Watching Kerry Washington saunter across the patio of the Chateau Marmont—a place certainly not wanting for famous or beautiful faces—you have to think: This is a woman who knows how to make an entrance. Heads turn and people whisper; even the waitress cracks a nervous smile. But if Washington notices, she doesn’t let on. Dressed in casual basics—rolled-up boyfriend jeans, a white ASOS blazer over a silk block-print LNA blouse and polka-dot heels—she’s equal parts sophistication, confidence and nonchalance. She tosses her orange ostrich Klutch bag on the chair beside her, unclips her cameo earrings (Lagos), places them on the table and leans in, ready to talk.
The 36-year-old Bronx native has been a fixture on the big screen for well over a decade, starting out with small roles in high school romps like Save the Last Dance and working her way up to acclaimed projects like Ray and The Last King of Scotland. But it wasn’t until she starred in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and as the lead in ABC’s binge-worthy, Emmy-nominated hit Scandal last year that she became a household name. “It’s a miracle to even work in this industry,” says Washington, who resists being tagged a late bloomer. “I didn’t become an actress to be on the cover of magazines. That was always a little scary to me. What I love about acting is the craft of becoming different people and telling a story.”
As Olivia Pope, the D.C. fixer you call when all other options are exhausted—say, you woke up with a dead girl in your bed, or you rigged a presidential election—Washington is always the smartest person in the room. Unless, of course, that room is the Oval Office. Because the one chink in Olivia’s Armani armor is that she happens to be having an affair with the (married) President of the United States. “One of the things I really love about playing Olivia,” says Washington, “is the juxtaposition of her being such a powerful woman and her immeasurable vulnerability.”
Exciting though it may be to watch Pope and Associates blackmail a Beltway power broker or clean up a crime scene, fans are inspired as much by her strength as by her sartorial choices, which have become the obsession of professional women everywhere. Blogs like Scandal on a Budget track Olivia’s fashion picks, and one pop culture site (vulture.com) chronicled every single outfit she wore in Season 2—with OCD precision. Washington herself (@kerrywashington) live-tweets what her character is wearing to her 1.1 million followers, and the Get This app allows fans to purchase Olivia’s outfits as they appear live on-screen. Still, for Washington, Olivia is defined by her character, not her clothing. “There are shows where every time you see the character she’s in a different piece, and it’s like a fashion event,” she says. “I didn’t want that. I wanted Olivia to be a real person. We will always buy new pieces, but on every episode we try to use at least one piece that you’ve seen before, whether it’s a suit jacket or pants or a pair of shoes.”
Washington fills those shoes so believably (case in point: her recent Emmy nomination) that viewers tend to forget she’s not her character. “People always come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I want Olivia’s closet,’ and I’m like, ‘Me too!’ ’’ she says between bites of steamed artichoke. “Even for me, I think it’s a real danger to compare yourself to someone on a television show. I know that I am not going to look like Olivia when I wake up to go to the bathroom at 4 o’clock in the morning. On the set, it’s somebody’s job to follow me around all day with spackle,” she laughs.
Where Olivia is all neutral Tory Burch trenches and traditional Armani pantsuits, Washington is more cozy Vince sweaters and Isabel Marant wedges. Where Olivia might don opera-length Dior gloves or an ultra-feminine Ferragamo cape, Washington would opt for a peekaboo yellow-and-black Michael Kors sheath or a preppy pink-and-green Oscar de la Renta gown with a roller-coaster hemline. “Olivia has a very buttoned-up, conservative D.C. aesthetic, but I tend to be more eclectic and spontaneous,” Washington says. Even her TV fingers are different: Olivia has long CND Shellaced nails—all the better to sink into her clients—while Washington’s are short and practical. “People in my family say that I have elf hands,” she jokes. “I have these big knuckles and little fingers.”
As she flashes her Olivia nails at me, the light catches her platinum eternity ring and gold wedding band. At press time, news had just broken that Washington and her husband, Nnamdi Asomugha, are expecting their first child, but it’s a story that the star is not ready to confirm or deny. And the most she’ll say about her secret summer marriage to the San Francisco 49ers cornerback is that she eschewed a big rock—“I never wanted to have a ring that I would feel uncomfortable riding the subway with”—and that she keeps her rings on at all times. “My wedding band and engagement ring are the only things I can say that I wear every day,” she says, a little unsure if she’s over-sharing. “I pin them to my clothing on set. That way, I always have them with me.”
It’s hard to believe, but style didn’t always come naturally to Washington. “In my mid-20s, fashion intimidated me. But when I went to the shows, it suddenly occurred to me that it was the same as going to a gallery opening or to the theater,” she says. “I can decide, wow, I really like that designer versus this designer in the same way that I might say, ‘Oh, I love van Gogh, but I’d much prefer to have Jeff Koons in my house.’ It is a moment to take in the work of a particular artist and decide how you feel about it.” She threw together an informal team of “fashion mentors”—people like actress Tracee Ellis Ross and E! critic George Kotsiopoulos—and showered them with questions. “They really taught me a great deal. They would give me the names of designers to watch or magazines to buy. And I started to develop a language around fashion.” By the time the 2013 awards season rolled around, Washington, who works with the celebrity stylist Erin Walsh, was fluent. Her appearance in a glittery nude mesh Miu Miu gown at the Golden Globes last January signaled her arrival as a bona fide style star, and equally stunning looks—a blush Marchesa gown with floral embellishments for the Emmys, a bright yellow cross-backed Jason Wu dress for the CFDA Awards and Miu Miu (again), this time a pink gown with a bejeweled bodice and full trail, for the Oscars—saw her graduate to the “Best Dressed” lists from here to Hong Kong.
“Style is a way to define who I am out in the world versus the character I am playing,” says Washington. As a girl, she loved delving into her mother’s trunks of silk scarves, blouses and shoes and playing dress-up. “I’ve always understood there’s a power in costume,” she says, “like when I traveled at a young age from the Bronx to my school in Manhattan—two different universes.”
Today Washington knows exactly what she likes, and perhaps more important, what’s right for whatever universe she finds herself in. “I always strive to be appropriate,” she says. “I know that how people dress says a lot about what they believe and how they walk in the world. So I’m very aware when I make choices that those choices say things. I know whether a gown is the correct gown for the Met Ball or at the MTV Movie Awards or at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” For D.C., where she spends a good deal of time as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, she’s a big fan of Giambattista Valli and Michael Kors suits, along with comfortable Cole Haan shoes. At home in Los Angeles, she’s all about being cozy. “I can run into Madewell and J.Crew and be good for a few months,” she says. “I’m not a formal person. I have a lot of jeans. And I have tons of sneakers, whether they’re the custom Nikes that you can make online or the Isabel Marant wedges. That’s the Bronx in me, for sure.”
This month, Washington will have plenty of opportunity to kick back in those trainers when she heads home for the holidays. “My mother’s birthday is close to Christmas, and I like to cook around the holidays,” she says. “It’s really a special time.” Washington and her new husband plan to spend their rare downtime at her house in upstate New York and attend the annual Washington family get-togethers in the Bronx. “I’m usually in charge of the veggies—I have a brussels sprouts dish that I make,” she says. “And my mom and I bake this Jamaican rum cake together.”
She finds herself in glamorous hotels like the Chateau frequently, but—as with today’s chat—she’s usually just passing through. With any luck, Washington’s upcoming time off will allow her a few stolen moments for a proper vacation. “I love everything about hotels,” says the girl with the full passport and a million air miles. “I love having a view that’s different. I love ordering up a movie on demand and room service and thinking, Well, I guess I’ll just have to eat this in bed! I love televisions in bathrooms, that is the best: taking a bath in salts you’d never buy for home and watching television from the tub. Heaven.”
The check comes, and it’s time for Washington to make her exit; she has a dress fitting for yet another red-carpet event. But before she can go, she’d really like to get her parking ticket stamped—Kerry Washington is nothing if not sensible. “Do we get validated here?” she asks the approaching waitress, yellow ticket in hand. As she walks across the courtyard to pick up her Prius, she turns around and flashes a wide smile. “Actors,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Always looking for validation!”