“You’ll need at least two,” says the optimistic volunteer, handing me a fistful of condoms as I enter Vienna’s City Hall for the 27th—and final—Life Ball, one of the world’s most famous HIV/AIDS fundraisers. Of course, it’s not that kind of party, but I appreciate the sentiment. The 12 hours of revelry carry on until the sun rises the following morning. Even so, a hazy cloud of melancholy occasionally wafts over the proceedings, with the knowledge that this historic annual event is coming to an end.
Founded in 1992 by Gery Keszler and Torgom Petrosian as AIDS LIFE (now LIFE+), the first Life Ball would take place a year later and continue to grow over the years as an intersection of advocacy and pop culture. Fashion has played an integral role over the years, with designers from John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood to Missoni (who returned this year to present an eye-popping fashion show) lending their talents to the spectacular live show.
To date, LIFE+ has raised approximately 30 million euros ($34 million), using those funds to collaborate with a broad range of international organizations such as amfAR, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA), among others.
Life Ball’s top supporters gathered early in the evening for the LIFE+ Solidarity Gala Dinner to sip Moët & Chandon, nibble at gourmet bites by Austria’s most notable chefs, and bid on auction items such as a portrait of modern burlesque icon Dita Von Teese, painted live. Keszler took the opportunity to work the Swarovski-bedazzled room, thanking guests and encouraging future support.
In a candid personal chat, Keszler appeared simultaneously elated and exhausted, months of planning and organizing coming to fruition for the last time.
“I say it honestly. It was an unpleasant year. We lost our main sponsor, which paid a quarter of our entire budget. And it was difficult to make the new government understand how successful the Life Ball is,” Keszler reflected. “You can’t commercially afford this. You need thousands of volunteers. We won’t cut the organization (LIFE+) down. People think HIV is from the past, and you lose the interest in the marketing strategies of companies. We have to make them aware again, and make them understand that they’re losing a huge statement for liberty—it’s one of the biggest image events of Austria. Life Ball was a game changer: liberation for gay rights, for all walks of life. Life Ball is not only an AIDS fundraiser, but has also broken taboos in this country for many things, not just HIV.”
That message of resilience has particularly resonated in the U.S. over the years, where grassroots activists, along with Hollywood’s elite, propelled both the government and corporate America to support AIDS-related research and funding. Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria, making her first Life Ball appearance and sporting a “F*ck Trump” pin at Le Méridien’s Welcome Cocktail Party the previous night, shared her firsthand experience of those early days.
“I first started performing as an openly gay stand-up comic in San Francisco in 1982. I stopped counting at 86. But there have been way more than 86 of my friends that have died due to this horrifying disease,” DeLaria recalled. “There’s a difference from when they called it ‘gay cancer’ to this magnificent event at City Hall, decked out in rainbow. The whole community revolves around it. The entire city of Vienna is here.”
Daniel Franzese (Looking, Mean Girls) wasn’t part of the official cavalcade of stars on the weekend roster, instead footing his own bill to Vienna to be part of a cause that hits close to home. “Our history has been street-washed,” said the outspoken actor-director, who’s been advocating for needle exchange programs in Florida and is also an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Franzese will be headlining at Provincetown Bear Week (July 12-20) and has been pushing for greater LGBTQ representation and equality in mainstream media.
Along with Franzese, other U.S.-based artists felt compelled to attend what may be the last Life Ball (a similar hiatus was announced in 2015, and the Ball returned two years later), including the breakout drag trio Stephanie’s Child (Jan Sport, Lagoona Bloo, Rosé), whose luggage was lost thanks to Aeroflot. The logistical hiccup didn’t stop these divas on the rise from attending the welcome event in bathrobes and lashes, and eventually turning couture looks for the big event.
The three-hour live performance the following night offered a wacky convergence of The Wizard of Oz (the event’s theme was “United in Diversity. Walking on the yellow brick road towards an end to AIDS.”) and bizarre circus, emceed by Good Witch, Andy Warhol muse and New York City nightlife icon Dianne Brill. Nobody seemed to mind the mash-up, which included Dita Von Teese riding a bull-size MAC lipstick, Keala Settle singing, “This is Me,” from The Greatest Showman, special appearances by Carmen Carerra and Amanda Lepore, and a requisite striptease courtesy of Broadway Bares.
Allies such as Settle and past appearances from Bill Clinton have proven formidable in the Life Ball’s success. This year included the return of Grammy Award-nominated Deborah Cox, who says her connection to HIV/AIDS awareness and the LGBTQ community organically unfolded as her career gained traction.
“It was about the music touching people and resonating in their lives,” Cox said during a phone conversation before her Vienna trip. “In a way, it helped them to feel confident and come out as their authentic selves. A lot of people felt empowered, but it’s never been calculated. And here we are, 25 years later. The fight is still ongoing. We’ve made many strides, but there’s still so much work to do. To know this is the last Life Ball is disheartening, it’s a huge platform for the movement. We have to figure out ways to keep this fight in the forefront. We don’t want this issue to fall on deaf ears and be forgotten.”
Cox’s perspective may be a sign that the disease’s far-reaching impact now resonates differently among Europeans and Americans who typically have greater access to resources. The statistic “80-40-40” echoed throughout the evening, reflecting the approximately 80 million HIV infections to date, 40 million deaths, an additional 40 million people living with the disease. Its impact in Africa, which comprises 53% of those living with HIV today, was touched upon with the presentation of the LIFE+ Award to project honoree Circus Zambia and its founder Gift Chansa, who uses clowning and other circus acts to address societal issues like substance abuse, hygiene, and HIV/AIDS awareness.
Katie Holmes’ brief and lifeless appearance on behalf of amfAR did little to light a much-needed fire in the belly of research funding, while BC/EFA received the Crystal of Hope Award for its ongoing meal programs. What spectators didn’t hear were the disproportionate infections among black and Latino people in the U.S. or the staggering numbers coming from Sub-Saharan Africa and other underdeveloped countries, where three in five new HIV infections among 15 to 19-year-olds are girls.
This year’s major campaign, “U=U” (Undetectable=Untransmittable), is part of UNAIDS’ (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) larger effort that 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression by 2020. HIV’s social stigma still hits hard—even with French model and porn star François Saga as the face of the campaign. These life-changing therapies offer a collective impact only now starting to ripple throughout queer communities, but to hear Keszler candidly speak of his status as a benchmark rather than a death sentence was palpable.
Life Ball’s live show is but a first course of the City Hall takeover, in which the government building becomes the ultimate multi-story nightclub with DJs and live performances. Celebrities big (a mysterious Susanne Bartsch’s flower-bedecked private salon remained ghostly for most of the night) and small (RAGE, a lanky glam boy and makeup artist whose voguing would make the House of Xtravaganza proud) spectacularly intersected throughout the night.
But every party must come to an end, even if its purpose is still desperately in need.
“I am outraged,” writes longtime Life Ball journalist Janina Lebiszczak and editor of Wien Live. “But there’s no one to blame anymore. Times have changed … however, the Life Ball idea will never die. My hope rests with all of you. With anyone who understood what this was all about: Death, life, and love.”