“I created the Love Ball out of pain,” said Susanne Bartsch, the indefatigable night life promoter.
She was referring to a pioneering AIDS fund-raiser, first held in 1989, that was styled after the vogueing balls that, in those days, were anything but a pop culture phenomenon. “I felt like the fashion community at that point wasn’t outspoken,” Ms. Bartsch added.
It is true that in those grim early days, as the disease scythed through the creative community in New York City, fashion stood mute. That first Love Ball raised $400,000. By the time a second installment came, in 1991, the Love Balls had generated over $2.5 million in the fight against H.I.V. and AIDS.
Just as important, the balls attracted the attention and then the sponsorship of MAC Cosmetics, which, beginning in 1994, dedicated all proceeds from the sale of Viva Glam lipsticks to the MAC AIDS fund. The fund, which turns 25 this year, has raised more than $500 million since its inception.
“This was a grass-roots response to help people marginalized, not only based on sexuality, but on gender or on lifestyle,” said John Demsey, an Estée Lauder executive who oversaw the fund. (Lauder purchased MAC Cosmetics from its original owners in the 1990s.)
Now the Love Ball is back. On June 25, as celebrations kick off for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Ms. Bartsch and her night life legions will lay siege to Gotham Hall with a party that will benefit the C.F.D.A.-Vogue Initiative/New York City AIDS Fund of the New York Community Trust.
The storied houses of Mugler, Balenciaga, Ebony, Mizrahi and Extravaganza are expected. Billy Porter, a star of “Pose,” will be the M.C. and contestants like Boychild and Violet Chachki, the incomparable drag eminence, will vie for an opportunity to be read-to-filth by celebrity judges in categories like Showstopper, Hair Spectacular and Face.
Among those judging the Face category is Mary J. Blige, 48, who also returns as a MAC spokeswoman, a role she filled twice before in 2000 and 2002. “I haven’t been to a ball for years,” Ms. Blige said, in an interview edited and condensed below. “But I’ve been watching ‘Pose,’ and I know what a judge does.”
Q. Growing up in Yonkers in the ’80s, did you have firsthand experience of the devastations of H.I.V./AIDS in the days before it was considered treatable?
A. I had a couple of out gay friends then, and they were all having conversations about not wanting it to affect them. But it was definitely affecting the Latino and the African-American community hard at the time. Crack was big and AIDS was big.
We tend now to forget the stigma of the pandemic in its early days, and the courage it took to speak out, even for celebrities such as yourself.
There’s so many strong people in the world living with H.I.V./AIDS, just living everyday life. I relate to that because it’s the story of my life, living through the peaks and the valleys. I’ve been falling since I was born. But then I rise.
And hasn’t that been a career thematic, given your struggles with alcohol and drugs and your publicly dramatic divorce?
When you fall hard in public, you also have a bigger responsibility to be an example. You realize there is some little boy or girl out there wondering, “Will she come out of it? Will she get up?” You definitely have to hunker down. It’s when you’re in that valley that you find out what you’re made of.
That seems similar to the survival lessons exemplified by the ball children, many of whom were taken in by “mothers” or “fathers” of these ad hoc houses when their own parents kicked them out.
We’re all looking for courage because we’re all so afraid.
We’re afraid to do what we couldn’t do in the first place, which is to love ourselves.
Isn’t that the famous RuPaul message? “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
When you grow up hearing, “You’re not this, you’re not that,” like I did, when you’ve been beaten down by someone who loves you, you go through hell to survive it. But you also develop strengths you don’t even understand.
What do you mean?
It took me a long time to realize it’s not about what you think about me. It’s what I believe. It takes courage to look deep inside yourself.
It never occurred to me before, but isn’t that to some extent the message of the balls themselves, including the Love Ball?
A long time ago, I went and performed at one of these things in New York. I haven’t been to one for years, but I’ve been watching “Pose,” and it was so beautiful to me to see how one person becomes the “mother,” and how, when everybody is hurting at the same time, you have to teach each other survival skills. You have to develop strength and a thick skin, but at the same time make sure it doesn’t turn into bitterness.
You have to go inside yourself?
It’s easy to be negative. At a time in my life, I was skeptical about everyone and everything. But that’s not who I really am.
And who would you say are you?
I am Mary Jane Blige, child of Thomas and Cora Blige. I am someone who always had an open, beautiful heart, always wanted people to have the best of everything. I’m a team player, a good friend, a good sibling and a human who is going to make mistakes. I want to see the best in myself and believe the best of others.
By Guy Trebay