Photo courtesy of Life Ball
There's something about the classical uniformity of Vienna (or any European city) that makes large groups of people in evening dresses seem perfectly natural. That's why the Life Ball, an annual fundraising spectacle that hopes to eradicate HIV/AIDS by amusing European nobility (and homosexuals) with whatever is hip and cool in the New York gay club scene, doesn't seem so out of the ordinary. Tuxes, gowns, and even the more outlandish costumes fit right in with the landscape of the city.
This isn't your common gala, however. It is, essentially, the world's gayest party. We're talking gayer than Bradley Cooper's underwear drawer. In fact, every year, the Life Ball packs a plane full of singers, drag queens, dancers, club promoters, press, DJs, and various hangers-on from New York nightlife's queerer corners and ships them over to the home of Mozart for the amusement of the Austrians. So that’s where I found myself last weekend.
Before the party, everyone gathered in Vienna's City Hall Square along the "magenta carpet," the world's longest red carpet where patrons paid thousands of euros to have images of themselves projected on giant screens all around the square. That it’s a "magenta carpet" is particularly endearing, because it serves both as a nod to an old-school Key West-style campy gayness and as a way of differentiating this from other events and galas. The “magenta carpet” is queering itself.
Photo by Brian Moylan
This year, the theme was “Arabian Nights,” and as you can imagine, there were plenty of costume-store Jasmines and Aladdins, but there were even more people in stunningly rendered original costumes—people with wigs turned into bird cages or wearing giant genie lamps that actually produce smoke when rubbed. There was one man painted blue like a Hindu god (not really Arabian, but whatever) showing off not only his sculpted body, but the genius of whatever makeup artist sprayed him down and then installed a galaxy of crystals on his rippling muscles.
The program began out in the square like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Dancers swirled around a stage and a giant ark bearing a ballet dancer playing the sultan was pulled up by about 100 men in costumes right out of a Broadway spectacular. A full orchestra in the pit and opera singers dangling off the pulled conveyance sang at full belt. American Idol loser Adam Lambert emerged dressed as Ali Baba to to perform this year's Life Ball theme and 40 shirtless thieves with fake tattoos scrawled across their bodies served as his backup dancers. There were actually 40. I counted.
After more artistic renderings of a lost Arabia, two hosts took the stage and started speaking in German. They say something about stopping AIDS around the world and then Hilary Swank gave out some awards (speaking in English). Next, Olympic diver Greg Louganis summoned the original I Dream of Jeannie actress Barbara Eden out of a genie bottle. For someone in her 70s, she looked damn good in her genie costume. Gary Keszler, the event’s founder, asked Barbara for three wishes and those wishes produced Bill Clinton, Elton John, and Fergie. Behold this crowd on stage, a hodgepodge of nostalgic camp and genuine star wattage. It's sort of like your gay uncle Leon's fever dream. This was capped off with a fashion show by Roberto Cavalli, a man who makes clothes that look like the Technicolor yawn a drunk teen spewed out in front of a Miami bottle-service club. I skipped it and headed inside to the party.
Photo by Brian Moylan
The inside of City Hall looked like every amazing cathedral they force you to visit on high school trips to Europe, but exceptionally festooned in a damask regalia rarely produced at this scale. At the center there was a dance floor built atop a cobblestone-paved courtyard with Red Bull-sponsored bar right in the middle. On the outer rim of the courtyard were two stages of women dressed as Scheherazade frolicking in swings.
Off of this room there was one for the hits of the 70s and 80s and another for "butch and bears." This might have been the the only explicitly gay room.
The VIP section was upstairs, and there was a crush to get up the huge marble staircase. The people running up and down in gowns looked like a deleted scene out of Amadeus. There were a dozen more rooms upstairs each boasting its own set of DJs and performers, each an architectural marvel where, for the night, several thousands Austrians would drink and smoke as much as they like. On Monday morning, I'm sure half of the rooms return to hosting nothing but filing cabinets and a few desks, robbed entirely of the fairy dust that seems to have been sprinkled over the entire building this evening.
In one room famous transsexual Amanda Lepore sang some of her songs. In another, gay porn star Pierre Fitch (who showed everyone his cock and asshole on the plane ride over) was DJing. In yet another perpetual club kid Susanne Bartsch hosted drag chanteuse Joey Arias.
In the main VIP room, after the sit-down dinner was cleared a group of 40 or so voguers (I didn't actually count them) took to the main stage for one of their balls, a scene familiar to anyone who has seen documentary Paris Is Burning. Except this ball was judged by Fergie, Adam Lambert, Kelly Osbourne, choreographer Fatima Robinson, and gay twin fashion designers Dean and Dan Caten. Each voguer took his or her turn on stage, pirouetting and working their arms with the jerky fluidity that is the signature of the genre. They spin and spiral, drop and shoot back up into the air, and one even did a hand stand on the judges table, much to their amusement.
Through each of the categories (they weren't just competing in vogue but "butch queen face" and "sex siren") everyone on stage was enraptured, but the Austrians in the audience stared on with an aloof confusion. They know they are supposed to be attuned to the spectacle, but there is no way for them to understand it. It is foreign even to me, a fellow New York homosexual, so how can these straight, blond Europeans understand black and Latino drag culture?
Photo courtest of Life Ball
I don't know if they can, and a sinking feeling about the whole event consumed me. Was this some sort of minstrel show? Have all the gay New Yorkers been brought here for our otherness, to put on acts and perform for the rich white people who are buying tickets to the event. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the vogue ball where the dancers weren't being judged by their peers, but literally by a bunch of wealthy Caucasians (Ms. Robinson excluded).
That's when I finally realized how strange it was that the crowd at the party was overwhelmingly mixed with the majority of patrons leaning to bland heterosexuality. I don't know if that is how it was 21 years ago when Life Ball started, but, like everything else cool and gay, this seems to have been totally taken over by the straights, just as Madonna did to voguing in the 90s.
These people weren't just watching the drag queens and gay boys (and, don't get me wrong, there were still plenty of circuit queens in attendance) but they had become them. The costumes were over the top and the women were painted to look garish like their drag sisters. Most of the men were in the standard issue West Hollywood Halloween costumes, some sort of slutty shirtlessness to show off their gym bodies and their ingenuity. They weren't trying to exploit us, they were trying to be us, and their imitation was truly the highest form of flattery.
Photo courtesy of Life Ball
Feeling bold (and looking dapper in my tux), I approached several of these men on the dance floor, getting up close and trying to make some magic happen, and in every instance, a biological female quickly appeared to whisk her man away with a smile. At the end of the night, exhausted after dancing with new friends until nearly 5 AM, I sidled up to a gorgeous blond man wearing nothing but a pair of harem pants and a turban. Boldly I rubbed my hand along a taut bicep. He leaned in for what I thought was going to be a kiss, but instead, he talked into my ear over the dance music. "Sorry," he said in accented English. "I'm not gay, but I really like gay people." He smiled and we kept dancing.
That was sort of the ethos of the party, a bunch of straight people who really like gays. And what is so wrong with that? We don't need them all to make out with us; we just need them to accept us. The Life Ball seemed to go a step beyond acceptance into full-on celebration. It was a night for everyone to be gay, for everyone to enjoy the campy and the crazy, for everyone to spend way too much on an outfit, dance to all hours, and be sexually adventurous like gays have been doing better and for longer than any other group. This party was held in a government building. It was a sanctioned practice that has the backing of every part of society without any moaning or groaning from the right. Imagine what would happen if a gay circuit party happened in a government building here? It would lead every show on Fox News for the next 17 years.
The party raised tons of cash to fight AIDS, and did it by throwing the best party any of these people have ever been to, by making it the gayest party in the world. Even without the money, the city's transformation into a gay paradise seems like another kind of victory.
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