Viennese Enchantment
Life Ball Celebrates Twenty-Five Years of Magic
Text and Photos by Sean Black

The colossal façade of Vienna’s City Hall Square, illuminated in melding kaleidoscope hues under the art direction of Giorgia Madia, set a magical stage for this summer’s Opening Ceremony for the 25th Anniversary of Life Ball presented by Conchita Wurst and actor and theater director Herbert Föttinger.

City Hall of Vienna

Amid epic theatricality, a 130-meter red-carpet sprawl of celebrity photo ops, sheer opulence and frolicking, an impressive Viennese Waltz, a live performance of hits, including “Lady Marmalade,” sung by Grammy Award winner and longtime AIDS ally Patti LaBelle [A&U, June 2005] the “fairy godmother” presence of Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] was evoked when Taylor’s real-life goddaughter Paris Jackson, alongside Joyce Jere, the head of the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance in Malawi, accepted the award on behalf of her godmother’s foundation and the life-saving contributions begun by the legendary humanitarian to carry out her dreams of ending AIDS. Since its inception in 1991, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation has provided funding to organizations to help prevent the spread of HIV and to provide direct care and assistance to those affected by the disease. (See our cover story with Taylor’s granddaughters, Naomi deLuce Wilding and Laela Wilding in this issue.)

Echoing Taylor’s mission, Life+ organizers shared, “We use this milestone event to reflect on the past and look to the future: to review the achievements in the fight against HIV/AIDS over the last 25 years and to [reflect upon] Life Ball’s sociopolitical impact. The anniversary festivities [continue to reaffirm] our commitment to fighting for all of those living with HIV and those impacted by the virus both in Austria and around the globe.”

Along with Jackson’s heartfelt acceptance and other notable speeches throughout the night the highlight of the evening was a memorable re-telling, “An Homage to The Sound of Music,” under the sophisticated stage design of Amra Bergman incorporating in a version of “Do-Re-Mi” by LaBelle and culminating in a football field-long expressive jaunt by hostess Conchita Wurst (as Fräulein Maria).

“The designer transformed Salzburg’s meadows and mountains, components inspired by Edelweiss and traditional costumes as well as colorful butterflies and hearts into a compact, flamboyant message to the outside world. An idyll that enchanted for a little while and shows itself from its best side, like a dream world celebrated with the most beautiful sounds,” noted the event’s creative forces.

The Sound of Music, as an iconic and highly successful Hollywood film (1965), “represents Austrian values and traditions, yet still touches a broad international impact.” Continuing, Life+ organizers affirm, “The heart-warming, relatable story of the von Trapp family—their bond, music and dramatic escape from an oppressive society—is a metaphor for many current topics in today’s world. The von Trapps are a perfect example of a non-traditional family as is the Life Ball [family] cast, which also stands for inclusion, diversity, acceptance, and different ways of life. Continuing to be an “exuberant and entertaining means of conveying its crucial message, Life Ball has established itself as a festival of life. It represents a multicultural, inclusive Austria that engages an increasingly international audience.”

Gery Keszler, who cofounded Life Ball in 1992 to fight “the taboo of HIV and AIDS in society,” is the chair of the event’s organizer, Life+ an independent, nonprofit association focused on raising public awareness for HIV and AIDS while generating funds to assist the world’s most affected regions. “Discrimination and intolerance are rejected, and a loud signal for the fight against HIV and AIDS is [heard] far beyond national boundaries.”

Attendees besides Jackson, LaBelle and Wurst, were flanked by regal crimson-clad Austrian flight attendants and included international fan faves Gilles Marini [A&U, October 2015], Alexandra Daddario, Charlize Theron, Kelly Osbourne, Ute Lemper, German-born pop sensation Kim Petras, Caitlyn Jenner, Gus Kenworthy, Gigi Gorgeous with her fiancé Nat Getty and Emmy Award-winning actress Patrika Darbo.

Longtime Kiehl’s LifeRider and amfAR ambassador Gilles Marini (Sex and the City, Days of Our Lives) told A&U, “I have committed myself to this cause because there are still millions of people suffering from AIDS and many dying everyday globally. I am doing it as well for the personal friends that I have lost to AIDS and for my close friends who live with the virus. Riding for this cause is a highlight each year because each time I ‘saddle up’ I feel that I am doing the ‘right thing.’ I continue to feel proud about the work that we all are putting in together.”

amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, is one of the world’s leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and advocacy. Since 1985, amfAR has invested more than $517 million in its programs and has awarded more than 3,300 grants to research teams worldwide.
A portion of the proceeds from this year’s Life Ball will support amfAR’s TREAT Asia Pediatric HIV/AIDS Initiative, which focuses on improving the health and lives of children and adolescents living with HIV across the Asia-Pacific region. Over more than a decade, LIFE+ has provided more than $6 million through Life Ball to the Pediatric Initiative, and has been a critical partner in improving treatment and care for young people living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific.

Leading a pack of Easy (on the eyes) Riders in its grand finale were Marini with amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost, Chris Salgardo (Brand Ambassador and former President of Kiehl’s Since 1851), Ian Bohen and J.R. Bourne (both of Teen Wolf), Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones), Katee Sackhoff (Longmire) and Academy Award winner Adrien Brody. The princess and princely bikers traversed 1,131 kilometers (703 miles) of the majestic Alpine terrain of Switzerland and Austria, before rumbling up to the grand Vienna City Hall to participate in the 25th Life Ball opening ceremony.

Far from tales of debauchery, the weekend-long venue proved to be a wonderland of warmth and dream-making possibilities.


A special thanks to world-class photographer René Langer (renelanger.com; Instagram @jacklanger) for their kindness in sharing their primo bridge access at the event.


To find out more about Life Ball log on to www.lifeplus.org.

To learn more about amfAR’s TREAT Asia or how to get involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, please visit www.amfar.org.


Senior Editor Sean Black photographed Naomi deLuce Wilding and Laela Wilding for July 2018’s cover story. Follow him on Twitter @seanblackphoto.