Forgive an American for drawing some parallels between this past weekend’s 26th annual Life Ball in Vienna, the largest fundraiser for HIV/AIDS in all of Europe, and the most recent, camp-themed edition of New York’s Met gala. There was, after all, a wide pink carpet leading up the steps of a historic building not usually associated with such pageantry, guests decked out in elaborately stylized costumes with no plume of feathers or disk of sequin spared, and the presence of Katie Holmes. However, the difference between that recent Met gala and the Life Ball might be like that between someone who dresses up in drag for the first time on Halloween (a fun, if not illuminating, experience!) and a title-winning grande dame drag queen who has been doing this for 26 years and has more camp in the arch of her eyebrow than a typical celeb has in her entire styling team. When it comes to life-affirming, unabashed camp, Life Ball knows what it’s doing and what the people want when it comes to an extravaganza—which this year included, among other things, dance-vocal diva Deborah Cox belting it out in a group number with Tony winner Alan Cumming and the drag queen Alaska Thunderfuck outside of the city hall of Mozart’s hometown.
Started in 1993, while HIV/AIDS was still considered a death sentence, the founder Gery Keszler’s charity event sought to break taboos and raise money for those affected with the disease by combining Vienna’s uniquely democratic ball culture (hundreds of balls are held in the city each year, and they aren’t solely the province of the upper class) with the edge of New York’s underground LGBTQ-led nightlife. It’s developed into a spectacle that has become a calling card of the city and is covered on television throughout Europe. Everyone from Bill Clinton to Liza Minnelli has taken part throughout the years, and the red carpet has developed into a mini parade of sorts, with everyday attendees welcome to walk as long as they’re in costume, while the opening ceremony is a two-hours-long production more entertaining and full of surprises than any recent American awards show. Over the years, it’s raised tens of millions of dollars for HIV/AIDS charities both in Europe and abroad (including in America) and helped to fund more than 170 distinct projects.
While the LGBTQ community may have originally embraced the highly stylized ways of camp as both a secret code and a refuge from oppression, Life Ball has demonstrated how the community evolved to use camp to bring attention to its plights and causes. After all, the chorus girl–esque kick lines and impromptu vaudeville songs are as much a part of the story of the Stonewall uprising as the bricks. However, as the outlook for those affected by HIV/AIDS has brightened, the organization has found it harder and harder to find sponsors for the event, leading to the announcement that this year’s event may be the last Life Ball, at least as it’s been known for the past 26 years.
“AIDS has changed from a death sentence to being a chronic disease. The paradox of this success is that the number of allies for AIDS charity projects is decreasing both at home and abroad,” Keszler said in a statement before the ball. “We achieved more than we ever dared hope. I am so eternally grateful. It is now time to bring this project to a fitting conclusion.”
If this was the end, it was a glorious one. Let’s look back on what happened at what may have been the last Life Ball ever.
Although this year the famed “party plane,” which shuttled American performers and guests from New York to Vienna and inevitably turned into a high-altitude nightclub, was called off, the American contingent trickled into Vienna Friday night in time for the official welcoming party at Le Méridien hotel—mostly in one piece, and ready to party. The New York drag queen Lagoona Bloo’s luggage had been lost in transit, but she still managed to make it work, with a look fashioned from her hotel’s bathrobe and a towel (though a good drag queen always knows to travel with a wig and makeup in her carry on). It looked so good that most people thought it was intentional, as we heard remarked several times over the weekend.
Vodka and Red Bull was the drink of choice on Friday at the hotel, where Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria could been seen holding court with Cumming in a corner. Amanda Lepore was gamely taking a selfie with anyone who asked. The Swedish designers and performance artists the Villbergs (formerly known as Duo Raw) loomed large in matching beaded gold leotards. At some point before 3 a.m., the supply of vodka ran dry, and guests who wanted to keep it going, including cast members of both Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race, headed across town to the basement dance floor of Why Not, seemingly taking the nightclub’s name as a suggestion. If the plane party 40,000 feet up wasn’t going to happen, then one a few floors underneath Vienna would suffice as a warm-up to the main event.
The main event started a little more than 12 hours after the last guest sashayed out of Why Not, kicking off with a decidedly more regal tone as VIPs were invited inside of City Hall for a gala dinner before the main ceremony. They were greeted by a line of young men in Spartan uniforms, bottles of Moët, and the Italian performer Principe Maurizio, dressed as a traditional European clown and singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” as they entered. Inside were rows of mirrored tables, each with a rotating chandelier of giant Swarovski crystals serving as the centerpiece. Unique items, including a Mini Cooper designed by Roberto Cavalli and a portrait of Dita Von Teese that was completed live as she sat there, were auctioned off to guests.
Then it was back out front for the red carpet. While the celebrities and VIPs were dapper, it was many of the regular attendees who turned out some of the most notable looks. Guests fashioned birdcages into headpieces, plaster hands into bras, and floral arrangements into barely there pelvic coverings. One guest wore a mini ferris wheel atop what was already a quite elaborate wig. Acrobats walked on their hands, clowns pranced along, and the model Mari Malek dropped to the floor for an impromptu photo shoot on the carpet.
The opening ceremony had an official theme of “Circus,” though with undertones of The Wizard of Oz. Dianne Brill—who has played muse to everyone from Andy Warhol to Thierry Mugler and whose “famous for being famous” notoriety in the ’80s directly paved the way for the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of today (and, yes, she did start her own cosmetics line decades before it became de rigueur)—starred as Glenda the Good Witch. She called on various contingents of the LGBTQ community in an effort to collect magic stones, each representing a stripe of the pride flag (drag queens were in orange, bisexuals were in green, allies in red, et cetera), though the narrative really served as a device to string together a series of performances.
Austria’s famed Eurovision-winning bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst appeared multiple times throughout the night in a series of costumes that served to make us wonder why we have a gender binary in the first place, culminating in a performance of a new single that soundtracked a fashion show from the young New York designer Christian Cowan. RuPaul turned up in a video message to introduce a handful of girls from her show (including Alaska Thunderfuck, Shuga Cain, Scarlet Envy, and Yuhua Hamasaki) to walk down the carpet while Ru’s song “Sissy That Walk” blared at approximately a billion decibels. DeLaria showed up to represent lesbians and used the moment to give a hearty “fuck you” to Donald Trump. The AmFAR ambassador Katie Holmes gave a brief speech in a lavender Missoni dress. Von Teese got onstage to ride a giant MAC Viva Glam lipstick that bucked like a mechanical bull. After a video message from Billy Porter (who was in New York for the Tonys), a choreographer from Pose helped to introduce a performance from Broadway Bares that climaxed in the reveal of one dancer’s insanely toned backside. Former president Clinton, likewise, showed up in a video message. Keala Settle gave a rousing performance of “This Is Me” with not three but at least four rings’ worth of circus-themed backup dancers. Later, she’d tweet that, she’d “never been to a more electric and unifying event in my days on this earth!!!”
Like we said, there’s no such thing as too much for Life Ball.
Toward the end, Keszler took the stage, and though his words were in German, it was clear to speakers of any language that the moment was emotional for him.
For the grand finale, Lorna Luft came out for a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” If this is the end of Life Ball, you truly couldn’t write a better finale for the ceremony than the daughter of the camp icon Judy Garland singing her mother’s signature song that has stirred the hearts of so many who dream of a world where the colors are a little brighter, the people just a little bit nicer, and the world just a little more vivid.
It was past 11 by then, but that was just the opening ceremony. It was time to get to the part of the night that wouldn’t be broadcast on television. The doors of City Hall opened once again, with virtually the entire neo-Gothic building open to explore in a choose-your-own-adventure night of partying. In one room, you could stand basically three feet from Cox as she sang her ’90s nightclub anthem “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.” In another room, a VIP chamber with almost every inch of the walls covered in flowers, you could find Carmen Carrera holding court. In yet another, you could help yourself to a bottle of vodka in view of LePore and the model Yasmine Petty. DJs, drag queens, and burlesque performers populated the other numerous rooms, while the major dance party could be found in the courtyard. The party could have gone on past dawn, but it had to come to end at some point.
Stumbling into an Austrian Uber at sometime around 5 a.m. may not have been exactly what Garland had in mind when she sang about the place over the rainbow, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the past 12 hours, spent both inside and out of the Viennese city hall, certainly felt like it—as the Life Ball has for attendees for the past 26 years. Keszler believes that the spirit of Life Ball may live on in the future in new ways, and Viennese officials seem supportive. But even if this is the end for the storied charity event, it certainly isn’t the end of the long LGBTQ tradition of using a campy good time to fight against the ills of the world and bring us all just a little bit closer to that place way up high.