The Life Ball in Vienna

June 11, 2018 6:00 PM

Perry Ellis. Willi Smith. Gia Carangi. Tina Chow. Franco Moschino. Herb Ritts. Way Brandy. Angel Estrada. Leigh Bowery. Chester Weinberg. Halston. During the 1980s and 90s, the fashion universe lost hundreds of its most talented luminaries to a “mysterious plague” which was so feared that few dared to speak its name. During these dark ages of the AIDS epidemic, there was no medicine available and no hope for survival. There was only stigma, shame and death.   

When stylist Gery Keszler--who had been working in Paris and New York--was diagnosed with HIV in his 20s, he believed that he would be doomed to a lonely, painful death. He flew home to Austria so he could be near his family and have access to healthcare. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but he wanted to make it count. On a whim, he approached Helmut Zilk, the Mayor of Vienna and requested free use of the city’s magnificent, cavernous city hall to throw a party. It would be an homage to Austria’s historic grand balls, but Kezler’s party would be specifically for people who were impacted by AIDS and HIV. It would be an opportunity to raise money for research and provide information about self-care and prevention. But most of all, it would be a celebration of life, a reminder to enjoy every precious moment we have on this earth. It would provide comfort to the afflicted and ensure that no one would die alone.

Twenty-five years later, the Life Ball has become Europe’s most magnificent annual bash. It now consists of a series of events that occur in close succession: a concert, a motorcycle tour, a press conference, a brunch, a formal dinner, the opening ceremony, the Runway Rocks fashion show, the Life Ball and Life Ball/Next Generation for teens. It is sponsored by multinational companies such as Red Bull, Absolut, Moët & Chandon, MAC Cosmetics, Suzuki, and Swarovski, attended by almost half a million people, and broadcast around the world. Scores of international celebrities have graced the Life Ball stage including Sharon Stone, Heidi Klum, Katy Perry, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Clinton, Donatella Versace, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and Antonio Banderas.  

The 2018 Life Ball was a big one. It’s the event’s Silver Anniversary, and there’s a lot to celebrate. The party started on a chartered Austrian Airlines flight from JFK with Life Ball guests of honor Patti LaBelle, Caitlyn Jenner, and Kelly Osbourne frolicking amongst denizens of New York nightlife such as party promoter Susanne Bartsch, makeup artist/stylist Archie Robertson, dancer Shernita Anderson and DJ Amber Valentine. Every Life Ball has a theme to give participants some direction as they craft their magnificent party ensembles. This year, it was all about The Sound of Music, the classic Hollywood film about the real-life von Trapp family who lived in Salzburg and escaped Austria just before it fell to Nazi Germany in 1938. The Life Ball party plane briefly disembarked at the tiny Salzburg airport so the fabulous party people could stretch their legs on a red carpet while a traditional Austrian band played My Favorite Things, and two adorable children handed out chocolate treats known as Mozart’s Balls.

Meanwhile, actors Adrien Brody and Gilles Marini had flown to Zurich with four other bikers for a historic motorcycle ride from Zurich to Vienna to raise money for amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) and Life + (the NGO behind Life Ball). Charlize Theron hosted a brunch at the Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Salzburg to discuss her work combating HIV in South Africa, for which she was awarded the Crystal of Hope trophy by Swarovski. Paris Jackson, fresh from shooting her “Know Your Status” campaign ad, received the LIFE+ Award for her involvement with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation which runs mobile clinics and does extensive outreach for testing and treatment in areas of need all over the world.

Despite the presence of high-profile guests from the spheres of politics, business and entertainment, and the exorbitant size of the event, the Life Ball is remarkably collegial and friendly. Gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, folks of all backgrounds and orientations from every continent mingle together with unbridled exuberance, united in our commitment to self-expression and human rights. Transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner beamed on the red carpet, exquisitely garbed in a crimson gown, narrating the struggles and triumphs of her coming out in 2015.  “Everybody’s got something in their life that they’re in the closet about. When I wanted to come out as a woman, I thought my voice was too low, my hands were too big, I’m too tall. It will never work. And finally I said I don’t care; I’m living my truth and not turning back.”

Yep, a lot has changed in the 25 years since Life Ball began. Coming out as gay or transgender is no longer a guaranteed career-ender for a public figure, and a positive HIV diagnosis is no longer an impending death sentence. Since the 1990s, antiretroviral therapy drugs have improved vastly in their mode of delivery and effectiveness, and can make the presence of HIV nearly undetectable for those in treatment. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) medications for high risk, HIV-negative individuals can prevent infection when taken daily. And of course, condoms are still the best defense against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

But in some parts of the world, HIV continues to spread because of a dearth of information about prevention and treatment. Of the 35 million people who are currently infected with HIV, 24 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the keys to halting transmission of the virus is testing, but many people, particularly in rural areas, did not have access to HIV tests or they were afraid of being stigmatized by friends and neighbors if they went to get tested. In light of these realities, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) created mobile health units to go into rural areas and provide confidential, in-home HIV testing and treatment. These services are particularly essential in Malawi, a country of 17 million people, where a million are infected with HIV, and there is low infrastructure and little government intervention. Due in great part to ETAF, 700,000 people in Malawi with HIV are now on antiretrovirals, and the rate of new infections is on the wane.

“HIV still exists because of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia,” says Paris Jackson. “Access to compassionate, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and resources should be a human right. HIV is a global issue, and it’s a social justice issue. That makes it our issue.”  The United Nations AIDS Programme is right in line with Jackson’s pronouncements. In 2013, the committee set three objectives for HIV outreach known as the 90-90-90 targets. By the year 2020, the goal is that 90% of people living with HIV will know their status, 90% will be on antiretrovirals, and 90% of those on treatment will achieve viral suppression (in other words, the virus will be undetectable and untransmittable). Of course, the larger objective is to eradicate HIV altogether, but the 90-90-90 targets are an attainable milestone to ensure that public health initiatives continue progressing in the right direction.

As important as it is to celebrate the progress that has been made in the areas of HIV treatment, prevention and education, it is equally important for all people of conscience to maintain vigilance because our greatest challenge--the complete eradication of HIV--still lies ahead. And although the majority of private citizens and elected officials in Europe and the Americas support initiatives to combat HIV, the current United States president is not an ally to the cause. Last year, Trump dismissed the members of his advisory council on AIDS and HIV, and he intends to cut the U.S. budget toward the global eradication of HIV by a billion dollars.

Across the Pacific, in Russia, more than a million people are infected with HIV, and 80 die every day because they have no access to antiretrovirals. According to one estimate, only 25% of infected patients in Russia receive medication. Putin has never so much as mentioned the AIDS acronym in a single speech, and Russia's LGBT community is among the most repressed in the world since Putin passed a law in 2013 prohibiting the promotion of "non-traditional sexual relations." In recent years, many NGO's that were dedicated to HIV testing and prevention were labeled as "foreign agents" and ejected from the country.

As the Life Ballers sang along to Patti LaBelle’s roof-raising rendition of “Lady Marmalade,” exchanged high-fives with Caitlyn Jenner on the red carpet, and danced until dawn in our finest party clothes, memories of the loved ones we lost to AIDS were not far from our hearts. Gery Keszler, (who is now a healthy 54 years old, three decades after his diagnosis) succinctly summed up our sentiments of jubilance, vigilance and hope: “We will not be ashamed. We will not be silent. We will not forget the friends we have lost along the way. And we are all looking forward to the day that brings an end to AIDS.”






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