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Judy Clabes: D.C. Bluegrass Ball big success, buzz around Ashley Judd dominates event

Actress Ashley Judd, center, joined a number of Kentucky dignitaries on stage during the 2013 Bluegrass Ball in Washington, D.C.


The 100th anniversary of the Kentucky Society of Washington and the 2013 Bluegrass Ball, a nonpartisan pomp-and-circumstance celebration of all things Kentucky, converged for a very successful event at the historic Wardman Park Marriott over the weekend. Called “the greatest ball of all time,” this run-up to the presidential inauguration began in 1949 when Kentucky’s own Alben Barkley was to be sworn in as vice president.

This year, a packed house of 850 tux-and-begowned guests enjoyed a spectacular party lavish with signature Kentucky flavor. Two hundred wannabe attendees couldn’t get tickets.

Iron Chef Edward Lee, with his wife Diane, prepared a distinctive Kentucky meal for guests.

Bourbon industry execs in all their finery plied guests with their finest bourbon and wines. Iron Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, an “adopted Kentuckian,” prepared an extraordinary meal with distinctive Kentucky tastes – melt-in-your-mouth beef with a tasty sauce that included turnips. (There were no complaints about the food at our table.)

The Letcher County Central and JROTC Marching Band, in town for the official inauguration parade today, ushered guests into the grand ballroom with their big sound, setting a festive tone for the rest of the full evening. Enjoyable for the guests for sure – but imagine the unforgettable experience for those young people who raised $70k to make the trip.

We were the lucky guests of our friends, Mac and Michelle-Anne Riley. Our full-of-fun table included state Sen. Robin Webb, Mary Catherine Riley, and former Miss America and First Lady of Kentucky Phyllis George and her smart and charming daughter, Pamela Brown.  

Emcees for the evening were the mother-daughter duo Phyllis George and Pamela Brown.

The mother-daughter duo were emcees for the evening, but more than that they were delightful and interesting dinner companions. Though many of us remember a young Pamela in the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion, today she is a reporter and weekend anchor for ABC News Channel 8 in D.C. And her proud mom beams when talking about her accomplished daughter.

A fabulous group of Kentucky musicians, the Electric Edge, entertained with original music as well as old favorites for a long night of dancing and revelry. Mostly faculty at Morehead State University, Tony Pence, vocalist Lisa Ginn, Glenn Ginn, Gordon Towell, Steven Snyder, Danny Cecil and Paul Deatherage played into the wee hours. Left up to the die-hard dancers, they’d still be playing. It really was that much fun.

Washington is nothing if not a “Who’s Who” place, so who shows up where and when is always subject to gossipy interest. Dignitaries in attendance included Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear, Lt. Gov. and Mrs. Jerry Abramson, most of the Kentucky congressional delegation. Sponsors were a “who’s who” of Kentucky businesses.

But – by far – the biggest buzz of the evening centered on actress Ashley Judd who decided at the last minute to attend. Given that she has expressed interest in a U.S. Senate bid as a Democrat opponent to incumbent Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, her appearance was rife with intrigue and speculation. Because McConnell did not attend the event this year – one of the few he has missed – pressures on organizers were doubly terrific. Where and with whom should she be seated? How should she be introduced? How much star treatment should she be afforded? As the ball is nonpartisan, organizers approach these issues with all seriousness.

Actress Ashley Judd, with Phyllis George, Jerry Abramson and Pamela Brown, was the focus of much attention.

If only Ms. Judd had done the same.

An old Kentucky truism is that you get only one chance to make a good first impression. Yet for her first foray onto a serious political stage, with a serious political crowd, she might want to ask for a retake.

There is no doubt that Ashley Judd is a beautiful and talented woman. Those who know her well say, too, that she is incredibly intelligent and deeply committed to important issues worldwide. Her reputation for humanitarian efforts is respectable and real.

She arrived in glorious Hollywood style, a fancy designer gown, low-cut and strapless and flouncy – showing off assets that play well on the big screen. Her hairdo was similarly spectacular, if unattainable by most of the other women present, who had done their best. She was stunning, though by one snarky description she was Barbie in an inflated ballet dress.

Unfortunately, she does not aspire to beat Mitch McConnell in a beauty contest – which, of course, would be no contest at all. She purportedly aspires to unseat the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate, one who has represented his home state for five full terms – count that, 30 years – and wields influence that matters back home.

This is not the movies.

Cleavage hard not to notice, star quality accustomed to attention (waiting for approaches rather than approaching), beauty and fashion are not the qualities it will take to become a new U.S. senator from a state where home ties are already questionable (UK basketball fandom notwithstanding).

If Ashley Judd wants to be taken seriously as a senatorial candidate, facing one of the toughest pros in the game, she has to put on a serious game face, dress and act the part. She has to work the crowd. She has to mingle and engage with people who will take her seriously.

She got plenty of attention and lots of curious stares. What she’ll need is votes.

This doesn’t mean not being herself. It means not being a caricature of herself. Right away, she needs to engage the best Kentucky-savvy consultants in the game – who’ll make sure her next chance for impressing as U.S. Senate material does not end her chances altogether.

Thus, the hard lesson for Ashley Judd from the famed Bluegrass Ball.

(Photos by Judy Clabes)

Judy Clabes is editor and publisher of KyForward.

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