On the Catwalk

Telluride AIDS Benefit Hits the Mark
By Patrick Healy

On the catwalk
On the catwalk

People will do anything for the Telluride AIDS Benefit. Just ask Sue Hobby. Fifteen years ago, she ran errands, made phone calls and did a thousand other grunt jobs for the first benefit. She has run the fashion show and sat on the board of directors. But Hobby’s most memorable role came during last February’s fashion show, when the woman who won’t even wear shorts in summer strutted onto the runway, wearing nothing but brightly colored body paint.

The standing-room-only crowd went nuts. “You can work your ass off in this town for a decade, and then you take your clothes off and suddenly people love you,” said Hobby. (Oddly enough, John Updike once made a similar observation.)

Few things in Telluride have united so many people for so many years as the annual Telluride AIDS Benefit (TAB). What began in 1994 with a comedy show and outdoor dance-a-thon has blossomed into the town’s largest and most bombastic fundraiser, one that’s netted more than $1 million over the years and drawn hundreds of disparate volunteers to model, design or donate clothes, raise money, set up the stage or tear tickets at the ultra-popular fashion show.

Who in this town hasn’t strutted down the stage or helped apply makeup, attended the fashion show or bought artwork—all to benefit the benefit? Some people get involved for a year. Others make a lifetime commitment—usually without pay—to the event.

Unlike the Valley Floor or presidential elections, TAB touches Telluriders and tourists from all political sectors. The cause binds skiers and snowboarders, bikers and hikers, longtime locals and people who are here for just one winter. You don’t need training or supermodel cheekbones to be a part of it. You just need to care a little about other people. “It’s the ultimate locals’ event,” said Ron Gilmer, one of the benfit’s founders.

Last February, the Telluride Conference Center was stuffed to capacity for the sneak-peek fashion show, a performance that draws loads of locals who snap cell-phone pictures while they cheer on their friends marching down the runway past the screaming crowd. Backstage, models were squeezing into their first outfits and adjusting crayola-colored confections of wigs perched on their heads. In the auditorium, crews were checking the sound and ushers were ferrying latecomers into the room. And then, a little after eight on that Thursday night, the lights dropped, the first model sauntered onstage to greet the crowd, and two hours of sheer, uninterrupted pandemonium ensued.

Models of every shape and age strutted and cartwheeled onto the runway. They came out in tight red-leather poofy ski coats, retro flowery dresses, planetary costumes and a dress made entirely of Post-It Notes. They came out dancing like flappers and backflipping like gymnasts. Male models, jaws set like cement, came out in suits and, later, in Speedos. Models whipped the crowd into a frenzy under the stage lights and strobes, swiveling their hips to hip-hop, jazz beats, Britney Spears and more.

The fashion show is an exultation for the models and crowd. And for the people who have been with TAB from the beginning, it’s an astonishment to see how much the event has grown over 15 years.

Like most good things, it began in a bar. It was 1994 at the New Sheridan, and local actress Kandee DeGraw was talking with Robert Presley—a Tellurider who designed exotic costumes, acted with the Telluride Repertory Theatre Company, and had tested positive for HIV seven years earlier. Presley had recently been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and his medical bills were mounting with every trip to Denver and every $150 or $900 prescription. DeGraw suggested a benefit to help Presley—who was Gilmer’s partner—but Presley told her to direct the money elsewhere. “Don’t do it for me,” he told her. “Do a benefit for the Western Colorado AIDS Project.”

So they did. That first year, locals performed a capella numbers, held a dance-a-thon in Elks Park, and produced a comedy show at the Sheridan Opera House. They convened panel discussions about the disease and its shadow over America. AIDS wasn’t some foreign phenomenon back then: Ryan White had died in 1990, Magic Johnson announced his HIV status in 1991, and Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On had been in print since 1987.

Yet people called DeGraw to criticize her for organizing an AIDS awareness fundraiser. Now, newspaper articles from the first AIDS benefit take pains to remind readers what seems so fundamental: that the human immunodeficiency virus is transmitted primarily through blood, semen or vaginal fluid; that it doesn’t discriminate against sexual orientation, income or race; and that it can’t be transmitted by hugging someone or holding their hand.

As little as we understand AIDS today, people like Presley are one reason why we know the disease better and understand its human toll more. “Death is no stranger to me,” Presley said at the first AIDS benefit, according to the Telluride Times-Journal.

“I used to be afraid. It’s funny; it’s really interesting. You know how older people get. They start to go to church a little bit more. The grandmothers sit there making afghans. I found myself embracing a religion of a sort. I found myself putting a lot more work into the things I do. I haven’t made an afghan. But there are definite similarities I can see with people who have accepted death as part of their lives. It has changed me for the better. It’s helped me put things into perspective.”

Presley died in 1997, but TAB kept growing. The all-volunteer staff added the fashion show to the event, goaded locals into parading down soi-disant runways in Free Box couture, and reached out to new charities. It kept expanding year after year. “I had no idea that first year,” DeGraw said. “It got bigger and bigger.”

Daiva Chesonis sparked the idea for the first fashion show as a way to showcase Presley’s extravagant costumes and homemade fashions. From the outset, the fashion show had a Telluride ethos: They’d use local models, clothes from the Free Box and those sold in local shops, and local designers. “I put more work into the AIDS benefit than my wedding,” Chesonis said. “You get to know people in such an intense creative environment, then the rest of the year you’re acquaintances, and then all of a sudden, you start gearing up again, and you’re elbow to elbow. It was like intense bursts of friendship and camaraderie.”

Over the years, the fashion show’s organizers began pursuing bigger names and glitzier raiment. One year, they featured Kate Spade bags. Another year, Chesonis met with designer Isaac Mizrahi and wheedled him into donating outfits. But even with haute couture garbing the models, the show still featured dogs, guys on skateboards, dreadlocks, local designers and—a long time ago—onstage pot-smoking.

TAB gave away $164,000 to six different charities in 2008. The money flows to four main charities: the Children’s Hospital Immunodeficiency Program in suburban Denver; Brother Jeff’s Community Health Initiative, which serves African Americans with HIV and AIDS; Manzini Youth Care Project in Swaziland; and, of course, the Western Colorado AIDS Project, which gets 10 percent of its budget from the benefit, according to Mary Beth Luedtke, WestCAP’s executive director.

The nonprofit serves 163 clients across the Western Slope, including growing numbers of women, Hispanics, Native Americans and African immigrants. In addition to helping people find care and stay healthy, the nonprofit also provides help buying food or getting a place to live.

Even as AIDS becomes less fatal for those who can afford anti-retroviral drugs, new cases keep walking in the door, Luedtke said. “It continues. A lot of newly diagnosed people are still coming in very ill, from all ages, from all genders, from all walks of life,” she said. “We have a lot of work still ahead of us.”

And that is what drives so many people who work, volunteer and donate to TAB. “The thing that people don’t realize is that even if you can get good drugs, they might not work for you, and you’re still going to be dealing with this for the rest of your life,” DeGraw said. “In the beginning, we were all so frantic—it was like, we’ve got to let people know about this, that this could kill you. But now, people don’t have that sense of urgency. There’s not that fear.”

So they keep on. Not to scare people, but to remind them of those living with AIDS and those it’s taken, to show people the hurdles that lie ahead, and how much can be accomplished in a Swaziland orphanage or Western Slope hospital—dollar by dollar, person by person, day by day.