Outrageous costumes. Live music performances from all genres. Fashion shows. Presidents. Hollywood stars. And lots of money raised for HIV/AIDS. The Vienna Life Ball, organized by LIFE+, celebrated its 25th anniversary this weekend.
It was founded by Gery Keszler and Dr.Torgom Petrosian in 1993 and has become one of the world’s most important and biggest AIDS charity events. The seven-digit proceeds of this benefit event go to global AIDS projects, in collaboration with international partner organizations.
An unsurpassed number of international celebrities from the worlds of fashion, entertainment, and politics work tirelessly every year to raise awareness for this issue. The City of Vienna also contributes significantly to the success of Life Ball. They provide the venue which clearly shows this city’s cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and social responsibility. Like all great events the world over, this one, too, began as a grand idea on a small scale. Let’s take a look back:
It’s been a quarter of a century since the first Life Ball benefiting HIV/AIDS took place in Vienna, Austria. Founded by a former stylist, the first event happened on May 29, 1993 against all odds. Ridiculed in the press and shunned by homophobes, it was due to the relentless pursuit of its founder and a progressive Mayor of Vienna (Helmut Zilk), who handed over the keys to City Hall. Despite being able to secure only two sponsors, Keszler managed to get Thierry Mugler to put on a fashion show. In the following years the world’s biggest designers presented runway shows: John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Paco Rabanne, Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Christian Lacroix with Philip Treacey, Jeremy Scott and Julian Macdonald, Olivier Theyskens, Roberto Cavalli (whose wife Eva is from Tyrol), Moschino, Missoni, Diesel, Agent Provocateur, Patricia Fields of Sex and the City-fame, Diane von Fürstenberg, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, Dsquared, Givenchy, Viktor & Rolf and Lanvin.
This first Life Ball took in 1,100,000 Austrian Schillings (about 100,000 dollars). The second one doubled the money and it grew exponentially from there. While the first two were only covered by Austrian, Swiss and German media, the third one in 1995 attracted TV-stations from France and Spain as well as the then extremely relevant MTV. Media interest grew exponentially over the next few years and with it the amount of money raised. Today the event is being covered by over 100 TV-stations and media companies worldwide.
For the next five years, Life Ball partnered with the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) and its founder himself became a regular guest at the event and gave the opening speeches. Part of the proceeds went to HIV/AIDS in Africa.
From 2006 to 2008 LIFE+, the official name of the charity, partnered with amfAR (The Foundation of AIDS Research, founded by Dr. Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor). During those years the emphasis was on babies and toddlers born with the virus. Due to her collaboration with amfAR, Sharon Stone showed up for three years in a row. Kim Cattrall and Fran Drescher attended the year after the inaugural Life Ball year for a certain former US-president.
In 2010 the Life Ball kicked off the 18th International Aids-Conference, taking place that year in Vienna with 19,300 delegates from 139 countries. To pay tribute to the biggest event so far, not just City Hall but also the Parliament next to it and the National Theater (Burgtheater) across the big Boulevard opened their doors. The motto “Three Houses” connected three different events: an amfAR gala in the Parliament, The Elton John AIDS Foundation cotillion in the theater and a very special new partner at the main event: president Bill Clinton himself attended and spoke for his William J. Clinton Foundation. But even though the Life Ball started an hour earlier due to a bad weather warning, a thunderstorm disrupted Whoopi Goldberg and a whole group pf dancers during a performance and guests fled into the three houses.
The following year, the money raised surpassed the 2 million dollar mark for the first time and proceeds were divided between amfAR, EJAF, the Clinton Foundation and UNAIDS, the United Nations AIDS support project. And a new (monetary) award was invented with the help of Swarovski which created the actual design: the Crystal of Hope. Janet Jackson, Peter Sellars and Natasha Bedingfield performed. Brooke Shields gave a speech.
Each year there is a theme, introduced months before through a so-called “Style Bible”, shot by Austrian photographer Inge Prader. Attendees are supposed to dress the part. Past themes included 4 years of the elements earth, water, fire and air, adding more ideas to the guests’ often risqué costume choices.
In 2012, we danced on the VIP terrace with Antonio Banderas, Naomi Campbell and Milla Jovovich. We even got Antonio into City Hall for the afterparty through the mayor’s secret elevator which took us straight to the kitchen. To the delight of the staffers of Motto-Catering, the company that creates the most delicious bites for hungry guests, Banderas grabbed a whole plate of hors d’euvres and fed everyone. The next year Hilary Swank and Paula Abdul joined the fun when the theme was “1001 Nights”.
In 2015 everyone was supposed to wear gold or flowery designs since the ghost of Gustav Klimt ruled over the big party. A dress code that was broken by many including Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, Clinton, Melanie Griffith and myself. I couldn’t resist the incredible periwinkle gown that Zac Posen gave me. Bill Clinton became a regular guest at the Ball until his wife’s run for the White House prevented him from appearing.
Since 2002 there is a yearly Life Ball song, over the years written and performed among others by Dave Stewart, Cheyenne Jackson, American Idol-winners Adam Lambert and Candice Glover. Other musical performances came from all genres: from pop a la Cyndi Lauper to Latin lover Ricky Martin to opera star Anna Netrebko to jazz great Al Jarreau to operettas and rap. Everything has a place and the Life Ball has become a three day-event, covering the Ladies’ Luncheon, the Red Ribbon Concert and the actual ball.
This weekend the theme was very Austro-American: The Sound of Music dictated a modern take on the Austrian national garbs and the Dirndl and Lederhosen got a jolt of creative modernism as demonstrated by newly blond bearded lady Conchita Wurst and others. And yes, Life Ball costumes make Mardi Gras look like a PTA meeting.
And it was former Crystal of Hope presenter Charlize Theron who was the recipient of the award for her Africa Outreach Project. The actress accepted it from Life Ball Founder Gery Keszler and former US-Ambassador Helene van Damme.
On Saturday Vienna City Hall lit up like Disney’s Magic Castle with a huge puzzle of a Sound of Music-scene for the likes of Paris Jackson, Caitlin Jenner and the incomparable Adrien Brody who drove a motorcycle on stage.
Patti LaBelle performed and happily posed for selfies with adoring fans in the hallowed halls where the afterparty continued into the wee morning hours. As usual. After all, this is the event that Bill Clinton once described lovingly as “the Ed Sullivan Show on crack”.