Nearly a thousand guests gathered at the Marriot Marquis on the evening of March 31 for the 26th annual Night of a Thousand Gowns, a charity ball that raised an estimated $350,000 for PFLAG NYC, the flagship chapter of the national organization, and New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, volunteers and professionals working to increase self-sufficiency among that population.
Celebrities, including figure skating champion Johnny Weir, comic Lisa Lampanelli, and Z100 Radio host Elvis Duran, were on hand to see the coronation of incoming Emperor XXI Ritz Kraka and Empress XXVI Witti Repartee, now the reigning monarchs of the Imperial Court of New York (ICNY).
“It was a magical night,” said Repartee. “Seeing nearly a thousand people gathered to celebrate the reign of our predecessors was only the beginning. Our own coronation walks were dreams come true, and we look forward to serving our community with style, panache, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun.”
Among the evening’s honorees were fashion photographer Mike Ruiz, who was presented with the Imperial Diamond Award. Ruiz, who said he has donated his art to the event for the past several years, shot a stunning portrait of ICNY’s outgoing royalty, Emperor XX Vanity Society and Empress XXV Pepperica Swirl. The photographer has also donated book proceeds to Gay Men’s Health Crisis and made T-shirts for the Ali Forney Center, which provides services and housing to homeless queer youth.
“I always integrate philanthropic stuff into my work,” he said. “It’s great to find a way to use what I do to benefit the community. I found that the organizations that resonate most with me are those who help LGBT youth, because I struggled with it in my youth. That’s why I do what I do, so these kids won’t have to feel ostracized by the community, hate themselves, or go on to struggle with self-esteem issues their whole lives.”
Empress Nicole Murray-Ramirez of San Diego was crowned Ruiz Prince of the Americas, and he said being allowed to walk in the evening’s royal procession, in acknowledgement of work he feels is his responsibility as a gay adult, felt as surreal as winning an Academy Award.
The evening’s festivities kicked off with a stunning musical number featuring members of the Imperial Court.
“Not only is it wonderful — I mean, the opening number was ‘Welcome to Wonderland’ — but it’s like the doors open and you’re in the Land of Oz,” said pianist Jacqueline Jonée, a longtime ICNY member. “It’s so creative and loving, and everyone’s welcome. It puts a very glamorous face on the gay community and makes us very visible for all the causes we support through fundraising.”
The highlight of the evening for Jonée was her participation in the Millennium Walk, featuring members of the Gay Men’s Chorus with Empress Repartee.
Honored with the Presidents Award for her 18 years of choreographing the show’s opening numbers was Empress X Ran-Dee, among the group’s earliest monarchs.
The event included both live and silent auctions. The live auction featured a bottle of five-year-old Giorgio G XO Cognac, four grandstand seats at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and two orchestra tickets to the Tony Awards. The silent auction items included “One Life to Live” star Robin Strasser’s jacket, purse, and shoes, a selection of sweets from Li-Lac Chocolates, and signed posters from Bernadette Peters in her “Annie Get Your Gun” role, as well as from Willy Mays, Kevin Costner, Jeremy Lin, and Billy Joel.
Lady Detoxx Busti-ae, a former ICNY volunteer, was present in full regalia for her first year as a member of the Imperial Court of New York.
“The most important thing about the Court is that they give back to the LGBT youth community,” said Busti-ae. “I’m a part of that community — the next generation — and I feel like they care about us. All the money they raise goes right back to charity.”
Singer Ari Gold echoed this sentiment, saying it was his favorite charity event of the year, “not only because of all the glitz and glamour, but because it really feels like the community comes together. Having the support of our own parents just may be the best way to give self-esteem to gay kids, and PFLAG has been working tirelessly for many years to help parents understand their gay kids.”
Entertainment for the evening included Empress X Ariel Gibbs Devereaux of Massachusetts, who performed Stephanie Mills’ “Home,” before moving into J Lo’s “On the Floor.” Donning a black sequin suit, singer Adam Barta led his leather-clad troupe in a dance performance, and transgender artist Ebonee Excell performed a medley of Whitney Houston songs, starting with “I’m Every Woman,” segueing into “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” and ending with “I Will Always Love You.”
After an intermission in which the audience took to the stage to dance to a set spun by DJ Johnny Dynell, Duran performed, followed by insult comic Lampanelli, whose 20-minute set kept the crowd laughing with jokes better heard than printed. Amra-Faye Wright was joined by her fellow “Chicago” cast members as she sung her heart out during the dessert buffet.
Meeting Lampanelli was the highlight of the evening for Miss’d America Sabel Scities, who earned her crown in Atlantic City in January.
“We get to dress up, we get to give back to our community, we get to meet people from all over the world and see how they do it differently,” Scities said. “And so if I can learn anything from anyone else here while having a good time and looking good, why not?”
Skater Weir and Village Voice nightlife columnist Michael Musto were among those knighted at the ball.
“It’s wonderful to be honored by the Imperial Court, but tonight is all about PFLAG and raising funds to keep our gay youth safe,” said Weir. “We get to dress up and look fabulous and have fun, and at the same time show these kids that we care so much about them.”
Showing off his knight’s medallion, Musto said, “I feel like the Cowardly Lion being told, ‘You had courage all the time, you just need to wear this. I got to kneel down for the first time in a long time, and then I was knighted by Pepperica and Vanity. I always ask my friends to call me Sir, so now it’s official.” Musto said that Night of a Thousand Gowns’ long history always made it an especially moving evening for him.
“This organization was founded in the early days, when we were really at the back of the bus,” he said. “So the community said we’re going to name each other royalty, because everyone else is treating us like dirt. And it’s just a beautiful thing, because we are queens and empresses and duchesses and knights. We all give each other the right to do that.”
Guests traveled from near and far for the annual charitable bash. Lady GoGo of the Imperial Court of Boston was at the event for her first time, modeling couture created for the drag cabaret troupe Fresh Fruit.
And Emperor VIII Justen Tyme of Massachusetts, resplendent in a brocade and velvet tuxedo made by his Empress VI Paris-Idean, was in attendance for the fourth time to help raise funds for the gay community.
“It’s so good for gay people to help other gay people, especially young gays,” said Tyme. “If they can see us like this, then when they’re at school and people bully them, they can know there’s a place where everyone can fit in. I think that effeminate young men and butch young women will see it as an inspiration.”