In Brooklyn, the Anti-Met Gala Raises Funds for Medical Debt

Twenty-four hours before the Met Gala, a starkly different sort of gala occurred in Brooklyn at the Bell House, a concert venue that sits on a lonesome industrial street near the Gowanus Canal.

It was the second annual Debt Gala, which bills itself as a D.I.Y. alternative to the lavish spring benefit in Manhattan, which raises hundreds of millions each year for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute.

The theme, “Sleeping Baddies: Slumber Party,” was a parody of this year’s Met ball theme, “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion.” Many of the participants at the Bell House wore bathrobes, pajamas and fuzzy slippers, along with sleep masks, travel pillows and other slumber-centric accessories.

The Debt Gala is also a benefit that seeks to raise awareness of personal debt burden and health care inequality, and proceeds from its $35 tickets went toward organizations that help relieve people from heavy medical debt. This year’s recipients were the Debt Collective, a national union of debtors, and Dollar For, a medical nonprofit.

Beneath an overcast sky on Sunday, the Debt Gala’s participants marched through a light rain to enter the venue, where they modeled their homemade costumes on a red carpet. Among them was Allison Gould, who wore a dress made from teddy bears that she had stitched together.

“No, I did not get invited to the Met Gala, but to me this is the bigger event,” Ms. Gould said. “As an independent physical therapist, I’m a fan of the message here, and health care access is a very important topic to me.”

John St. Denis, an intensive care unit nurse, had dressed like a lumberjack at bedtime — red pajamas with suspenders.

“The Met Gala is vapid and silly,” he said. “This is a better function, with a better message. I work in medicine and personally know how people can enter massive debt that ruins their lives.”

The fiber artist Jo Luttazi had created a display of their crocheted clothing designs that suggested a critique of the health care system. The pieces included a blue shawl covered in prescription pill bottles and a pink handbag that resembled a broken piggy bank.

“It’s shattered because people need to dip into their savings when they’re in debt,” Luttazi said. “I feel everyone at the Met Gala is just having fun and playing dress up. It doesn’t seem like they’re trying to solve any issues in the world.”

A founder of the Debt Gala, Molly Gaebe, explained how she started the event with two fellow comedians, Amanda Corday and Tom Costello.

“We were all sitting in a bar together watching coverage of the Met Gala,” Ms. Gaebe recalled, “and we thought: ‘They all look like they’re having so much fun. Why can’t we, too?’”

The theme of the first Debt Gala, “Garbage X Glamour,” encouraged guests to wear outfits made from trash and upcycled materials. One participant wore a necklace of wrapped condoms.

“The Met Gala is a fun cultural touchstone to be distracted by, but at the root of it, it is disconnected from the rest of the world,” Ms. Gaebe said. “It doesn’t symbolize wanting to better the world in any way. Social justice is at the heart of the Debt Gala.”

Guests entered the Bell House’s auditorium for the night’s entertainment, a variety show hosted by the queer humor musical comedy duo Zach and Drew, comprising Zach Teague and Drew Lausch.

“Any gays here?” Mr. Lausch asked.

The crowd cheered.

“Lot of gays with debt, huh.”

They introduced comedians including Chloe Radcliffe, Tina Friml and Joyelle Nicole Johnson. And when the drag artists Chola Spears and Issa Dragon took the stage, people tossed dollar bills during their performances.

During an interlude, a spokesman for the Debt Collective, Braxton Brewington, and the founder of Dollar For, Jared Walker, appeared onstage to tell the crowd more about their organizations.

“We believe we can fight back against creditors,” Mr. Brewington said of the Debt Collective. “We like to quote from Jean Paul Getty, a very famous capitalist. And he says: ‘If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.’”

To play out the night, the L Train Brass Band took the stage. Guests in pajamas and slippers danced to soulful covers of Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon.

Attendees then began to trickle outside onto the street. A few of them were grousing about the workweek ahead.

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