfy cashmere, but I was not a girl who walked around in silk pajamas before. And now I'm like, 'Why not?'"

Truth follows fiction in that Washington herself is a friend of the Obamas. She spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and serves on the President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities, which is co-chaired by the first lady. "We work on a lot of initiatives, but the one I'm most passionate about is Turnaround Arts, which helps teachers and administrators develop arts programs in schools," Washington explained. "A lot of times, we think of arts as an elective, as in, if there's enough money around, then we will add it to the curriculum. But schools with arts education have a higher attendance, higher enrollment, higher parental involvement, lower reports of behavioral issues, higher math and reading scores."

As part of the program, Washington "adopted" Savoy Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C., and paid a visit there in May with the first lady.

To those who have suggested that Washington could play Michelle Obama in a biopic, the actress demurs. "I don't know if I could fill those shoes. She's pretty phenomenal."

booth.moore@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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