Met Ball and the "Circus of Ambition": Nicole Kidman, Michael Kors, Cher Tell All in THR's Oral History

Rihanna  arrives at the 2015  Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala -Getty- H 2016
Timonthy A. Clay/AFP/Getty Images

It started out small, society and a $50 ticket. But the Met Ball, nearing its 70th year, has morphed into New York's biggest, sexiest spectacle. Now, power attendees from fashion (Michael Kors, Coca Rocha) to film (Nicole Kidman, Cher) recount their nights at the museum's magical, dazzling event.

The history of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Benefit, now simply known as the Met Ball, is the history of New York's society, cultural and fashion worlds meta-mingling. The debut exhibit of the Costume Institute took place in 1946; two years later, the first event to raise the $25,000 needed to keep it afloat was held, honoring designer Norman Norell at $50 a ticket (they're $30,000 today). Freshly fired Vogue editrix Diana Vreeland took over the party in 1972, then left the reins in 1989 to co-chairs Pat Buckley and Jacqueline Onassis (Met curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda handled the exhibitions beginning in 1989). By 1995, movie stars and supermodels were starting to take over the media, so having Vogue editor Anna Wintour host from then on (except for a one-year break in 1996, when late Harper's Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis took the helm) smacked of prescience. Wintour's keen eye for the approximately 600-guests-strong mix — with every celebrity invitee approved by the editor and then matched to a table and sponsored by an individual, corporation or fashion designer — has helped raise $150 million to date.

This year's May 2 gala, "Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology," co-chaired by Jonathan Ive, Idris Elba and Taylor Swift and sponsored by Apple, doubtless will continue to overflow coffers. Yet, despite that theme, designer Zac Posen, who has attended for a decade, says: "There's still something wonderfully nostalgic. It harkens back to a Victorian age in New York, very Age of Innocence. It's Edith Wharton on those steps waiting for us." Or, rather, Wintour, for as veteran publicist Peggy Siegal puts it: "You get to the top of those stairs, where Anna greets everyone, and it's like you're being greeted by the queen of England. If she isn't smiling, it means she doesn't love your dress." THR reached out to scores of organizers and attendees from over the years to construct this oral history.

ELLIN SALTZMAN (former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman) In the early '70s, dress manufacturers would sit around and sing and play piano. Stephen Sondheim's father was a schmatta maker; he was there.

HAROLD KODA (Met Costume Institute curator; retired in 2015) "The Party of the Year": That's what it was called by one of the original fashion PRs, Eleanor Lambert, with the agreement that the benefit would underwrite all the museum costume exhibits. There was just the fashion community in the beginning. When Mrs. [Diana] Vreeland did "The World of Balenciaga" in 1973, she brought out her Hollywood and society ladies Rolodex, and the ball changed slightly. Suddenly, there were international socials like Marella Agnelli and Jacqueline de Ribes, Marisa Berenson. When jet-setters were added — Halston brought his stars — that's when it became a true affair. Martha Graham looked fabulous in a Halston coat, but that didn't matter to 99 percent of the world. But Elizabeth Taylor in a Halston charmeuse sarong dress! Everyone paid attention!

BOB COLACELLO (writer) Vreeland didn't have a college degree, and a lot of the museum curators were opposed to her getting the job. [But] Diana's world [was] a cross between Park Avenue, Seventh Avenue and Union Square, Andy Warhol's Factory.

KENNETH JAY LANE (jewelry designer) When Ms. Diana came on, her salary wasn't enough for her to live on. Some of the ladies, her friends, were helping out. Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and I decided to get CFDA behind it and do a proper benefit. The first of Diana's shows was "Balenciaga"; no one had to pay to go, there was no dinner. A few years after, it became very glam. Women wore real jewels — not jewelry. I remember when Jackie Kennedy was on the receiving line of Diana's. It was the only time Jackie ever did anything like that.

TIM VREELAND (Diana's son) My wife, Nancy, and I were invited to the "Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design" show [1974]. Cher was with Bob Mackie, but I didn't recognize her. My mother was saying, "Stand up and show us what you're wearing!" It was sheer, and you could see right through it. I thought she was just a girl who had a fantastic figure, then I realized, this is Cher!

CHER Every time I saw Mrs. Vreeland, she petted me. She was the first who put me on the pages of Vogue as a model. That's why I went to her balls. But I loved being around her. The way she told a story was more important than it being factual. She always enraptured all the men — and they had a lot of distraction! She was the one who made people see beauty as something different. I took what I wore to the Met Ball very, very seriously because of her.

LANE I remember when Cher was there with David Geffen, at the "Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design" party [1983]. Diana was in this thing that Yves St. Laurent had made; it could have been something from The Mikado, the shoulders that went up.

MICHAEL KORS (designer) I've been going to the Costume Institute opening since 1980. The theme that year was "The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of China, the Ch'ing Dynasty." I was really young, super excited, and my date was Vera Wang. Vera wore a Michael Kors for Lothar's satin slip dress with a down jacket and a mohair sweater tied around her waist. I borrowed a tux from a friend. So I went to the Met Ball, met Mrs. Vreeland with a Vogue editor [Wang] wearing my clothes, and it was like Cinderella.

PAUL WILMOT (former PR for Conde Nast, which owns Vogue) After Vreeland, Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley ran it till the early '90s. It was held in different places in the museum. It even used to be in the museum cafeteria. Ticket prices were only about $1,000.

R. COURI HAY (society columnist and PR) If Nan and Pat had been told they had to raise $20 million, they would have wilted in their haute couture. As it grew bigger and went on to the Temple of Dendur, it lost its intimacy, but the amount of money raised skyrocketed. Now high society has been pretty much priced out.

LANE After Diana wasn't doing it anymore, I was there with Nan Kempner, and Diana Ross was the entertainment. The only problem was, Diana Ross hadn't brought the orchestra, and the Met organizers forgot to hire the orchestra! Mrs. Vreeland used to arrange all that. So there was lip-syncing going on that night!

JAMES REGINATO (society journalist) I was friends with Pat — she was always amazed at what a mega event it became. She used to go around in her station wagon with her chauffeur, going to the floral market for decorations. The "Gianni Versace" year [1997], I walked in with Pat and Johnny Gallagher, a well-known walker at the time, and Johnny and Pat said to each other, "Who are these people?" They were Hollywood people, models. The guard had completely changed.

ZAC POSEN (fashion designer) I worked as an intern at the Costume Institute in the library for two and a half years. That was my real college. Diana Vreeland's office was where I'd done my initial interview, with all that taxidermy, peacock feathers, dark walls, Jackie O. prints. The first year I went to the ball was "Versace." My ticket was $60; I had to save up! What's important about the institute is, it highlights artistry and the history of fashion but tells a story about women and history as well.

KODA After Anna began to support it in 1995, it became a kind of media magnet — power people rubbing shoulders with people from other areas of power: artists, fashion, business, Hollywood. You don't find that at the Oscars. Anna was already aware of her social responsi­bility: fundraising. She always wants it linked into the exhibition. Some of these people who come are only in the museum for one night. It isn't just coming to a party. First, you have cocktails, then you walk through the exhibition on your way to the dinner. That's something I never saw happening before Anna.

WILMOT Anna's first year, Puffy performed with the Harlem Boys Choir. It was just right.

STEPHANIE WINSTON WOLKOFF (former director of special events at Vogue) We always had rehearsals, but P. Diddy changed his song. We thought, "This is so not what we had planned." There were some unanticipated curse words.

NICOLE KIDMAN I was a co-host with Anna and Karl Lagerfeld, and I remember I had just won the Oscar [2003]. I didn't have a boyfriend, no one to go with, and asked Adrien Brody to be my date; he had just won the Oscar. I remember walking up those big red-carpet stairs, and it was a real princess experience.

KODA The next morning, the head of the Met's PR was standing in the Village in a Starbucks line. She feels a tap on her shoulder and it's Adrien Brody! He tells her, "That was the most extraordinary night of my life!" She said to him, "What are you talking about, you won an Academy Award!" He said, "But it was so glamorous!" Why does the ball have that effect? It's because actresses can be 5-foot-5; they have star faces. But in this room, professional beauties in their heels are 6 feet, wearing couture dress, and they know how to work the train. This creates a mood in the room: It is glamour.

WILMOT There was some point when the celebrities started to take over from the models — 2005, 2007. Anna's instincts were good: making sure the stars were dressed, that no one has ever gone for free, they're always guests of somebody who paid. And the billions of impressions: This is big content, all these summer movie releases, everything is timed. There is an allure: This is the moment to go into character. It's a theatrical fete, you won't get a better set in the world.

WOLKOFF The work that goes into creating it is not glamorous. I had all my kids nursing in the office. We would start meeting the day after the event. I was in conversations with Anna and the Met every day about theme and table. The seating was done so strategically, it's a chess game. Sightlines were important, making sure whoever did date — or were married and divorced — were not having to look at each other. When Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez were dating [in 2004], they wanted to keep it private but still be near each other. She was at the Versace table, so I put them back to back. In 2009 Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel sat at Anna's table along with Ronald Perelman and Anna Chapman, Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch, Bono and Ali Hewson and Karen Elson and Jack White.

KORS Then there was the year the Broadway cast of Hair performed "Let the Sunshine In." I didn't even realize until halfway through that I was out of my seat singing like a maniac, and Zoe Kravitz is the only other person who knew every word. We just laughed.

CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN (shoe designer) The Met Ball is a night dedicated to having fun. I remember [the 2008 "Superheroes" show] spending a loooong time under the dress of Scarlett Johansson, and no one, including herself, seemed to find it awkward!

LAURA MULLEAVY (designer, Rodarte) The first time [my sister, Kate, and I] went was 2008. We've taken Kirsten Dunst a few times, and Elle and Dakota Fanning. We were with Kirsten at "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy" in 2008. We were being nerdy, taking pictures with a cutout of Tina Fey in a Wonder Woman costume. Suddenly, Tina walked in and came over to talk to Kirsten. We couldn't stop giggling.

JOHN DELUCIE (chef/owner of Crown, where the Met afterparty took place in 2011) The restaurant only held about 125 people standing, so we had to take over the landlord's apartment, but it still was mayhem at the door because 250 people showed up. There were so many VIPs, it got a little hairy. Bruno Mars did a surprise performance with Janelle Monae; Paul McCartney, Madonna and Kanye West set up camp in a private dining room in the basement.

POSEN When I took Amber Heard to the Met in 2012, before the marriage to Johnny Depp, she pulled off an incredibly structured mauve dress with a tail feather, peacock style. Every man stared at her: The way she held herself and her beauty blew people away. I've never had more men flock to meet my Met Ball date ever.

ELIZABETH SALTZMAN (stylist) When Gwyneth [Paltrow] and I worked together for the 2012 "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" ball, I decided to make her really elegant. I wanted her to look like Princess Grace of Monaco. The Prada dress created for her was a satin silver pinafore top and a huge beautiful ball skirt. But she said, "Elizabeth, I want to have fun with my friends." She didn't want everyone stepping on her train. So she left the skirt behind.

PEGGY SIEGAL (veteran PR) I remember 2012 when Marc Jacobs showed up in a see-through lace black Commes des Garcons dress over white boxer shorts. He was standing in this crowd of billionaire moguls, and one of them kept looking him up and down. You could see Marc expecting his disdain. But I overheard him say to Marc: "You know, I wouldn't have worn white panties with that dress. I would have gone for black." Marc cracked up.

ALBER ELBAZ (designer) The year I went with Emma Stone [2012], she looked so great in this red plastic dress we made her at Lanvin. My mother was so excited I had a "date" with Emma Stone that she said, "Alber, I had given up on you, but now perhaps you will have a beautiful wedding!"

COCO ROCHA (model) My most talked-about Met Gala outfit would have to be the year of the "Schiaparelli and Prada" exhibit. I decided to wear a piece [of] one of my icons, Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Earlier that year, I had gone to the Liz Taylor auction at Christie's and bid on a pink-and-yellow Givenchy jumpsuit she owned from the 1980s. I remember these older socialite ladies asking me what I'd be doing with it. "Wear it to the Met Gala," I said. The greatest thing was that it had a huge red wine stain on it, which was of course Liz Taylor's wine stain, so I didn't dare clean it.

MICHAEL GROSS (author of Rogues' Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Anna took it over, and it became a circus of ambition, though an incredibly successful one. It's all a gigantic swirl of commerce: the frock, the film and the person are being sold at the same moment. Once in a while, something subversive happens like Johnny Rotten giving society a Nazi salute [at 2006's AngloMania"].

KORS In 2013 Jennifer Lopez was my date, and we were dancing on the couch when all of a sudden the waiter came over and asked if we wanted a Jell-O shot. I think it was the first time Jennifer had one.

SARAH JESSICA PARKER The year of the "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" show [2014], when Anna Wintour asked if I might co-chair, I immediately thought, with Oscar de la Renta as co-chair, I wanted to ask him to make me a dress. I told Oscar's team I would really love to have his signature in embroidery on the back of the dress in scarlet. I was nervous to ask, [but] he said yes. We talked about the size of the signature, but I thought the largest would look best, given the flashbulbs.

KARLIE KLOSS At the "Charles James" gala, I sat next to Oscar de la Renta, who has always been an incredible mentor and friend to me. The Oscar de la Renta dress I wore was a stunning black and gold lace gown that I wore with black gloves. I felt like Audrey Hepburn and wearing the beautiful gown while I sat next to Oscar made the evening even more magical. We had a heartfelt conversation where he told me about how he fell in love with his wife Annette after losing his first wife thirty years earlier to cancer. I didn’t know at the time that it would be one of the last moments and conversations we had together, which makes the memory that much more meaningful.

TARAJI P. HENSON My first and only Met Ball to date was 2015, made possible by my dear friend Alexander Wang who dressed me in one of his exquisite Balenciaga designs. I met Alex in Paris for the fitting and I felt like Cinderella. He created a gown for a lifetime. [That night], Alex arrived at The Carlyle Hotel with his tux in a shopping bag. We sort of got ready together and we had a departure toast of champagne with my glam team. We traveled to the Ball in a large white bus because he was bringing many guests to his after party — Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, to name-drop a bit. You haven’t been to a party until you have partied with Team Alex!

KATIE HOLMES We were already friends when Zac [Posen] and I decided to go to the Met Ball together last year. The light was perfect, and it was really magical. That night I didn't care about paparazzi.

MARC JACOBS (designer) It really was a dream of mine for a long time to bring Cher to the Met Ball. We'd met a couple of times. When I actually asked [in 2015], and she said yes, I got very shy. And I'd been to the Met Ball like 25 times!

JOHN DEMSEY (executive group president, Estee Lauder Companies) Last year, I took Kendall Jenner. My greatest memory was sitting with Kris Jenner behind me, and Kim [Kardashian], Kris, Kendall and Justin Bieber were all texting each other.

DONATELLA VERSACE (chief designer, Versace Group) Last year, I was so proud to share my table with incredible women such as Jennifer Lopez, Uma Thurman]]>Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. It's also super fun to chat with Justin Bieber,]]>Cara Delevingne]]>Stella McCartney.

ROCHA While the exhibits are always first-rate, the most fascinating place to be has always been the ladies' room, where you'll find the strangest pairings of models, actors, designers and singers, all holding court and having the most bizarre conversations. It's like the "What happens in Vegas" of the Met Gala, with an unspoken rule that you don't mention what or who you saw in there.


Didn't Get Your Met Ball Invite?
Don’t despair. The First Monday in May, the opener at the Tribeca Film Fest on April 13, looks at how last year’s party came together.

Taking a camera deep into the Met, director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) chronicles the year of prep that went into the Costume Institute’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” in Magnolia Pictures’ The First Monday in May (opening April 15). “People think it’s just a great party in support of a great institution,” says Sylvana Ward Durrett, head of special projects at Vogue. “It’s so much more; the film exposes the thoughtfulness and intense work that go into this event.”

The cast, including John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Wong Kar-wai and Baz Luhrmann, debate the age-old question, “Is fashion art?” while Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez ascend the Met’s hallowed stairs nearnaked. Lead curator Andrew Bolton is the protagonist, but Anna Wintour steals the limelight. She tells THR: “I’d like to think people see the Met Costume Institute dinner as a curtain-raiser to the show itself, [which] brings the history and culture of fashion to record numbers of people. You can clearly [see] the work of Andrew and his colleagues is far more than just putting costumes on mannequins.”

A version of this story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.