Inside 25 Years of Life Ball

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Forget the hills—the streets were alive with the sound of music this weekend in Vienna. Two very important Austrian cultural triumphs came together: the 25th anniversary of the AIDS charity Life Ball and the beloved Rogers & Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music combined for one campy, yet spectacular event that drew celebrities near and dear to the cause. Paris Jackson, Caitlyn Jenner, Patti LaBelle, Kelly Osbourne, and Adrien Brody were there, along with a televised welcome by Gwen Stefani.

Jackson, who is an ambassador for her late godmother Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS Foundation, was given the LIFE+ Award for her work in Malawi this past year. The CR star has become an important voice for the cause, especially as a game-changing ambassador to the youth who believe the disease is a „1980s epidemic.”

To kick things off, guests in costumes that rivaled any parade waltzed down the massive red carpet hoping to win best dressed. Group ensembles on point with the theme prevailed—neon mountain fräuleins; floral-covered violin hats; sheet–music poof skirts; and fancy lederhosen with buckets of body paint—were just some of unbelievably complex costumes.

The event, which was started by Austria native Gery Keszler, drew over 3,000 guests for what has now become a national pastime televised around the world. To reimagine the classic musical, drag queen performer Conchita Wurst aka Thomas Neuwirth played Fraulein Maria while actor Herbert Föttinger became Captain Georg von Trapp. Just as Life Ball has aimed to celebrate life and love of all kinds, the Broadway-worthy production too aimed to enlighten the world with more inclusive and tolerant views of love and self-acceptance than when it debuted in 1965.

Classic scenes (such as the kids introducing themselves before the party) were reworked to introduce several youth ambassadors today to promote the organization’s 90-90-90
initiative, which aims for all persons affected by the HIV virus to know their status, seek
treatment, and eradicate it to undetectable levels. A rendition of “Do-Re-Mi” was sung by LaBelle as a return engagement for the singer who is quite popular in the community. Later, about 60 Austrian debutante dancers resembling zombie nuns and butlers showed off their national pride while waltzing to “My Favorite Things.”

Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of amfAR, helped promote the campaign with a six-day motorcycle excursion called the Epic Ride to Life Ball through the country with fellow ride mates Brody, Gilles Marini, Ian Bohen, Michiel Huisman, JR Bourne, and Katee Sackhoff that started in Zurich and concluded right on the red carpet the ball. The non-profit, which holds international galas around the world to end AIDS—including a Cannes fashion show curated by Carine—has been one of Life Ball’s oldest partners, and also turns 25 this year. Brody told CR that the motorcycle ride itself was symbolic of the road to end the disease: “I’m here to create some noise and visibility and increase much deeper consciousness which is necessary to de-stigmatize the virus,“ he says.

The Ball continued with a wedding-themed fashioned show that mirrored that of The Sound of Music, with an array of pieces—new and archive looks from designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Alberta Ferretti, and Thom Browne—curated by Robert Rabensteiner. Olivier Theyskens, who first participated in the 2000 Life Ball, returned to this year’s event in full support. “I think it’s really important work Gery has done these past 25 years. When he started, designers were very eager to help because it was affecting them personally,” he says. “Not many things have lasted as long as the Life Ball and that’s impressive. Now it can reach the younger generation.”

The first Life Ball took place on May 29, 1993 in Vienna’s plucked-from-a-fairytale City Hall, which was symbolic of the town’s ball culture. It raised nearly ,000 to help provide for the most basic of human rights: housing, meals, and even funds for funerals as many dying of the disease were unable to work. Then-mayor Helmut Zilk took a political gamble with his support for the cause in the early 1990s, and the event featured a fashion show by designer Thierry Mugler. Over the years, designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Donatella Versace, and John Galliano have participated, along with other luminaries such as Elton John, Bill Clinton, Sharon Stone, Katy Perry, and Heidi Klum.

Keszler, who said he co-founded the event so that none of his friends would “die in silence or alone ever again,” commented on the elaborate, neo-Gothic building in which this year’s event was held. “Without the help of the city of Vienna, the Life Ball would not be what it is today. I’d like to think that the reverse is true. Vienna would not be the same today without the Life Ball.”

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