Dressed in flowing ball gowns, period costumes, sequins and latex, more than a thousand drag queens, cross dressers, leather daddies and their friends gathered on April 2 at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel for the 19th Annual Night of a Thousand Gowns, an AIDS fund-raising charity ball.
Since it began nearly two decades ago, the event has raised more than $850,000 for various service organizations; this year’s proceeds benefited LIFEbeat—The Music Industry Fights AIDS. Some headliners included singing sensations Deborah Cox and Martha Wash. Empress XVIII, Trai La Trash passed her crown to her successors, Emperor XIV Tony Monteleone and Empress XIX Robin Kradles.
The Imperial Court is a social fund-raising organization founded in 1965 by José Sarria, the country’s first openly gay political candidate, who set the Court’s standard of “humor, unity and humanitarianism.” In addition to the many New Yorkers attended the event, members of Imperial Courts from Kentucky to California were on hand to represent their local chapters.
“People think this whole drag hullabaloo is nothing but boas and false eyelashes and mascara, when in fact it’s raising thousands and thousands of dollars for great charities, so I tip my hat to the Imperial Court for that,” said journalist and local drag personality Linda Simpson.
This sentiment was echoed throughout the night from those in attendance, many of whom balanced dual agendas of modeling their latest drag couture and doing outreach for their favorite charity.
Annida Greenkard, looking fabulous in a red flamenco snakeskin patterned dress, said, “For me it’s very important for two reasons: I like to target the Latin community and I like to educate people about immigration, especially same-sex couples international couples. We have no rights whatsoever, no resources, nothing. So we need to start making people aware of what happens when we create these families, and then some of these people can’t share a life together, because they get deported, or they don’t have their papers.”
As Martha Wash sang “It’s Raining Men,” in the Grand Ballroom, in the lobby, Baron Luv Leather—a.k.a. Walt Weiss, chairman of the Gay Male S/M Activists—spoke about his work doing personal safety workshops for gay youth.
“It’s great for the gay community to have a lot of fun, but more importantly than that, the Imperial Court of New York has literally raised millions of dollars for AIDS service organizations, youth organizations and others through the years,” said Weiss, who runs a non-profit organization called Teens Prepared for Life. “They love getting dressed up, they love having a good time, but I also think the drag and leather community is often very misunderstood. So this is an evening where they can all come together and everyone has a good time for a good cause.”
Marilyn Monroe impersonator Ricky spoke of his work educating teens about suicide prevention, and Mr. Eagle NYC 2005, Robert Valin, talked about organizations that teach today’s youth about AIDS and the downfalls of using crystal meth.
The Night of a Thousand Gowns drew a diverse crowd, from first-time attendee downtown burlesque performer Dirty Martini to latex-clad dominatrix The Baroness, a ten-year veteran of the event. Dirty Martini, clad in a spiderweb-patterned dress, quipped, “My eyeballs are bleeding, there are so many fabulous gowns and rhinestones! I think charity and glamour go hand in hand.”
Drag queen Milan commented that “the highlight for me was Deborah Cox, but I also really loved the court getting together at the opening, and the ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ number.” Cast members from the hit Broadway show playing at the Marquis Theater in the same Times Square hotel attended to perform a number from their show.
Following the midnight coronation of the new Emperor XIV Tony Monteleone and Empress XIX Robin Kradles, the departing empress, Trai La Trash paused to say, “I just wish them all the best luck and they follow their heart, and serve the community with dignity and pride.”
“I was thrilled and honored to be chosen as emperor, and I hope I can make the city and the Imperial Court proud, and bring more money and awareness about what we do,” said Monteleone.
He also promised to “make the 20th anniversary of Night of a Thousand Gowns even better,” saying, “We are planning an even bigger celebration for next year!”