Hannes Richter

Vienna fights HIV/AIDS Ignorance

Hannes Richter

When thinking of a typical Viennese ball, one imagines ladies in extravagant gowns, the waltzes of Johann Strauss and an atmosphere of elegance. In most cases, this would probably be right with the exception of one special annual event in Vienna: The Life Ball.

What can be seen there more closely resembles the idea of a Hollywood event, complete with a red carpet, crowds of people trying to get a glimpse of international celebrities in their sparkling and expressive costumes, and a glamorous party.

For 20 years now, this famous event has been instrumental in the fight against HIV and AIDS and has helped raise general awareness of the disease. The first Life Ball took place in 1993, when organizer Gerry Keszler managed to convince Helmut Zilk, then mayor of Vienna, to let him host the event in the historic City Hall of Vienna.

The venue was supposed to have the spirit of the classic Viennese ball tradition, while at the same time offering something new, and even more glamorous. Although controversial, Mayor Zilk firmly believed in the importance of the cause and gave the project his full support. With this first effort, approximately 70,000 Euros were raised in 1993, all of which went to Gery Keszler’s and Torgom Petrosian’s non-profit organization AIDS LIFE.

It was used to fund other institutions involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Since then the event has grown significantly, gaining international attention and reputation, and, over the years, has become Europe’s biggest AIDS charity fundraiser and one of the most important charity events worldwide. Proceeds have continued to increase with this year’s ball reaching a record high of approximately 2.1 million Euros, to be used in the battle against the spread of the disease.

The 20th anniversary ball took place under the motto “Fight the Flames of Ignorance” and, as always, offered a unique and very special program. The fashion show, which is an important part of the Ball this year, represented a mix of the best designs from shows of the past two decades, including contributions from world-renowned designers such as Roberto Cavalli, Gianfranco Ferré or Vivienne Westwood. Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italy since 1988, was the organizer of this year’s fashion show.

On the red carpet and later in the halls of City Hall the amazing and creatively designed costumes of the visitors, which so uniquely interpreted this year’s fiery theme, could be viewed by the public. Every year the Life Ball also attracts many international celebrities, who are all actively involved in different AIDS/ HIV organizations. Prominent faces that have attended the Life Ball during the past years included Sharon Stone, Elton John, Eva Longoria and Whoopie Goldberg.

This year, supermodel Naomi Campbell, who attended the Life Ball for the second time in a row, together with Antonio Banderas awarded the ‘Life Ball Crystal of Hope’, a special award donated by Swarovski recognizing a pioneer in the battle against AIDS. Hollywood actress Milla Jovovich brought glamour to the ball as an ambassador for the American Aids organization amfAR (Foundation for AIDS Research) and performed her new song “Electric Sky” live on stage.

Despite all the glamour and party, organizer Gery Keszler and everyone else involved with the Ball have never forgotten one thing: As much fun as the Life Ball might be, it serves a very serious purpose. Vienna mayor Michael Häupl, for example, stressed: “This party is not just fun.” Raising as much money as possible in order to help people affected by the illness and to prevent the further spread of HIV has always been the main objective.

One guest who is very aware of this fact is former President of the United States Bill Clinton. He has been to the ball many times and again joined the event this year to give a speech during the opening ceremony. “The rest of the world should be grateful to the people of Austria for continuing to support the AIDS Life Ball. You are saving lives and I thank you very much,” Clinton said. The Clinton Health Access Initiative, part of the Clinton Foundation, has been supported through the Life Ball’s proceeds for many years. This year, AIDS LIFE donated 700,000 Euros to the initiative, which will support projects aiming to reduce the number of new HIV infections of babies in Uganda and Zambia.

Other organizations and projects that benefit from the proceeds of the ball include AmfAR, which received half a million euro that will flow into the TREAT Asia network for HIV/AIDS children’s medicine, as well as the UNAIDS program of the United Nations, which will use the money to help AIDS orphans and families affected by HIV in Russia. Naturally, Austrian AIDS initiatives such as the organizations Positiver Dialog (Positive Dialog) and the Buddy Verein (Buddy Society), which help affected people with building social contacts, are also supported.

The contribution of the Life Ball for the last 20 years in fighting HIV/AIDS and raising awareness of the illness cannot be overemphasized. Its message of celebrating life and sharing positive energywill continue to stoke up, for many years to come, the hope of victims and the drive to gain the upper hand in the battle against one of the most dangerous and persistent illnesses of today. As President Clinton emphasized during his speech: “The war against AIDS is far from over.”

Above: Life Ball Opening Ceremony Right: Actor Antonio Banderas at the 2012 Life Ball in Vienna, holding the Crystal of Hope