At around 9 a.m. on Friday, on a plane somewhere over Ipswich in the United Kingdom, a flight attendant cooed into the P.A. system, “Good morning, darlings. I hate to wake you, but I wanted to give you plenty of time to get ready.”
No one was sleeping, really; it was 1 a.m. New York time and this was a plane full of nightlife people (and one writer), so these were still office hours. Seat assignments had been immediately laughed off, and bottles of wine were unloaded from the beverage carts with Boston Tea Party frequency. People met, canoodled, gave each other pedicures in the aisles. Amanda Lepore danced on top of a seat, accompanied by a bongo player. A man walked up the right-hand aisle to the front of the plane, stripped nude, and strode to the back—he equitably repeated this, moments later, for the left side of the plane. A girl who’d been guzzling vodka ran—not once, not twice, but thrice!—to the bathroom, and puked into her not-quite-clasped hands.
Ours was a chartered Austrian Air Boeing 767, transporting 200 American guests—including 20 dancers, Dionne Warwick, and a Pomeranian—to the 24th Life Ball, the most decadent and outrageous HIV/AIDS fundraiser in the world, held annually at Vienna’s City Hall. Guests arrive in costumes inspired by the year’s theme (this year it was the 1920s and 30s), and then dance the sun awake in 18 different City Hall rooms, with guest performers and nearly 40 DJs from all over the world.
But first: press and a red carpet would greet us at the airport, and looks were de rigueur. The flight attendants, who’d glittered their faces mid-flight, came around with coffee. A hundred suitcases popped and zipped open, and gowns were pulled down from overhead compartments. Mirrors were propped on tray tables and phones were tucked into headrests, with flashlight apps on for light. Someone played Carly Rae Jepsen from a portable speaker. The bathroom lines inched along like Customs.
The sun was shining in Vienna, and the flight attendants handed us Red Bulls to lead us off the plane—Red Bull is one of Life Ball’s major sponsors, and they’d provided a double-decker bus to blast house music at the red carpet. The Austrian press wildly photographed each de-planing passenger, and I, too, having scurried out of the way, paused to admire. The girl who kicked my seat for eight hours looked amazing!
Handsome, Alp-fed drivers whisked us off to our hotels to rest, and then to a cocktail party that evening, outside of which the Red Bull bus thumped and screeched.
The next night was the Ball, and bystanders lined the streets around the City Hall entrance to watch the red carpet arrivals. A crew of Austrian Air flight attendants stood at the entrance, Glenn Miller blasted from speakers, and, calm before the storm, several photographers swing danced.
Finally, a Life Ball-branded Wiener Linein tram pulled up, letting off the first group of partygoers, clad in feathers and horns and crop-top tux shirts. Cars began to pull up one by one, and stewards opened each door to offer guests an arm. The dancers from the plane climbed out, Martha Graham clown car-style, in lingerie, holding glasses of champagne.
Black cars coughed neon orange, green, and pink shapes onto out the red carpet while Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” played. I saw a skirt made out of bananas. I saw a gold lamé penis cone. I saw a woman with skulls on her boobs. 'What took you so long?' I nearly asked aloud when, ninety minutes into the red carpet, the first person with a whip arrived.
There was a great deal of body paint: head-to-toe silver, Cubist-style, and a replication of Charlie Chaplin’s rumpled suit. There were strings and strings of pearls, from which one guest dangled a bottle of prescription medication. A vest was decorated with red AIDS ribbons, a jacket with Durex condoms, a dress with empty gum packets. One woman walked her date in by the chain around his neck, and another was wheeled in in a tub of champagne, checking her phone.
Men wore suits patterned with comic strip panels, Piet Mondrian prints, and the Bat signal. Others wore strobe-soled shoes, and a conservative handful opted just for simple tuxes—I don’t blame them; who wants to show up wearing the same birdcage on their head as someone else?
Naomi Campbell blazed past us like a meteor. Ms. Warwick arrived with her granddaughter, singer Cheyenne Elliott.
“It’s my first time and I had no anticipation of what to expect,” Ms. Warwick, in Luiz Archer, said.
“Everyone really shines and shows their creativity in celebration of a great cause,” Ms. Elliott, in La Perla, added.
An opening ceremony took place on a massive stage in front of City Hall. Hosted by Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst and Austrian actress Verena Scheitz, it featured performances by Ute Lemper, speeches by Vienna mayor Michael Häupl, Joss Stone, and Ms. Campbell (in Elton John’s stead), and a fashion show by couture designer Francesco Scognamiglio. Puffs of cigarette smoke shot up from the seated VIP crowd like long-distance conversations between early civilizations. Ms. Warwick and Ms. Elliott closed the show with a duet of “What the World Needs Now.”
At midnight, the City Hall doors opened and people crammed into the hallway leading to the VIP lounge like a lump of Play-Doh into a grinder. “What’s the point of being a VIP?” another woman asked. “If everyone is, we’re all just P’s.” Indeed: P’s who need P’s.
In the main hall, the house music sounded like helicopters and dial-up modems. Lights flashed in your eyes like cops catching you at Lovers’ Point. Flapper girls bumped and ground with long cigarette holders flopping up and down between their teeth like toll booth bars—it’s like all the posters you had in college came to life and did molly.
Vendors sold cotton candy, mini-shawarma, and apple pie. A shirtless man in the T-Mobile lounge, its logo painted on his chest, handed out popcorn and Manner wafers. Games of blackjack and French roulette were played in a second-floor salon, while Susanne Bartsch’s room featured performances from Bushwick club kids and RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Pearl, Thorgy Thor, and Violet Chachki.
I got a rapid HIV test at 2 a.m. in the T-Mobile lounge, where they’d set up an all-night testing station, plus some more popcorn. (The Ball supports a host of global initiatives, including their “Know Your Status” campaign, which aims to make HIV tests more accessible and routine.)
People camped in the beautiful old staircases. Headband feathers drooped, the bottoms of bare feet blackened. In the courtyard, people smoked and kissed around fountains while a disco ball tossed shards of light to and fro and smoke machines weighed-in every now and then. A hoop skirt lay discarded against a wall.
In every direction, straight people were kissing. A quick check of Grindr revealed the nearest gay guy was 18 feet away, but I looked around and couldn’t find him. To be fair, he could’ve been dressed as a fountain at City Hall.
The air in the VIP lounge at 3:30 a.m. was thick like jelly and its inhabitants danced on banquettes, while masseurs from a local spa literally rubbed elbows at a party. The Moët & Chandon bar, cleaned out, now acted as a monument to a better time.
I followed a cute guy in a Bane mask and a coat with “Do you feel in charge?” written on the back in the hopes of trying out my joke about the Babadook spinning in the main hall, but he never turned around. (I’m just a P, looking to feel VI.) I walked back to my hotel at 4:30 a.m., as the sun rose on the same Vienna Mozart once woke up in. I wondered if he ever stumbled home from a ball—a ball!
Three hours later, we boarded a shuttle to the airport; we were being flung back to New York as quickly as we’d arrived. At the gate, a woman zipped a dress made of sunglass lenses into her garment bag—she could’ve snapped those off pair by pair, sold them to her decimated fellow passengers, and gotten rid of a carry-on.
Everyone sat, fully clothed, in their assigned seats for the entirety of the flight. It was quiet like a poetry reading.
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