Hollywood actress Andie McDowell was the star guest of this year's Vienna Opera Ball, Austria's most important society event. Guests waltzed the night away despite attempts by protesters to disrupt the extravaganza.
It's still the most glittering, romantic event on Vienna's social calendar. Tickets for the Vienna Opera Ball, the highlight of the Austrian capital's long ball season, sold-out quickly this year, as celebrities from opera, theatre, business and politics vied for the chance to step out in style.
The guests, who paid anywhere from €215 to €16,000 for one of the coveted private boxes, arrived at the stately opera house by limousine, or -- for those prepared to brave the cold -- the more traditional horse and carriage. Over 60,000 roses and tulips decorated the building in hues of deep red and purple for the event, which has taken place each year on the Thursday before Lent since the mid-19th century.
Film star Andie MacDowell is Richard Lugner's guest this year at the Vienna Opera Ball.
The couple at the center of the hype is Austria's wealthy public works magnate Richard Lugner, and his wife, Christina. Each year, they pay a female celebrity to join them as their guest in their private box. This year's choice was Hollywood film star and model Andie McDowell. She was the clear favorite with photographers as she arrived at the ball dressed in a black gown, white fur, and a borrowed diamond necklace worth €1.3 million.
Former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson attended the gala event in 2003.
Lugner described the soft-spoken brunette as "very serious" -- a compliment, it seems, as Lugner was looking to avoid the sort of media sensation that surrounded last year's guest, Baywatch bombshell Pamela Anderson (photo). The buxom blonde created a furore in the Austrian press during her visit to the capital.
This year, Lugner appealed to journalists to leave McDowell in peace. "Please don't write anything about her bosom, or she may decide not to come," Lugner asked the press." She has different qualities than Pamela Anderson."
McDowell didn't appear to have any problems with the way she was received in Austria, commenting in an interview that she'd been "treated like a queen" by her hosts.
There was speculation in the press, however, that McDowell -- in contrast to past invitees Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Joan Collins -- was a "bargain" for Lugner, who only narrowly escaped bankruptcy recently. He admitted that he counted costs more carefully this year. "We split the cost of her flight with another sponsor, the make-up artist came from Austria instead of from the U.S., and the weak dollar also helped make the whole thing much cheaper," Lugner said.
Zsa Zsa and Paris: no-shows
As it turned out, McDowell was the only guest to lend a little U.S.-style glamour to the evening's proceedings. Following a pre-ball war of words, Hollywood legend Zsa Zsa Gabor and her ninth husband, Prince Frederic von Westfalen -- who is rumored to have bought his title in order to mix with European aristocracy -- did not show up. Not that they were invited.
Prince Frederic lashed out at Lugner in an Austrian magazine after Lugner was reported to have said he wasn't aware that Gabor, 86, was still alive. The prince threatened to crash the ball, and bring American socialite and hotel heiress Paris Hilton (photo) as his guest.
Prince Frederic von Westfalen threatened to crash the party with Paris Hilton on his arm.
Instead, Austria's top politicians were among the most prominent guests, as well as Polish President Aleksandar Kwasniewski, Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, and German soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer.
Protest on the sidelines
Gossip and glamour aside, the elite event also inspired protest. Around 450 people marched in Vienna on Thursday, demonstrating not only against the ball, but also U.S. foreign policy and capitalism in general. They carried banners with slogans such as "Down with the Opera Ball, bring down capitalism," and "USA: international genocide headquarters."
A small number of protesters threw glasses and stones at the hundreds of police in riot gear who were deployed to keep the protesters away from the opera house. Five police officers were injured in the clashes; seven demonstrators were arrested.