Paula Abdul, Carmen Electra, and several reality show drag queens board a plane to Austria... That sounds like the setup to a joke, right? At least that's what I thought when I found myself on just such a plane with the assignment to cover this year's Life Ball — the biggest HIV/AIDS fundraiser in the world and an infamously wild party. Still, I knew very little about the event and even less what to expect from my 48 hours abroad. From past experiences, galas were galas: stiff outfits, fat-cat donors, and speeches read from cue cards. Nothing could have been further from the reality of this particular fete.
What I found in Vienna was a spirited group of partygoers who were all there to raise money, raise awareness, and de-stigmatize a disease that is still very much a worldwide epidemic. Most of all, everyone was there to celebrate life — and celebrate they did, gold body paint, glitter galore, nipple pasties, and all. It's hard to get down to the brass tacks of Life Ball, because so much happens in one weekend. There's a pre-plane party, the plane (which is also a party), a pre-gala party, a press conference, another pre-party, a red carpet, an opening ceremony, and then, hours later, the main event. Which, as you may have guessed, is swiftly followed by an after-party that starts at 5 a.m. At the red carpet, some 40,000 on-lookers gather and twist for views of the outlandish outfits. This year's theme was gold, but every year, "more-is-not-enough" seems to be the aesthetic ethos. There's even a designated "Style Police" (representatives from international AIDS awareness organization the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence) that judge particular ensembles and charge more for entry if the looks are not complete enough — thereby raising more money for the cause. Unlike other galas I've been to in the past, Life Ball feels truly and utterly inclusive, with tickets starting at just 90 euros.
The event's opening ceremony boasts equestrian tricks, fire torches, lyrical dancing, speeches by celebs like Charlize Theron and Sean Penn, and performances by the likes of Mary J. Blige and Conchita Wurst. Then, there's an extensive fashion show by Jean Paul Gaultier with some of the world's top models. And then you go inside. Once inside Vienna's historic city hall, the 4,000 or so revelers find room upon themed room, DJ upon DJ, drink upon drink. It's almost impossible to believe that just hours after the ball ends (at 5 a.m) the space is up and running as the site of official government business again. To put this into perspective, one event organizer likened the party and its location to having a pride parade/rager/fundraiser in the White House. Indeed, Austrian officials were in attendance, too.
It's easy to see how one could get lost (perhaps literally) in all of Life Ball's pomp and plumage. But, after speaking with attendees, I left with a deeper appreciation for what's actually going on in the middle of all that spectacle. Life Ball is outrageous, to be sure. But, skeptics who have only seen the pictures and haven't felt the heart can be easily educated on the benefits of such an over-the-top event. The glitter catches your eye, but the cause keeps you hooked. Ask anyone at Life Ball — from Paula Abdul to a volunteer — why they're there, what the point is, and they're quick to share how AIDS has touched their own life. Everyone seemed to truly be there for the "right" reason, to have a meaningful connection to the cause. Never mind the fact that the gala actually serves as one of the most profitable fundraisers for the disease (last year's event amassed $3.5 million). It's both the message and the method that makes Life Ball different. It does good and, fuck it, it feels good. As founder Gery Keszler put it, it's making a difference by "making a loud scream for awareness." And if it gives everyone an opportunity to let their hair down, get their glitter on, or even disrobe on a Boeing, well, that's okay, too.