Billy Porter Emcees Third Love Ball in New York to Fight HIV-AIDS

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Billy Porter

A cavalcade of ballroom performers battled it out at the event, presented by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Susanne Bartsch, with judges Mary J. Blige, Nicky Hilton-Rothschild, Dita von Teese and Marc Jacobs.

“Love is like my healthy obsession,” said fashion designer Christian Siriano before everyone took their seats for Love Ball III at Gotham Hall in Manhattan on Tuesday night. “It could be someone I’m in love with or something I’m in love with for the moment. But it’s something that changes me really deep.” Nearby, Nicky Hilton-Rothschild opined, “Love is the person or thing that I can’t live without.” Then Dita von Teese swished by in a Zac Posen damask ballgown and said there were too many things to choose: “I love my house, I love my cat, I love my boyfriend.”

Love was seemingly everywhere in the grand domed space, where an overflow crowd of creative luminaries, drag queens, gender-bending guests and fashion stars gathered in scarlet-tinged light for the third iteration of the event, 30 years after the original benefit. Conceived by nightlife empress Susanne Bartsch in 1989 as a response to the devastating AIDS crisis, that pioneering evening brought together the downtown fashion crowd with the uptown ballroom community. (Through its two previous galas in 1989 and 1991, the Love Balls have funded over $2.5 million for programs for those affected by HIV and AIDS.) Now, revived in a partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the evening raised funds for the CFDA-Vogue HIV/AIDS Fund at the New York Community Trust.

“I am nothing without you,” cried Bartsch as she kicked off the night to wild applause in the ballroom in a transparent bodysuit traced with purple frippery. Then she drolly introduced, “the belle of the ball, the master of ceremonies,” and brought Pose star and host for the evening, Billy Porter, onstage. Porter, clad in a yellow trouser suit with a ruffled train by Francis Libiran and a pancake hat from Esenshel, put on sparkly spectacles and roared, “How you all doing?” (He donned six looks during the evening, put together by his stylist Sam Ratelle, who has been working overtime lately).

Spotting Mary J. Blige in the crowd as he name-checked the star guests, he enthused, “I love you so much, I can’t stand it.” Blige has just returned to her role as a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics, a Love Ball III corporate sponsor along with Lyft and Skyy vodka. Spurred on by the Love Ball concept, MAC has dedicated all proceeds from the sale of its Viva Glam lipsticks to the MAC AIDS fund, which turns 25 this year and has raised more than $500 million for the cause.

Also sitting in the crowd were fashion designers Marc Jacobs (with husband Char Defrancesco), Oscar de la Renta’s Fernando Garcia, Jason Wu and David and Phillipe Blonde along with CFDA president and CEO Steven Kolb. Other luminaries included Pose writer, producer and director Janet Mock, photographer Steven Klein, home furnishings designer Jonathan Adler with his husband (author and bon vivant Simon Doonan) and club chanteuse Amanda Lepore.

As guests tucked into a dinner of truffle tater tots, fried chicken and cornbread muffins, a cavalcade of performers competed in a no-holds-barred display of costuming, couture and chutzpah. The six categories included self-made couture, hair art, beauty and face, dancing, performance art and a finale “Xtravaganze” of battling members from legendary ballroom houses. Harlem fashion legend Dapper Dan was on hand to present the winners with towering trophies that were specially designed by artists such as KAWS (also a favorite of Dior’s Kim Jones), street art notable Kenny Scharf and painter Lucy Dodd.

Before everyone made their way out to The Standard’s afterparty and Manhattan’s WorldPride this weekend, Porter closed out the evening on a reflective note by singing his timely new single, “Love Yourself.”