Five Moments From the amfAR Gala

Courtesy of amfAR

Honors for Lee Daniels and Stefano Tonchi were mixed with a news-making announcement, A-listers raising money and some poorly mannered models.

Wednesday night’s annual gala for the American Foundation for AIDS Research at Cipriani Wall Street served up a handful of memorable moments — here are five stories from the night, which raised $1.6 million for the charity.

Kenneth Cole’s resignation as chairman: The designer’s announcement that he was resigning from the position he’s held since 2004 was the evening’s most unexpected moment. Cole had been under pressure to resign since news emerged in November that he allegedly had engaged in a pair of questionable actions involving Harvey Weinstein: a plan to split proceeds from lots arranged by Weinstein for a 2015 auction in Cannes so the producer could repay investors of his Finding Neverland musical, followed by a reported request by Cole that his fellow board members sign a nondisclosure agreement that would prevent them from speaking about the embattled Weinstein during the height of the sexual-misconduct investigations that swirled around the producer (if all the board members signed, Weinstein promised to donate $1 million to the organization; all but four board members signed).

While some board members and prominent AIDS activists had called for Cole to resign, the furor seemed to have quieted, making his announcement a bit of a surprise. “Today my 14-year term as chairman concludes,” he said. “It has been a true privilege to have worked alongside so many talented, dedicated and committed individuals. Through my ongoing work as a UNAIDS ambassador and with the End AIDS Coalition, I remain personally committed to aligning resources and galvanizing global action and working with, in fact, amfAR to make AIDS history.” In a later written statement, Cole attributed his resignation to term limits, “which is why I, along with four of my colleagues, will be stepping down from the board.”

At past galas, Cole has seemed impassioned and upbeat, his typical pun-laden jokes always part of his speeches. On Wednesday night, he also was tasked with paying tribute to amfAR founder Dr. Mathilde Krim, who passed away in January at the age of 91. Perhaps it was discussing his love for the woman who had mentored him in the organization, or the attendant nervousness over making his resignation announcement, or a combination of both, but Cole simply looked tired.

Taraji P. Henson should host every fundraiser: It’s questionable which is more bubbly, the Empire and Hidden Figures actress or a bottle of Perrier-Jouet, which Henson kept close at hand during her duties as the evening’s host. “Oh, you look good — I’m sorry, I caught [a look at] myself,” she said at one point (indeed, she glistened in gold body glitter and a sequined gown by London-based David Koma). Henson ultimately excelled at mixing humor with an unabashed plea for dollars, always a winning combination at these events. “I want you to dig deep. Dig down to your socks, honey, and be as generous as you can this evening,” she said. “Let’s save some lives. Throw caution to the wind, get drunk, bid recklessly — like I shop. That’s why we have credit cards, right? Or sugar daddies or mamas.”

Poignant words from Lee Daniels and Stefano Tonchi: As the evening’s two honorees, the respective director and the W magazine editor-in-chief each shared uniquely personal stories of their experiences as young gay men.

Queen Latifah introduced Daniels, who recalled the period in his life after coming out. “In 1981, I was happy; I was 22, and I finally mustered the courage to tell my family I was gay,” he said. “The party was on, and I had sex with anything with a heartbeat. Partying and clubbing into the wee hours of the morning right here in New York City — and then the pause button happened, and there were murmurs of this gay cancer … I don’t think the kids today really know what happened and what it was like.” Daniels added that he hoped greater awareness would lead to future generations getting involved at the legislative level: “That generation could be our voice in Congress today, because let’s face it, we’ve never really had a voice in Congress, and especially now, we don’t have a voice at all.”

Born in Florence, Tonchi likewise discussed the growing AIDS epidemic he witnessed while in his 20s. “I grew up in a small Italian city, far from the loud demonstrations in New York, but I remember very well what it was like to be 20 years old and gay, hearing for the first time about the disease that only killed people exactly like you,” he recalled. “To be 20 years old and see some of your friends, with whom you had spent many nights dancing, suddenly disappear, their mother telling you that they were not feeling well and you could not visit them, only to hear later in great secrecy about their funerals. Suddenly you felt that your choices in life were quickly disappearing.” While that experience drove Tonchi to inspire younger generations to be accepting of everyone, he also credited the influence of his husband, art dealer David Maupin. “He helped me to come out publicly, and there is not one day that I’m not thankful to be living in a time and in a country where it is possible to choose who you want to be and how you want to live. The family I always wanted is a dream I’m lucky to live,” said Tonchi.

“It’s fun to get dressed up”: Stars and style are always integral to the amfAR gala, and this year's edition didn’t disappoint. Henson raved about her table, which included Adrien Brody, Maxwell, Heidi Klum and Halsey, who did a three-song set as the night’s finale. “I love sitting next to Halsey — she’s my BFF now, though she may not know it,” Henson joked.

Other guests included Rachel Brosnahan in a V-neck tulip gown by Carolina Herrera; Sienna Miller in Dior haute couture; Lucy Hale in Jenny Packham; Alexandra Daddario in Salvatore Ferragamo; and Ashley Graham in navy Vivienne Westwood with Forevermark diamonds. “I always come out for this, because it’s a noble cause and something I really believe in,” said Graham, a repeat attendee. “It’s also really fun to get dressed up and see fun, famous people. I just met Queen Latifah, and that was a moment, plus I got to bring my best friend with me.” Hale, meanwhile, was a first-time guest. “I’m at the point now in which everything I stand for, I want to be 110 percent for, not just sort of halfway in, and this is something that struck a chord with me,” she said.

The auction also featured some star power: Klum (wearing Zuhair Murad haute couture) and Maxwell posed on a custom 2014 Harley-Davidson donated by Kiehl’s, which fetched $30,000, while a 2017 painting by Leelee Kimmel earned a winning bid of $25,000 from designer (and known art collector) Naeem Khan.

Model behavior: Sure, getting dressed up and having your photo taken on a red carpet is fun (and possibly career-enhancing), but does your social contract as a guest end there? The amfAR gala is always heavily populated by models, who seem to be evenly sprinkled among the tables throughout Cipriani’s cavernous event space. But in this period of transition for amfAR, perhaps it’s also time to rethink the practice of inviting women who, in borrowed gowns and diamonds, not only seem to do little more than decorate the room, but also appear to be wholly disinterested in the proceedings. Several models were seen to have their faces buried in their phones throughout the speeches, more interested in taking selfies and feeding their Instagram timeline than in engaging with what was happening around them. Many also bolted for the exits before Halsey finished her set.

One amfAR staffer noted that the sight of bored-looking models at various tables isn’t new and has been discussed internally. Ultimately, while no one is demanding that any guest put down their phone and pay attention, isn’t such apathy simply poor manners? The cause — and fellow guests — deserve better.