Inside Vienna’s Life Ball: Rhinestone Briefs and Antlers

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Last month, everyone from Courtney Love to Bill Clinton jetted off to Vienna for the Life Ball — the annual 4,000-guest costume bash that is Europe’s largest AIDS benefit. On May 31, attendees showed up at Hofburg Palace wearing their most elaborate interpretations of this year’s “Garden of Earthy Delights” theme (those who follow the 64-page style guide receive a significant discount) for a night of ruckus and revelry, including a fashion show organized by L’Uomo Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani and performances by Ke$ha and Ricky Martin.   

At the invitation of longtime attendee Susanne Bartsch, photographer Rebecca Smeyne embarked upon her first Life Ball weekend — starting with a trip out of JFK on the official Life Ball plane. She spoke with the Cut about the experience.

So your Life Ball experience started on a plane?
I went on the plane with Susanne and a bunch of the performers, and Ke$ha, Courtney Love, Marcia Cross, Amanda Lepore. It was nuts. And then you get off the plane in the Vienna airport and there’s a red carpet arrival. It was funny: There’s one shot I have of this woman Yasmin Petty who was getting her legs oiled up before the red carpet.

But the actual party is on Saturday, right? What was it like?
Completely overwhelming. It was a dream job for me, in terms of the subject matter — this is the stuff I love to shoot. It’s so big — there are almost 4,000 people who attend, and everybody’s in costume. There’s a style guide that they release when they sell tickets, which is like [64] pages long — it looks like a fashion magazine. So that sets the theme and then people come in these really over-the-top kind of looks. I’ve never seen that many people in costumes all in one place. And, you know, some of it’s cheesy, but people really dress up for this.

And the setting itself is magnificent. It’s in city hall, which is this palatial building in the middle of the city. It’s Europe, so the buildings are old and beautiful and big — it's a very dramatic setting. There’s a huge stage with all sorts of singing and dance numbers — Ke$ha performed at one point, Ricky Martin performed — but I never even saw any of that. Literally — I was shooting backstage and roaming around, and it seemed endless in terms of scope. I got lost so many times. It was crazy.

What was the crowd like?
Regular people, mostly, but people who are really into dressing up. All ages: I spoke to one lady who was in her 80s, and there were a lot of people in their early twenties, there were gay couples, there were straight couples. It was really all kinds of people, but definitely people who are outgoing and really like to put on makeup and put on a look. This isn’t an event where you go and buy a nice dress — you have to make something. I don’t think you have to dress up, technically, but it’s a lot more expensive if you don’t. I’ve really never been to anything quite like it.

What kinds of costumes were there?
A lot of stuff was very similar actually, in terms of the costumes, because they all played on the same theme … Garden of Earthly delights. “Love is a bloom growing everywhere … ” that was the official theme. So it was a lot of leaves and vines, masks and flowers, put over these baroque looks.

Would you go again?
I would definitely go again. I know a lot of people who have been going for many years. It was an interesting mix of people — the scale and the opulence and the costume factor, mixed with the fashion element, and the celebrity element, makes it so cool. The atmosphere is so special and so unique — and I’m somebody who covers parties for a living, but this blew my mind. I heard similar sentiments from a lot of other full-time partygoers who were there that I know. And the great thing is that it’s not just a big party, it’s the biggest AIDS charity in Europe. It’s a great thing all around.

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