This year, New Times received an press pass to the Blacks' Annual Gala, one of the ritziest events in the Miami Beach social calendar. Now, why New Times would receive such an invitation remains a bit of a mystery. It's not exactly known as a paper that pays loving homage to the wealthier classes; I've personally been responsible for describing event creator Lea Black's part-time reality TV profession as "...one of the harbingers of doom for Western Civilization." These aren't the sort of things that tend to earn you a $650 evening of wining and dining amidst Miami's aristocracy at the Fontainebleau. The situation was suspect, but the deed needed doing.
Early in the evening, there was a distinctive buzz about the salon next to the red carpet, where members of the reporting community were salivating in wait for the celebrities to show up. They milled around in agitated excitement with credentials hanging from their necks and a look of hunger in their eyes that was deeply unsettling.
I got a chance to meet Roy Black, Lea's husband, but before we could get past introductions, another reporter had descended on him in a frenzied tone of anxiety. Her passes to cover the gala, her first story, were somehow insufficient. As Black began to sympathize, the girl's mother swooped in like a bat wearing PINK brand sweatpants and began rambling about how many calamities the renowned attorney must have overcome to reach his place in life. Black made a move to flee, but the women persisted. Eventually, he arranged for them both to have seats inside.
I'd heard that the Blacks were having trouble filling the room this year, with an unprecedented amount of empty seats in the days before the Gala. Perhaps these two fortunate ladies were experiencing a very pragmatic kind of generosity by a man who knew precisely how much better a seat full of fodder looked than a seat full of air. Perhaps my invitation was the result of the same pragmatic thinking.
The atmosphere around the carpet quickly became exquisitely odd. As soon as the frothing press began crawling over one another to get the best angle of approaching philanthropists and former boy band members, throwing elbows and hateful glances, casual passers-by began joining the mob and a very serious colliding of strata started to unfold. Fearful coordinators in grey gowns were gripped by the wretched impossibility of keeping hordes of drunken wanderers wearing chlorine-soaked sorority shirts at bay.
The dull roar reached its zenith when Taylor Hicks and Lance Bass arrived around the same time. Hicks made sure to remind everyone why he was semi-famous, pulling out his harmonica several times and wailing on the jazz harp.
Bass stood out as the only person who looked younger than he did five years ago without a face entirely held together with silicon, plastic, and Botox. Speaking of botulinum, Lea Black played the gracious host for the cameras, ferrying these forlorn celebrities back and forth with a perpetual look of pleased surprise on her alchemically preserved face.
In the foyer adjacent to the main ballroom, the bar, it seemed, had become a vortex. The bartenders on all four sides of their corral of folding tables danced around an ice sculpture of a glorified goose, as chiffon-draped, fluorescent-sequinned women and men in quiet funerary suits twisted their way into a whirlwind of alcohol-fueled fraternization.
I walked the room and took in the ambiance. One line of conversation that I heard in passing: "...his blood is like a 25-year-old's. We need him."
A man accosted me as I waited for my refill and began spewing gibberish about how many people there were. "These lines are killing me! We gotta do something about these lines..."
"We could slip something into the drinks," I responded. "That'll take care of these damnable lines." He agreed absentmindedly and took his leave.
The auction was going to start soon, and food was beginning to appear inside the ballroom. On my way to designated press table #10, I came across two towering figures standing next to one another. One was Dennis Rodman; the other was a giant glittering transvestite. Individually, they drew more attention from partygoers than Lance Bass and Taylor Hicks combined. There was something thoroughly comforting about this.
As the projectors rolled moving footage of children that the Blacks and their Consequences Charity & Foundation have helped, the scores of empty chairs around the hall began to weigh heavily on my mind. Where were the dozens of movers and shakers that decided not to come this year? Even DJ Irie, who was to be headlining with Flo Rida and donating his performance, hadn't shown up.
Lea Black made her way to the stage to begin the auction. The next 35 minutes were a bit of a train wreck. From a Hublot watch covered in semi-precious stones, to a lease on a new Land Rover, to paid private cruise to the Cayman Islands, every item that the Blacks auctioned off sold for less than their starting bid or just above it.
A portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Dick Zimmerman, whose paintings have a supposed retail value of $125,000 dollars, was set to have the bidding begin at $25,000. It sold for $18,000. The action was so slow that Black, whose voice was metallic and tinged with desperation, said "-- I might as well shoot myself..." during a painfully stammering sale. I hadn't come to this Gala expecting to feel sorry for the Blacks for any want of money, so the feeling that washed over me was a surprising one.
The auction came to its grinding conclusion around 10:30 p.m. Flo Rida joined DJ Troubles after a little while and gave a short performance that could be described as less than riveting. By 11:15 p.m., the ballroom was all but empty, with only the terminally drunk and the relatively confused, like myself, left behind.
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The Blacks had made a quick exit and I was left with a number of questions, the most pressing being, 'What happened?' I asked Mary Frances Turner and her fiancee, Russel Sherrill, who both felt the evening was a bang success.
"Ooo, it was fantastic! 10 thumbs up!" exclaimed Turner. When I noted that I'd expected the evening to last three or four hours longer, Sherrill quickly responded, "Yes, well it usually does last much later. They've had more performances in the past..." Ms. Turner jumped in mid-sentence: "-- and dancing and more music! Pitbull was here. Last year we adjourned to the disco. I don't know what's going on this year."
The empty ballroom, the desperate onlookers, the under-sold auction items and the children they were supposed to help -- It was a sad night, and the wrong people would wind up getting the shaft for it. Unexpectedly, New Times' first ritzy soiree was a depressing one, ruined all at once by too many and too few assholes in attendance.