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Last Friday night, after another day of bad news for the market, 580 undeterred revelers traveled to McLean, Va., to attend the $2,500 a seat YouthAIDS Gala at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The party is one of Washington’s most celebrity-obsessed events, with recent attendees like Bono, Desmond Tutu and Dave Mathews. This year’s theme, “The Power of Music,” paid tribute to three celebrities who opened the way for other service-minded celebrities: MTV CEO Judy McGrath, Annie Lennox (who couldn’t attend because of a back injury) and Bob Geldof, the British Musician who raised tens of millions of dollars for AIDS, and resuscitated his foundering rock career, with Live Aid in 1985.
“The Celebrity Solution,” as the New York Times recently called it, has become an industry in itself in the decades since Geldof first lambasted television viewers to “just give us the fucking money.” There are more than twice as many charities today, all competing for shrinking pots of money, and desperate for ways to put their cause ahead of the rest. There are online databases of celebrities and the charities they represent, and at least one nonprofit dedicated to helping celebrities hook up with the right charity. Some groups, including YouthAIDS, have had to turn away stars calling to offer their services.
YouthAIDS’s founder Kate Roberts, a British-born marketer who got her start selling cigarettes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, has fully realized the potential of using other peoples’ fame to promote a good cause. Her organization, which serves as the promotional arm of the charity Population Services International, has raised millions of dollars, generated billions of media impressions (they counted) and made Roberts into something of a celebrity herself. But her biggest accomplishment is her relationship with Ashley Judd, YouthAIDS’s Global Ambassador and all around oddball.
Judd’s has a reputation for her vocabulary—she reportedly learns a new word a day—and space-cadet tangents. Her keynote address at Friday’s gala did not disappoint. Judd explained how traveling with YouthAIDS changed her life (and rocked her soul). She’d made a “sacred commitment” to “speak truth to power…It is my pact with the god of my understanding.” Sweet and self-deprecating, the star admitted she had worked late into the night trying to compose her speech. Sitting in her farmhouse, “with the first autumnal fire crackling,” she agonized over how to talk about her most recent travels as YouthAIDS global ambassador. Then inspiration hit. “I couldn’t tell you about Rwanda or the DRC,” she said. The experience was too awful. She realized she had to begin at the end, with “The Calamity of Coming Home,” as she titled the entry in her diary.
It all began at JFK airport, where an attendant took issue with the way Judd handed over her baggage slip, or some such piece of paper. “Are you the Ashley Judd?” the woman sneered. Judd says she was only able to contain her fury by looking for somewhere to go lay her head and sob. The suffering in Africa was still to fresh for her to care about a rude American. Later, walking along the path to her home, Judd says the dogs greeted her one by one because, “They knew my tender heart couldn’t stand to see them all at once.”
She stumbled into her house and was overwhelmed with the terrible contrast between life in America, a life “untouched by civil strife,” and the misery she had witnessed in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She counted her faucets, all six with hot and cold running water, and obsessed guiltily over a plastic cereal dispenser her housekeeper had purchased to hide the cornflakes from those “pesky pantry pets.” The contrast was too much.
“”I thought about Astrid, a tiny starving toddler whose dress hung slack from her frame.” she said. Astird was “grasping” a feeding bottle from UNICEF “with the fury and rage that only the starving can understand.”
Judd’s fugue persisted for days. Finally, she sought the advice her family doctor, who diagnosed a case of “reverse culture shock.” But Judd still suffered. “I knew I did have some trauma,” she says. So she went to a psychiatrist who specialized in something called EMDR. They decided her trauma came from seeing genocide memorials. A few tears and rounds of treatment later, Judd said it will still take time for her to heal.
Meanwhile, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews had his closed his eyes, either concentrating or napping, I wouldn’t want to say. Around him, other guests were finishing a meal that included a beet and goat cheese napoleon, fillet Mignon and something called “Chocolate Graffiti.” There was a silent auction, and a loud live auction, and a performance by John Mellencamp.
After collecting rather light swag bags (mini Luna energy bars, Kiehl’s products, airplane bottles of Jim Beam), guests trudged downstairs for an after party in “The Band’s Suit,” a smallish hall made up like a trashed hotel room, with a few too many electric guitars, empty pizza boxes and, hanging from the chandeliers, fancy lingerie. A tiny young model in a French maid costume pushed an ancient vacuum cleaner while the band, several skinny models in chains and tight black denim, wandered around looking cool. I met one of them earlier in the hallway—he’s an undergrad studying engineering at Virginia Tech—and he told me they were trying to figure out what to do with the guitars, since none of them knew how to play.
I approached a paunchy man holding two white paper shopping bags. I asked him what he won at the auction, and he opened a bag to reveal what looked like a vinyl record melted into the shape of a giant taco salad bowl. “Some vase my wife bought,” he said. She paid several hundred dollars. Just then, his wife wandered over, grinning over a plate of tiny hot dogs scored from the steam trays by the door. She never eats during the day before a gala— they attend two or three a month from fall through spring—so she can fill up on all the fancy food.
I asked if they attended the parties to stay in the in-crowd and they agreed the galas are a social obligation, but one they enjoy. They also make good financial sense. Like many wealthy couples, the husband and wife, who did not want their names used, put their “excess income” in a trust. They have to spend 5 percent of the total each year “or the IRS will snatch it,” the wife said. “You can either give it away, or give it away and go to parties.”
This year’s gala raised $1.2 million, down a bit from the $1.5 million raised last year. Kate Roberts told the audience the money would save 120,000 young lives. “Everyone can get involved to save lives,” she said, transforming the room full of diners into a room full of healers. When I asked a communications staffer what metric they used to convert dollars into lives, she explained that $10 could educate and protect a child for a whole year.
I took many terrible photos. This is a very meta shot of Anna Kournikova taking a photo of celebrities on the stage.