When it comes to celebration, where there’s a will, there’s a way. In the time of the Great Depression, potlucks enabled financially-strapped families to host dinner parties and during the Blitz, groups gathered in underground bunkers dressed up for a Christmas supper. Thursday night’s Zoomtopia, Zoom’s first-ever charity gala, proved that a pandemic was not going to stop a party. Especially one for a good cause.
For the social set equipped with the pockets for philanthropy and the wardrobes for black tie, New York in the springtime is synonymous with gala season. Just as the tulip buds begin to flash their brilliance down the medians of Park Avenue, invitations and donation cards come pouring in for the School of American Ballet’s Winter Ball, the Frick’s Young Fellows Ball, the Tribeca Ball, Save Venice, and more. For weeks, gala-goers plot arrivals, ensembles, and photo ops within this city’s many houses of culture. It’s all in the name of a good time and a good cause—on any one of these nights, several million dollars can be fundraised.
But as the world grapples with COVID-19 and life-saving shelter in place measures are instituted, the social calendar has been, of course, wiped clean.
For young New Yorkers, Larry and Toby Milstein, this didn’t have to mean an end to philanthropic get-togethers. As siblings who often lend their names to charitable causes, this was a time to re-think how a gala could be adapted for the virtual, socially distanced world. And thus, Zoomtopia was born.
On Thursday night at 6:00 pm EDT sharp, about 200 guests joined a Zoom video call that had all the trimmings of a real-life ball; there was a well-designed invitation, a guest list, performances, signature cocktails, a host committee, and charity—100 percent of ticket sales went directly to World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund and the International Medical Corps.
Hours before the event, I spoke with the Milsteins from their family’s Long Island home (which in the summers, hosts a Millennial Pink Party to benefit Planned Parenthood). “We really wanted to not only host a Zoom get together but a fundraising event,” said Toby, who’s currently using the video software to complete her MBA at Columbia University. “We thought that this would be an amazing way to gather musicians, all of our friends, and people who really care about supporting these causes.” Of the specific charities, Larry added, “We were unified in wanting to support causes that work directly to offset the harms of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With their digital savvy (Larry is the co-founder of Gen-Z marketing company PRZM), the entire affair took but a week to plan. Friendly with the talent managers of musicians Anna of the North and Cheat Codes (the band who joined Demi Lovato in her I-know-you-know-it hit “No Promises”), Toby organized a live performance from both. Next, DJ Ty Sunderland joined the program as did bartender Pam Wiznitzer, who was asked to host a mixology lesson.
“This is kind of uncharted territory, so we’re trying to innovate in the constraints that we have and figure out how to make Zoomtopia feel like an occasion people are a part of together,” explains Larry, “and to try and transpose the environment of an event into the virtual space.”
Once the lineup was secured, it was time to sell tickets. The siblings called upon their like-minded friends and organized a host committee of 37 individuals that included Athena Calderone, Claire Distenfeld, Casey Fremont, Shantell Martin, Paul Arnhold, Timo Weiland, Zach Weiss, and yours truly, among others to help get the word out about Zoomtopia.
The event was open to the public and could be attended in exchange for a donation of $25 or more. Per Zoom regulations, ticket sales were capped at 200. And just like that, within 48 hours, the event was sold out.
At the appointed hour, I was sitting at the vanity table in my bedroom dressed in a pink chiffon robe. The whole scene looked very Hollywood regency screen siren in her boudoir— "Splendid," I thought to myself, I had followed dress code per the invitation’s "Wear what makes you happy." In one hand, I clutched a homemade Negroni and in the other, my cell phone. Having spent four, company-starved weeks alone in my apartment, I was more than ready.
I logged into Zoom and arrived to the tunes of DJ Ty Sunderland. I was instantly struck by the punctuality of my fellow partygoers; apparently being fashionably late hasn't caught on yet in the virtual world. For reference, during Fashion Week, it’s common practice to take the start of a cocktail party, add an hour and a half, and show up any time after that. But minutes in, the group had mushroomed to reach its 200-person cap.
It was a riot to whizz through the population of faces to spot the many I knew. All the usual social suspects had turned up but instead of updos and freshly-shaved husbands on their arms, there were messy buns and confused puppy plus-ones. If there was a dance floor, Timo Weiland was most certainly the first on it and Casey Fremont and her two tiny tots soon joined him there. All the while, Paul Arnhold and his husband Wes Gordon looked onto their screens with amusement. Behind some partygoers were virtual faux-backdrops that transported onlookers to sun-dappled beaches, others were actually at a beach.
“Welcome to our first Zoomtopia!” announced Toby and Larry. The ground rules then followed. The event’s performers would be highlighted (in Zoom speak, this means they’re the largest of the Brady Brunch-style grid of faces) but like a Jumbotron at a sports arena, enthusiastic dancers would get their 15 seconds of fame. And though everyone would remain on mute (unless it was time for a round of applause) guests could chat with one another via Zoom messages.
While chair dancing to the DJ set, I furiously snapped photos of my computer screen when my bobbing head appeared next to a friend's. I instantly texted them the image. (Was this the Zoomtopia equivalent of a seflie?) After acquainting myself with the group, I began reading the messages that arrived as rapidly as those evaporating hearts in an IGTV stream. Alongside the great moves! and I miss you! declarations, came the more entertaining Hey, are you single? queries. This party was beginning to find it’s groove!
First entertainer of the night was Anna of the North, who logged in from her home in Oslo despite the time difference. Guitar in her lap, a smile appeared on her singing lips as she read the encouraging messages coming through. At the close of each song, Larry, playing the role of maestro in Zoomtopia’s orchestration, timed the mutes perfectly—the gala’s collective whoops and applause could be heard at exactly the right time.
Next up was award-winning mixologist Pamela Wiznitzer, who taught the group how to make sophisticated renditions of a Moscow Mule (made with Official Maestro Dobel Tequila) and sangria. Some followed along, others sipped from the tumblers and flutes that fizzed with their own concoctions. I was still on my Negroni, enjoying watching the flash of orange on the screen each time I raised my glass.
A final performance was given by Cheat Codes, who Zoomed in from L.A. and sang acoustic versions of his hits. Gala-goers eager for that Jumbotron attention melodramatically sung along to the music, amping up the theatrics if they were chosen. Cheat Codes ended his performance by sharing a new, not-yet-released, song. No one had heard it yet, “so no one here leak it!” he joked.
The event’s hour and a half was coming to a close. At this point, many formerly still bodies were now engaged in a full-on dance party, one attendee donned a Panda head, and another was seen out on a deck, looking out to somewhere, dancing with an opened umbrella as a partner. Turns out, one did not need a date to enjoy themselves at this gala.
As editor of our party section, a usual week unfolds like a kaleidoscope revolving with vintage cocktail dresses (feathers! paillettes! tulle!) Champagne toasts, Uber rides, and double kisses with the very best of my party-circuit friends. I couldn’t precisely tell you how many galas I’ve attended but it’s enough to know when I come across something very special—and few events have been as heartfelt as Zoomtopia.
The party went on without any of the pomp and circumstance expected of a gala, no one was vying for an Instagram or best dressed. Instead, attendees showed up with a smile on their face and absolutely no expectations; being a part of something, even if it was just for 90 minutes, was enough. While some Brady Bunch boxes revealed dancing couples or families, others showcased stag guests—people who, just like me, have been enduring this isolation in total isolation. Waving goodbye to the computer pixels that formed the faces of my friends, it felt that the time I had just shared with them was somehow more valuable than any of the preceding minutes, hours, and days that had made up our friendships.
The next morning, I received an email from the Milsteins letting me know that the money raised exceeded $20,000 and more was still coming in (the Venmo handle @Zoomtopia is still accepting donations). And while we’re crunching numbers, it’s worth noting that Zoomtopia cost nothing to put on. Turns out, you don’t need money to make money, or in this case, raise it for an incredibly good cause.
Originally Appeared on Vogue