Naomi Campbell is chastising the crowd at Hong Kong's first amfAR gala. “We're talking...” she admonishes, and the room goes as silent as a room of 500 party attendees can go, gown-adorned figures scurrying into seats. She's accomplished what two commanding announcements over the PA system have failed to do – namely, gather the rapt attention of the room.
This power – the power to capture attention in our notoriously attention-deficit generation – is precisely what amfAR wishes to harness from stars like Campbell. The organisation, originally founded as the American Foundation for Aids Research but now known simply as the Foundation for Aids Research to reflect a more global outlook, has taken a somewhat unglamorous cause and dressed it up for fund-raising and awareness purposes, pulling together Hollywood's biggest stars for the world's fanciest and most well-attended galas.
This year marks amfAR's first-ever soirée in Asia, and Campbell, who along with Wyman Wong is emceeing the event, wants our attention to introduce amfAR's chairman of the board since 2005, Kenneth Cole. Cole is quick to highlight and thank the organisation's celebrity supporters, none of whom are one-off participants – there's Kate Moss, who will chair amfAR's Sao Paolo event in April; Robin Thicke, who “brought everyone to their feet at our gala in Cannes” last year; new United Nations Aids ambassador Victoria Beckham; and Gwyneth Paltrow, the host for the evening, reprising her duties from amfAR's Inspiration Gala in New York in February.
The motivation behind all this mention of star wattage is but one: to shine light on the cause of the evening, the cause for which guests forked out some HK$300,000 a table to support. Cole takes advantage of the eyeballs on him, which includes business people, local stars, socialites and no small number of international art-world luminaries in Hong Kong for the annual Art Basel fair, to push notice of amfAR's Treat Asia programme, a network of clinics, hospitals and research institutions that work to deliver HIV treatments to affected individuals across the continent.
“I've made trips in the last few years to China, Thailand, Cambodia, trying to understand the plight of HIV in this region,” he says. “And when you get to talk to the doctors and researchers and the healthcare workers in the front lines, and you see some of these kids –­ many of whom are living with HIV or are orphaned by HIV/Aids ­– with a full sense of life and purpose, it just takes on a whole new meaning, and you know why you're doing what you're doing, and you understand amfAR's accomplishment in Treat Asia – 37 sites, 12 different Asian countries.”
And as there is an auction coming up, Cole throws in some figures that prove that the organisation puts its money where its mouth is. “Four of the six drugs that are keeping millions of people alive today have roots in amfAR funding ... At amfAR we are committed to finding that cure, and we are confident that it will happen by the year 2020.”
We're not curing cancer, so the saying goes – but if Cole is right, then we could contribute to curing Aids.
And so, after honouring Humanitarian Award recipient Michelle Yeoh, an amfAR ambassador for over a decade who is also a patron of local awareness outfit AIDS Concern, the stage is given over to auctioneer Simon de Pury, his familiar frantic, raspy voice thundering across the venue as he exuberantly goads attendees into raising those paddles again and again.
If the guest list is a who's who of Hollywood superstars, the auction roster is a treasure trove of equal proportions. “I want to see all the auctions,” says Wendi Deng-Murdoch, another one of the event's chairpersons. “It will be interesting. One of my great friend's an artist, Jia Aili, and has a beautiful piece.” That lot, an oil painting titled Friend, is the most expensive lot, going for US$550,000. Alex Prager and Joana Vasconcelos, both present at the gala, also have works on the block. Event sponsor Harry Winston has offered up a Forget-Me-Not necklace featuring 17 carats of diamonds, which eventually sells at US$140,000. A Mr Brainwash print featuring the likeness of Kate Moss ends up fetching US$130,000, with the British supermodel joining her canvas doppelganger on stage and offering to autograph the specimen for the lucky winner. A surprise package is a seat at Leonard DiCaprio's table at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation benefit event in St Tropez this summer, which sells for US$250,000 – four times over, as members of the audience, including billionaire collector Budi Tek, who has already picked up the Prager photograph for US$60,000, jostle for the prize. De Pury secures permission to sell the lot to more than one bidder, and DiCaprio, though not present this evening, finds himself very rich in company indeed.
Organisers later report that the auction alone contributes some US$2 million for the cause, a number that pleases co-chairs such as Emily Lam-Ho. “The world needs a cure for HIV, not just a treatment, and by the success of the gala it's evident that many of us do care. From the amount we raised, I know we are much closer to that goal,” she says.
Another US$2 million and change has been raised from table sales for the evening, which has amfAR CEO Kevin Frost grinning from ear to ear as well. “This event sold out faster than any event we've ever done. The Hong Kong community responded so fast to this, and part of that is the leadership of people like [gala event chair] Pansy Ho, but I'm telling you that it sold out so fast. It was amazing to us because there was this outpouring of support from the Hong Kong community that we did not expect. I mean, we didn't know, we'd never been here before. We're a little overwhelmed by it, to be honest. We want to be here every year; we want to make this an annual event. And this is one great looking crowd.”
He's right about that – Paltrow, Campbell and Moss are all clad in gowns by sponsor Marc Jacobs, with jewels by Harry Winston. Beckham, naturally, sports her own design – a structural white number that ends at the ankles. Carina Lau is the envy of stars and socialites alike in a coral long-sleeved silk Schiaparelli sheath featuring handprints on the back (Beckham, in fact, shares a photo of this “best dress” on her Instagram account, which garners over 60,000 likes). For her big night, Yeoh falls back on her preferred red-carpet maestro Elie Saab, with an embellished one-shoulder gown in emerald.
The fashion is impressive, but practical. None of the floor-sweeping gowns feature giant trains – all the better to boogie in, when Robin Thicke takes to the stage. Legal issues are clearly far from his mind as he launches into an energetic set of five songs, including “Magic”, “Give It 2 U” and that controversial hit single, “Blurred Lines”. He's playing the piano. He's standing on the piano. He's run into the main floor with the guests. He's on his knees, head thrown back, hand gripped around the microphone. When his performance ends, it's not nearly enough for the audience, which filters quickly into an adjacent soundstage for the official after-party. DJ Fat Tony is on the decks, though he later tags in Kate Moss, introducing the supermodel as “DJ Fat Moss”.
Fat Moss's flight may only have landed at 2.30pm that afternoon, but she gamely takes over the playlist. Charity doyenne Cathy Lee, a goodwill ambassador for the Chi Heng Foundation for the better part of the last decade, has clearly been inspired. “AmfAR means making the impossible possible; amfAR means making the hopeless hopeful again; amfAR means making Aids history!” she cheers.