Take away the glamour, the TV cameras and the tabloid headlines, and Michaele Salahi's latest drama could almost be an Anne Tyler plot: Disaffected housewife risks it all to walk away from a stale marriage and into an entirely new life.
But, hey — without the glamour, cameras and tabloids, Michaele would hardly be Michaele.
When the one-time White House party crasher and reality TV star walked away from her husband last year, he whipped the celebrity media into a frenzy by claiming she was kidnapped, only to realize soon after that she was perfectly fine — purring most contentedly in the very open arms of rock star Neal Schon of Journey.
Fiction would struggle to top Michaele Salahi's true life. And that's just how she likes it.
Salahi and Schon will be in Baltimore Sunday for a benefit to raise money for the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He'll be performing with Journey, and she'll be his opening act, hosting a fashion show.
Salahi spoke with The Baltimore Sun last week, calling from Nashville, Tenn., just one stop on Journey's tour, which has taken her from Arkansas to Maine to Hawaii and even the Philippines. She talked about finding love with Schon, her new normal of living on the road, and the real-life lessons she's learned from reality television.
"This is like a lifetime dream," she said of being with Schon. "It's a really real thing."
It's hard to believe that before 2009, almost no one had heard of Michaele Salahi. That's when she and her then-husband, Tareq, crashed an awards dinner at the White House where President Barack Obama was speaking. The couple were discovered sitting at a table that other diners had paid for and were escorted out by security guards — but not before posing for soon-to-be-famous photos, with her in a red and gold sari-inspired dress, grasping the president's hand.
In the brouhaha that followed, the couple insisted that they were invited. No one bought it.
The incident helped earn Salahi a spot on "The Real Housewives of D.C." By the time of the party, Bravo crews had already been following the Salahis but hadn't yet announced the cast. The whole episode and its aftermath became fodder for the show's season finale in 2010.
Last September, Tareq, a Virginia winery owner she married in 2003, reported Michaele had been kidnapped after she disappeared. It turns out she had run off with Schon.
The Salahis' predictably nasty divorce was finalized this summer. Tareq's suit against Schon for $50 million was settled, as was Michaele's countersuit against Tareq.
Now Tareq is running for governor of Virginia while Michaele and her new man embark on what could be called their PDA Tour 2012.
"We're making up for all kinds of time," Michaele says. "We just can't get enough. Life's short."
Michaele and Schon met in 1995 at a Journey concert at D.C.'s DAR Constitution Hall. Michaele, who is originally from Fairfax, Va., was there with a friend. He spotted her in the crowd and did that rock star move where he sends someone out to bring her backstage. He told her it was the first time he'd ever done that. She believed him.
For a fan of Journey, this was mind-blowing, she says. And she felt something with Schon immediately.
But the occasional model — who attended but didn't graduate from King's College
went on to marry Salahi, choosing life at a winery instead of one on a tour bus. But she remained close with Schon over the next decade, until one day last year when she decided she couldn't live without him.
"For the first time, instead of doing what everyone else wants me to do, I said: 'I have to do something to fulfill myself,' " she said. "I said: 'I'm doing it; I'm going.' And I never came back."
She adds: "I'm thankful that I had enough courage to walk away from what I was in and follow my heart. Maybe I should have done it sooner, but I didn't have the maturity then."
In the last year, the two have been together almost constantly, usually on the road, though their home now is in San Francisco. The two flaunted their relationship in a Journey video for the song "Resonate," released, as if to underscore the point, on Valentine's Day. In it, the two make out on a sandy beach as if no one is watching.
Salahi says she'll appear in another Journey video set to debut in a few weeks on "Entertainment Tonight."
Ask Salahi what she sees in Schon and she'll give you an anatomy lesson. His face. His eyes. His hair. His arms ...
"He's very sexy," she says. "Have you seen Neal?"
She loves other things about him, too. How they laugh a lot and like doing the same things — like traveling, riding motorcycles, going to the beach. She compares the two of them to the famous duo from "I Love Lucy." "The band always says we're like Ricky and Lucy," she says. "When I'm going on about something, he'll go, 'Michaaaaele,' the way Ricky used to do with Lucy."
She loves his romantic side, too.
For her 47th birthday this month, Schon surprised her with a Porsche Cayenne in white — her signature color. There was also jewelry, clothes and flowers.
"Neal really spoiled me," she says. "I'm a lucky girl."
Since they've been together, Salahi says she's lightened up her famously glammed look, embracing some style from Schon's world — leather pants and biker boots. She thinks she's "definitely much hipper." And some of her style has rubbed off on Schon — she's proud that she got him out of all black and into a bit of color.
Their interest in fashion is what led to Salahi's Baltimore appearance.
When guitar-maker Paul Reed Smith persuaded Schon to perform a concert to benefit Johns Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center, he wanted Salahi to be part of it and suggested combining music with fashion.
Her Journey of Hope Fashion Show will lead into the band's performance at the
"The best part about this is the end goal, raising money for the foundation," she says. "I'm looking forward to coming back and saying hi."
If you go
The 13th annual Paul Reed Smith Guitars and Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center Charity Weekend
VIP party with the Journey of Hope Fashion Show hosted by Michaele Salahi at 5:30 p.m. Sunday; doors open at 8 p.m. for the concert
Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Tickets, available through Ticketmaster, start at $75. VIP tickets start at $250.