At tonight's Met Gala, all eyes will be on the red carpet. Who's wearing what, who shows up with whom, and most importantly, what's going to happen with Beyoncé?
But before the celebs assemble their glam squads and the adoring fans line the streets of Fifth Avenue for a glimpse of the pomp and circumstance, the team at Vogue has to spend an entire year planning behind closed doors. This leads to a cloak-and-dagger situation when it comes to fashion's biggest event. Who gets the coveted invites? Who gets the best seat in the house? And who's actually shelling out the $25,000 ticket price?
It's time to lift the (couture) veil.
Let's start with the fact that this headline is already a misnomer. That's because the Met Gala is way more than a party. Sure, there's free-flowing booze. The music is bumping. There's dancing. But above all, the first Monday in May is a charity fundraiser. Think of it as a really, really swanky bake sale. The event unveils that year's Costume Institute exhibit (in 2016's case, the theme is Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology), and proceeds fund the department's operating budget for the entire year. That means that while the rest of us obsess over what Gigi Hadid is wearing, the Met Museum is just focused on bringing in the dough.
The Guest List
The first step in planning the most kickass party of the year is making sure that the most kickass people will be there. Anna Wintour, all-commanding editor-in-chief of Vogue, is also the High Priestess of this coveted guest list. No one gets in without being vetted and ultimately approved by her. To keep it as exclusive as possible, the Vogue team makes an initial list of 500 people—but it ultimately grows from there. There are a lot of kickass people to invite, natch.
But before all the A-listers make the cut, they have to invite the big spenders. That would be the non-celebrities, the regular millionaires, if you will. Fashion houses and big companies like Amazon, as well as the museum's highest regular donors are all graciously given the opportunity to purchase tables, for a cool price of, like hundreds of thousands of dollars. How nice, right? Then the real fun can start.
The Met Gala has an age-old tradition of keeping the fashion designer-celebrity partnerships alive. All the biggest designers choose one actress to wear a dress that they create just for the party. All sorts of politics go into these pairings—the A-listers have to have a relationship with the designer, of course, but they also need to perfectly represent their aesthetic, and be okayed by Miss Wintour.
They also have to be into the idea of spending the entire night together; the twosomes walk the red carpet, sit together during dinner and walk through the exhibit together. That's a lot of one-on-one time. If, say, Michael Kors is going to spend all spring making a couture gown from scratch, he wants to make sure that Kate Hudson is the perfect person to wear it.
Designer plus-ones typically go to Hollywood's usual suspects: The Gigis, the Kendalls, the Annes (Hathaway, that is). But it's not the only way for celebs to eek their way into the main event. Since Vogue wants to make sure that the party gets as much press as possible, a main focus of creating the guest list is to create the most exciting red carpet possible. The magazine's editors work with its public relations team to make sure that, basically, everyone's who everyone is there, and no one who isn't. They'll extend invites to anyone important missing from the designer plus-ones, and eliminate anyone they deem necessary.
Viewers of this month's documentary The First Monday in May were treated to a glimpse at what happens when a not-so-A-lister tries to gain access: Anna Wintour asking, "What has he done lately?" Ouch. (For inquiring minds, the he Anna was referring to was none other than Josh Hartnett).
The Seating Chart
Extending the invites is the easy part—there isn't much argument over who qualifies as an A-lister. The drama starts when it comes time to decide where everyone's going to sit. As can be expected, everyone wants the best table in the house and no one wants anything less, whether you're the CEO of Amazon or Amber Heard. Deciding the final chart comes down to the most complicated game of musical chairs known to man.
First, the team at Vogue has to actually pick the best tables in the house, based on where they are on the party floor and who the major donor is that owns the table. (While you have to keep Beyoncé happy, you can't forget the Harvey Weinsteins of the group, who shelled out boatloads of valuable donations to be there). A considerable effort is made to keep the dinner party conversation flowing, so guests won't be seated near someone they sat by at last year's Gala, or during another recent society event.
From there, Vogue will always place designers and the actresses wearing their dresses together, and they leave the non A-listers and the troublemakers to sit on the outskirts of the floor. Womp, womp. (A moment of humor in First Monday in May came when Wintour and her fellow party planners had to make the hard decision to seat Chloe Sevigny and Solange in a table hidden by a planter. Because we can't all be Emma Stone.)
The Money Shot: Who's Actually Paying?
For inquiring minds, the approximate price of one individual Met Gala ticket is $25,000. That would be no sweat for the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Katy Perry, right? Well, funnily enough, celebrities don't really spend a cent on this party. All those big companies, fashion houses and designers shell out the big bucks, but Vogue looks the other way for the A-listers. They even cover all sorts of expenses for them, like Ubers that will inevitably be surging out of control.
And if you're Rihanna or Kanye West, you (and your entourage) will get paid to attend. That's because every year the party hires a big name to perform for the adoring crowd, and that time comes with a big paycheck. 2015's soirée hired the aforementioned RiRi, and while the documentary took great pains to bleep any mentions of actual figures, we do know that her fee was twice as high as any other past performer's). Someone must have forgotten to mention that it was a charity.
It should be mentioned that Vogue does have a very good reason for financing the evenings of all these celebrities. They justify it by deeming the Met Gala as a meeting of art and commerce—the Costume Institute exhibit being the art, the actors and actresses being the commerce. Whatever conflict of interest arises by overrunning New York City's most storied museum gets overshadowed by the publicity and awareness that comes with it. After all, how many people have learned about the Costume Institute as a result of this glitzy red carpet? To quote the magazine's editorial team, if it takes Rihanna dancing on a table to get people to pay attention to the Met, so be it.
After the Invite
Celeb presences can give the Met Gala a boost, but the famed fete has a way of giving back to A-listers—perhaps the party's greatest legacy is its ability to shape a celebrity's career. Skeptics may scoff at the idea of a silly little red carpet on a Monday afternoon being pivotal, but it can give notoriety and legitimacy like no other event can. (Okay, maybe not including the Academy Awards).
For some, their attendance year-after-year is a way to stay relevant to an audience despite an otherwise not incredibly active acting resumé (cough...Sienna Miller, Katie Holmes and Sarah Jessica Parker). For others, their very first invite is a sign that they've made it. Just think about the fact that while Taraji P. Henson was wowing audiences for years and years on the screen, it took her not-breakout-breakout-performance on Empire before she scored a spot. But perhaps no first invite made as much as an impact as Kim Kardashian's.
As fashion lore goes, Anna Wintour resisted her attendance for years, refusing to accept reality shows into the exclusive realm of the A-list. The Keeping Up star made it in on a technicality when Kanye West performed in 2013 (you can't very well deny the headliner his plus-one) and her sheer presence there elevated her past her reality beginnings. In April 2014 she scored her now-infamous cover, and this year her sister and fellow reality star is arguably one of the most prestigious Met Gala attendees.
How's that for hard evidence?