WASHINGTON, Dec 4 — A diverse class of music legends plus comedian Billy Crystal gave Washington a glow-up yesterday, gathering with the US capital’s politicos for one of the city’s glitziest events of the year.

The annual Kennedy Centre Honours see entertainment A-listers descend on Washington — a city known more for buttoned-up business casual than black tie — to celebrate their icons.

The 2023 class included the beloved comic and actor Crystal as well as rap pioneer Queen Latifah, soul legend Dionne Warwick, star soprano Renee Fleming and the sole surviving Bee Gee, Barry Gibb.

The inductees were seated aside President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill to receive the highest American arts award.

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British singer-songwriter Barry Gibb looks on during a reception for the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours Gala, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic
British singer-songwriter Barry Gibb looks on during a reception for the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours Gala, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic

“You can’t campaign for this. It’s unexpected,” Gibb — who penned hundreds of songs over his career including smashes Stayin’ Alive and Nights On Broadway — told journalists on the red carpet.

The concert gala closed with a tribute to Gibb as well his late brothers, as the Oscar-winning performer Ariana DeBose performed a hip-shaking medley of Bee Gee classics accompanied by a troupe of dancers in shimmering halter-neck jumpsuits.

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“It’s very emotional,” Gibb said, adding the presence of his brothers, Robin and Maurice, was palpable as he accepted the award. “There’s something going on in the air, and you just feel it.”

US musician and actress Queen Latifah looks on during a reception for the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours Gala, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic
US musician and actress Queen Latifah looks on during a reception for the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours Gala, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic

The Grammy-winning rapper Latifah was the first woman in hip-hop to receive the accolade, decades after she released her debut album All Hail The Queen.

Kerry Washington along with Missy Elliott were among the peers who inducted the 53-year-old Latifah, just a month after the Ladies First singer herself introduced Elliott into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Sigourney Weaver and Christine Baranski turned out to celebrate the globally renowned soprano Fleming, the opera phenom who’s played a large role in popularising the form to wider audiences.

Honoree US opera soprano Renee Fleming and husband Tim Jessell attend the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours gala at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic
Honoree US opera soprano Renee Fleming and husband Tim Jessell attend the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours gala at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic

She’s graced the world’s top stages but Fleming, 64, said “the thing that scares me is sitting in the box.”

“It’s all joy, but it’s also overwhelming,” she told journalists, floating across the carpet in a shimmering purple gown.

Warwick, 82, was all smiles in the box, as proteges including Chloe Bailey — who delivered a rendition of the soul classic Walk On By — performed in her honour.

Calling it a “privilege” to accept the award, Warwick told attendees of the medallion ceremony at the State Department earlier this weekend that they were just as lucky as her.

“The 62 years I’ve given to you is now being recognised,” she said with a knowing smirk.

Hollywood divided

The gala that sees Washington’s political elite rub shoulders with the cream of the cultural crop this year comes as distress and anger deepen over the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas in retaliation for the militant group’s October 7 attacks that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities.

An estimated 240 others, among them young children and elderly people, were taken hostage into Gaza during the attacks.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 15,500 people have been killed in the territory since October 7, more than half of them women and children.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, just back after another trip to the region, was among those swaying to the hits of Queen Latifah and other honourees in the house’s mezzanine.

Top members of Congress including Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi were also in attendance, with the latter praising Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s devastating response to Hamas’ bloody attacks.

The president has garnered harsh criticism including persistent street protests over the US reaction to Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Pelosi told journalists on the carpet that protests had happened today at her own California home, but insisted on the president’s backing of Israel.

The Israel-Hamas conflict has proven divisive in the arts world, with some high-profile figures including Susan Sarandon facing backlash and career damage for speaking out in favour of Palestinian rights.

But on the whole attendees avoided the topic at yesterday’s gala, which is a fundraiser for the performing arts centre that serves as a living monument to slain president John F. Kennedy.

“We make a point of talking to all of our performers and saying this is an apolitical evening, this is not a time when we’re here to be advocating for one thing or another,” Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Centre, told journalists.

US actor and comedian Billy Crystal attends the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours gala at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic
US actor and comedian Billy Crystal attends the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours gala at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2023. — AFP pic

Artistic ‘soul’

That sentiment rang true for Crystal, 75, who told reporters for him the night was “about appreciation for the soul of our artistic community.”

Peers including Robert DeNiro, Rob Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg and Meg Ryan turned out to honour Crystal, a comedian beloved for his work in film and television.

Honorees Dionne Warwick and Queen Latifah clap for Billy Crystal during the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours at the Kennedy Centre December 3, 2023, in Washington, DC. — AFP pic
Honorees Dionne Warwick and Queen Latifah clap for Billy Crystal during the 46th Kennedy Centre Honours at the Kennedy Centre December 3, 2023, in Washington, DC. — AFP pic

Ryan — who co-starred opposite Crystal in the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally — honoured her fellow star from a set mirroring Katz’s Deli, the restaurant where the pair performed their iconic scene that sees Sally act out sexual climax to prove a point.

“The scene came really naturally,” quipped Ryan. “I have Billy to thank for that.”

“I’ve actually never met anyone who made faking an orgasm easier.”

She wasn’t the only performer dropping one-liners, as DeNiro, himself 80, mocked the 81-year-old Biden’s age.

“You’re six years away from being the perfect age to be elected president,” DeNiro told Crystal, as the audience burst into applause. — AFP