This year I had the good fortune to be invited to attend the Life Ball in Vienna, Austria. In case you don’t know what that is (I wasn’t exactly sure), Life Ball is the biggest, most insanely extravagant HIV/AIDS benefit on the planet. For one weekend every year Vienna is overrun with celebrities and all manner of fabulous-ish people eager who donate their time and money to help raise money for amfAR, the William J. Clinton Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation and UNAIDS. Of course, the event is also a blatant excuse for glamorousness, combining the classic concept of a Viennese Ball with something akin to a rock concert (with an Oscar-worthy “magenta carpet” to boot).
Given that this was the 20th anniversary of the ball, I was assured that this year’s event would up the ante in terms of star power, insane production values, and overall Red Bull-sponsored insanity. So I excitedly packed my bag, confident in the knowledge that the next three days would not only be insane, but that I would most likely be the most woefully underdressed person in Vienna. Both proved true.
Every year the masterminds behind the Life Ball bring over a whole slew of people from New York to participate. This group of approximately 150 people includes a handful of celebs (Antonio Banderas, amfAR ambassador Milla Jovovich, Lance Bass, Paulina Porizkova, and to my absolute delight, Brigitte Nielsen), as well as a dozen or so of NYC’s most celebrated downtown personalities (Amanda Lepore, Justin Bond, Kembra Pfahler) and more models, stylists, and hair and makeup people than you can shake an eyeliner pencil at. The entire group was shuttled from downtown New York to JFK, herded onto a special plane, and off we went to Austria.
I was told beforehand that this was gonna be a “party flight,” but I had no idea just how much of a party we all had in store. For the next eight hours basically everyone on the flight proceeded to get thoroughly hammered. Approximately one-third of the folks on the plane stood, walked, or danced for the duration of the flight. At least three drag queens did some version of runway down the aisles, while various people got semi-nude. Still, it was the 20-something models who seemed to fly the highest. I watched two of the most beautiful human specimens I have ever seen have a semi-discreet “mile high club” kind of moment under a blanket across the aisle from me while, at that very same instant, I listened to two queens in front of me try and recite every memorable line from Madonna’s Truth or Dare from memory. In the moment, the trip was already more than worth it. No one on the plane slept or stopped talking, but luckily, cans of Red Bull were more plentiful than actual water.
The exact moment when most of the people on the Life Ball flight seemed to crash from their alcohol consumption, furtive sex acts, and energy drink high seemed to coincide nicely with the exact same moment our plane touched the ground in Vienna. After parking mid-tarmac, we all exited down a long flight of stairs (à la The Beatles) walked directly onto a paparazzi-lined red carpet. With fresh cans of Red Bull in our hands, we walked the carpet towards a fleet of waiting shuttle buses. I myself was too hysterically tired to fully appreciate the glamour of the moment, but not so tired that I couldn’t give a nod to people like model Lydia Hearst and the ubiquitous Amanda Lepore, both of whom emerged from the plane looking fresh and camera ready. It was also a treat to see ’80s glamazon Brigitte Nielsen approaching the carpet alongside performance artist Kembra Pfahler, the latter having painted herself entirely red and donned the world’s most gigantic wig. Brigitte had on the best shoes (stilettoes printed with the word RICH along the back of her heel), but Paulina Porizkova was the nicest. As we all sat in the lobby (alongside yet another open bar) waiting for our hotel shuttles, I thanked the former supermodel for volunteering her time to such a worthy cause. “Thank you for being old enough to know who I am!” she responded.
After reaching my hotel and taking a refreshing seven-hour nap, it was time to attend a fancy cocktail party for all the Life Ball guests, which was a lot like re-boarding our flight from earlier that morning, just with better outfits. I was introduced to Quincy Brown (the progeny of P. Diddy) and Milla Jovovich (just before she and Heatherette’s Richie Rich were swallowed up by a pack of foreign journalists). The party, which took over a retrofitted parking garage underneath the hotel Le Meridien, not only offered celebs and a few hundred drag queens, there were free cocktails (made exclusively with Red Bull, natch) and a taco bar. (The Viennese, despite their general chicness, should probably get out of the taco-making business. Not cute.) At some point in the AM my camera battery died, followed quickly by my mind. Exhausted, I was eventually driven home via a free shuttle service. When I asked my volunteer driver what he did for a living, he revealed that he was actually a detective in the Vienna Police department and that he spent his days investigating organized crime in Austria. “I’m just doing this for fun,” he said, dropping me at my hotel. It was hard for me to imagine something similar happening in New York, a place where I can’t imagine lots of police detectives doing 12-hour volunteer driving shifts for AIDS charity. I could be wrong though.
DAY THREEIt’s hard to put into words just how preposterously big the whole affair actually is. There is a magenta carpet the length of several football fields, flanked on either side by a dozen or so grand pianos. There is a revolving stage big enough to house an entire symphony orchestra and a huge runway that intermittently shoots out balls of fire. There is stadium seating on either side of the stage that is made to look like tented carousels and comfortably seats a few thousand people. The entire thing—stage, magenta carpet, vast cordoned-off areas for invited guests—is splayed out in front of the massive Viennese City Hall (the “Rathaus”), the ancient, castle-like building that will later morph into a multi-level super club for the thousands of ball guests, all of whom are either in costume or wearing a formal gown.
Given this year’s theme—”Fighting the Flames of Ignorance”—a lot of the general costumery was of the Party City “sexy devil” variety, but there were still plenty of people who had obviously spent months laboring over their outfits (I entered the building trailing behind someone dressed as a “ball of light” and pulling a battery pack) and it’s always hilarious to see really drunk people in costumes trying to dance, so there’s that.
The Ball itself is fun and weird and beautiful, and it was refreshing to see so many of my New York compatriots like Linda Simpson, Ladyfag, and the Scissor Sisters bringing a little edge to the proceedings (I was particularly in love with Justin Bond’s cabaret-style performance of “Rhiannon” in front of a lot of confused Austrians). But for most people attending the ball, it’s all about the glitzy pre-show, which takes place on the giant stage outside and which brings the crazy with a Vegas-like intensity.
It was reported that nearly 40,000 people (most of them in costume) attended the opening ceremonies of the Life Ball this year, which seems about right if you happen to be standing in the middle of it. If you need to see several hundred people dressed as illuminated candlesticks dancing a “polonaise” through enormous mounds of foam, Life Ball is the place to go. Viennese ballet dancers leaping from every available corner? Life Ball’s got ’em. Want to see Paulina Porizkova walking the runway in Missoni while amfAR spokesperson Milla Jovovich enthusiastically lip-syncs her new pop song? It’s happening here.
There were serious moments, as well. Bill Clinton—a Life Ball regular—gave a poignant speech about the need for continued funding for HIV medications in impoverished countries like Cambodia. Antonio Banderas awarded the yearly “Crystal of Hope” award to a woman named Jackie Branfield, whose organization, Operation Bobbi Bear, helps save abused children.
After all that serious stuff is taken care of, there is—inevitably—a giant fashion show. This year the show was curated by Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue. Showcasing a handful of major designers who have proven themselves to be deeply influential over the past two decades, the show didn’t disappoint. A-list models like Karolina Kurkova and—(gasp!)—Naomi Campbell walked the runway, along with a smattering of random celebs and a few American reality TV stars. The whole thing could have been woefully tacky, but thanks to the influence of Sozzani, the show was beautifully executed and surprisingly affecting. After a model walked the runway in a giant pair of burning wings (I was actually scared for her), the show closed with Naomi Campbell once again trotting out just as Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park” pumped out of the sound system. Having just learned about the death of Donna Summer on the ride to the airport, it was a touching moment. Standing in a sea of bewigged, costumed dancers, I felt myself getting really emotional for the first time of the entire trip. In the middle of the world’s largest AIDS benefit—an event that has generated over 22 million dollars for HIV/AIDS research to date—it was both ironic and sweetly sad to hear Donna Summer’s voice. It was the same voice that had provided the soundtrack for so many gay men’s liberations in the ’70s, the very same generation that would ultimately be decimated by the disease that we were all here to fight. I found myself amazed that something like the Life Ball exists… and saddened by the fact that it needs to. I wiped a tear (or, perhaps, a speck of glitter) from my eye and followed the crowds into the giant castle to dance.