BY WINNIE McCROY | In what has become something of the kickoff to the spring fundraising season in New York’s LGBT community, members of the Imperial Court system and the drag and leather communities came together on March 22 at the Times Square Marriott Marquis for the 25th annual Night of a Thousand Gowns.
The annual charity ball, hosted by the Imperial Court of New York (ICNY), raised $275,000 for the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and social services to homeless LGBT youth in New York, and the Trevor Project, which works to curb suicide among queer youth and maintains a nationwide 24-hour hotline.
Imperial Court celebrates Night of A Thousand Gowns’ silver anniversary
“We all know how important Trevor Project and the Ali Forney are, both of whom I’ve done work with before,” said singer Ari Gold, who performed his hit “You Make My Body Rock” at the gala. “This event really is a celebration of the people that work to help those organizations, whether they are from within the organizations themselves or people from the Court system who do community work and raise money throughout the year for organizations like these.”
The event bestowed the Imperial Diamond Award on author, political strategist, and civil rights activist David Mixner.
“You’ve always been there when our community needed you,” Mixner said in accepting his award. “I remember in 1978, hundreds of millions of donors thought we could not win and defeat Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative,” that would have mandated the firing of gay and lesbian schoolteachers in California. “They said let it pass, because we can’t win. It was the Imperial Court that came to me… and gave me the money to get off the ground so that we ended up taking 58 percent of the vote and defeating it. I’ve said it time and time again: I don’t know what this community would do without you.”
Saying he sees America ready to embrace gays’ and lesbians’ freedom to marry, Mixner added, “I can’t wait until New York passes marriage and I can get dressed as a bridesmaid!”
The star-studded entertainment lineup included an opening performance of “New York, New York,” segueing to “Luck Be a Lady,” with Imperial Court members sporting red gowns and tuxedos, á la the Oscars. Epiphany Get Paid sang the national anthem, “Beauty and the Beast” star Chad Ryan performed, and there was an appearance by “Real Housewives of New Jersey”’s Dina Manzo. Later, Emperor XVIII Tony Monteleone performed with the cast of “My Big Gay Italian Wedding.”
Highlights of the evening included performances by Zelma Davis of C&C Music Factory, who sang “Just a Touch of Love,” “A Deeper Love,” and her hit “Everybody Dance Now.” Singer Erika Jayne donned a gold lamé bodysuit to sing “I’m in Fashion,” and singer Sylvia Tosun belted out her hit, “World Keeps Turning.”
Toward the end of the show, Empress XXIV Farrah Moans donned a pink wig to perform Pink’s “Get this Party Started” and “Raise Your Glass.” Singer Pepper Mashay sang Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” as well as her own 2001 number-two dance track, “I Got My Pride.” DJ Chi Chi La Rue ended the evening by spinning for a late-night dance party that followed the Viennese dessert buffet.
Claire Buffie, the reigning Miss New York, stopped by to present one of the evening’s awards, saying, “I’m happy to be here, and not have the biggest crown in the room for a change!” Saying she was happy to be “the beauty queen who shared the message of equality,” Buffie, an outspoken advocate for the freedom to marry in New York, also spread the sentiment that “It Gets Better.”
Later in the evening, honorary chair Bebe Neuwirth appeared briefly to say, “You all look fabulous, your hearts are all so full and in the right places, and I admire you all so much!”
Ally Sheedy, an honorary co-chair of the evening, said, “I’m really glad you guys are supporting the Ali Forney Center. It’s a very special and important place for me, because as the mother of a gay daughter, I have a problem with parents kicking their kids on the street because of their sexual orientation.”
During the “midnight” coronation — this year it took place well after 1 a.m. — Emperor XIX Jack and Empress XXIV Farrah Moans passed over their mantles to the incoming sovereigns, Emperor XX Vanity Society and Empress XXV Pepperica Swirl.
Money raised through tickets sales, to a crowd of 800, was supplemented by live and silent auctions, the latter of which featured signed memorabilia from the late Elizabeth Taylor, four limited-edition Don Draper fashion dolls, a signed picture of John Travolta, autographed copies of Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty” album and Bette Midler’s “The Divine Ms. M,” an electric guitar signed by Michael Buble, and a Roy Lichtenstein limited edition set valued at $1,200.
“Where else can you have fun dressing up and raise money for charity?” said ICNY member Timothy Slick. He praised the evening’s beneficiaries, saying, “They are our future. I wish there was somebody supporting me when I was young, because I had a very rough time of it, and it’s great to be able to help.”
“And we get to wear beautiful gowns, lots of jewelry, big hair, and have fun while we’re doing it, so what better way to raise money?” added Lady Tiffany Jay.
“Farrah Moans, our empress, just raised over $20,000 to renovate the showers at the Ali Forney Center,” ICNY’s Ricky Jay explained. “We’ve done a lot of hard work already, and it’s time to celebrate that!”
Toronto Imperial Court member Carlotta Carlyle, who travels to New York every year for the event, said, “How can you say no to a charity? If you live in a community, you give back to it — it’s that simple.”
Carlyle’s friend Katinka, a member of the Imperial Court of Toronto who had never before been to a charity drag ball, said of the event, “It’s my first one; let’s make it good! Without us and the community supporting everybody, nobody would be able to feel safe in their own skin.”
Volunteer Gary Marcello, sporting an impressive handlebar-shaped nose ring, praised the event’s diversity, saying, “It’s one of the few nights that you can get so many people together to raise so much money and to have a great time.”
Jacqueline DiMera, reining Empress XVIII of the Imperial Court of Rhode Island, and LaKia Mondale, of the Imperial Court of Massachusetts, said they have attended several New York balls and are glad to invest time in such a worthy cause. “Any time we can all get together to help our fellow citizens of our community is always a good reason,” said DiMera.
Commending the decision to raise funds for Ali Forney and the Trevor Project, Linda Simpson, a longtime mover and shaker in the downtown drag scene, said, “I think it’s so cool that gay youth is so ultra-flamboyant and not afraid to live their life like they want to. And for us, the older generation, we should be really proud that we’ve helped create a generation that’s so cool. If we can help gay youth in any way possible, more power to us, and them!”
“Living in Florida, there is not this kind of court system, so they don’t have the unity and support for the organizations like they do up here, and I think it’s incredible,” said Tuesday West, a former member of the Imperial Court who said she has returned to New York for about a dozen Thousand Gowns galas.
Philanthropy, it seemed, was only topped by fashion. Jo Lance, of “Mexico’s Next Top Model,” celebrated his third year at Thousand Gowns by sporting a leather-and-feathers ensemble inspired by a “Black Swan” obsession. “I feel it’s my job as a gay person to get out there and make appearances, to talk to people and become a voice for the gay community,” Lance said. “I am a fashion photographer for a living, and it’s nice to be able to use my voice for something positive… or to donate my photographs or my time — anything to help.”
Ambrosia, the reigning Miss Fire Island, wore a burgundy ruffled dress inspired by Vera Farmiga’s 2010 Oscars Marchesa dress, making her 19th appearance at the gala. “It’s just a wonderful event — for me it’s my Halloween, my New Year’s, my Christmas, my Mardi Gras, and to see all the glamour, you won’t get any red carpet for the Oscars that could do better,” she said.
Mitzi Pickaman, an employee of Manhattan Shade & Glass, paid tribute to Carol Burnett with her curtain-rod dress. “They provided the curtains, and I designed them,” said Pickaman of the help she got on the job. “I had the idea for an homage, I thought it would be fun and that it would work with the company I work for, because they sponsored me.”
Burlesque star Dirty Martini, said, “Not only does everyone wear the most insane amount of rhinestones, but they give a shit load to charity, so how is anybody losing? I’m so thrilled every year to come here because it’s not only filled with beauty, sparkle, and love for mankind, but it’s also a lovely spirit of community. Everyone thinks I’m a tranny — and that’s the biggest compliment!”