Inspired by the Met, 'sleeping baddies' tackle medical debt at the Debt Gala's pajama party

The Met Gala has inspired pajama-clad New Yorkers to fundraise for medical debt relief at an alternative benefit called the Debt Gala

James Pollard
Monday 06 May 2024 19:23 BST

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A plush octopus by Jellycat. A neck pillow by XpresSpa. Graphic sleeping masks by Geyoga.

The accessories weren't designer. But these cozy, low-budget pieces stood out Sunday at the second Debt Gala, where some 200 pajama-clad revelers dressed for its “Sleeping Baddies” theme to raise money for medical bill relief. Hosted in Brooklyn one night before the Met Gala, the populist benefit's thrifty getups and raunchy comedy routines marked a far cry from its glitzy, star-studded inspiration that collects millions of dollars annually for the renowned art museum's costume department.

It's one of several alternative galas that have recently emerged around the city with hopes to democratize the exclusive springtime fundraiser's spectacle and leverage its fanfare to highlight other causes. Brooklyn Public Library revived its People's Ball in 2022 as an inclusive declaration of fashion's existence among “the everyday New Yorker.”

"Why should this wonderful, fun display of creativity and showmanship just be reserved for these wealthy elite when there’s so many amazing, creative New Yorkers who deserve to get the red-carpet treatment?” said Debt Gala co-founder Molly Gaebe.

This year’s beneficiaries are the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union born from the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Dollar For, a non-profit that reports having eliminated almost $50 million in medical debt by ensuring lower-income patients get discounted health services.

The prevalence of health care debt has prompted billions of dollars in relief from governments and private donors. A 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that four in 10 adults have some form of medical- and dental-related debts — with even greater numbers among Black and Hispanic adults, the uninsured and women.

Debt Gala tickets ranged from $35-$1,000. Attendees were encouraged to wear red squares — a nod to debtors' status “in the red” and a symbol of solidarity. Handbags by Steve Madden composed almost all the items up for grabs at a silent auction.

Jared Walker, the founder of Dollar For, said the fundraiser aligned better with his nonprofit’s mission than more elaborate, black-tie events.

The Washington-based organization connects financially strapped families facing overwhelming medical expenses with legal teams who help them obtain charity care. Walker said every dollar raised will eliminate over $25 of medical debt.

“I don’t want to do the old-school, golf tournament-type charity event,” Walker said.

Organizers had pitched the event as a night for those “that may never be able to buy a house” and a “red carpet for the people.” Dinosaur slippers and pink curlers contrasted with the Louboutins and bedazzled tiaras of past Met Galas. One attendee dressed in moccasins and a plaid, wearable blanket exclaimed that they'd been “wearing this all yesterday!”

The accessory of the evening might have been the sleeping eye mask. Winston Koone and Anuraag Baxi wore black ones that read “Shut Up” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Koone paired that with a $30 ring bought at a corner store. Baxi finally got the chance to break out a robe set purchased for a long flight.

“We’re here with things we found in our closets, dressing up not to mock — because I will definitely be watching tomorrow — but to show that... there is a different side to the world that maybe tomorrow doesn’t focus on,” Koone said.

The anti-capitalist sentiment and attention to New York's greater cultural scene continued through a series of sometimes crude standup comedy sets and lively drag queen performances. Comedian Tina Friml joked that she wore a plain outfit because she sleeps in street clothes — before later confessing that she actually falls asleep naked.

Many artists lack good health insurance, comedian Chanel Ali told The Associated Press, making the cause especially relevant to the creative community. Ali said she has peers who “will not let you call an ambulance no matter what” because “they don't want to get stuck with the bill.”

The concept came to the organizers several years ago at a wine bar in Manhattan's Theater District after watching Met Gala coverage. The pun came first: Debt Gala. But they soon decided that the vastness of medical debt and opportunity to exponentially increase the impact of the money collected made it an equally good cause to support, according to director and Debt Gala co-founder Tom Costello.

Debtors at Sunday evening's gala emphasized the need to fight health care inequalities baked into the system of medical debt. Philip Bjerknes, a longtime Brooklyn resident, said he incurred around $50,000 in hospital bills during a one-month institutionalization against his will after a suicide attempt.

Wearing a Brook Brothers night gown from eBay, Bjerknes said medical debt can be very embarrassing and that he was “completely destabilized” by his experience.

“At the end of the day, the material support is what we need,” Bjerknes said. "To get to that with fun and fashion is awesome."

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and non-profits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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