Sept. 14 2006 10:48 AM

Event 2: A New Yorker "Talk of the Town" Piece






The Sacred and the Glam

By Hanna Rosin


      Dirk Diggler is holy. Three Buddhist monks kneel at his feet, envelop him in a halo of incense smoke, praying to him the way one might pray to Shiva so he will unleash, or in this case unzip, the mighty power no mere mortal could possess. Of course it's not really Dirk Diggler but Mark Wahlberg, who plays him inBoogie Nights. And the monks are props not for a movie, but for a real life fund-raiser thrown by Donna Karan this month, to collect money for her new group, the National Prostate Cancer Coalition. So given the nature of the event, you can see why the iconography of Diggler, more than Wahlberg, looms large.

      The synergy of fashion and holiness has a history. When Ralph Lauren's clothing empire began to sag, he turned to more saintly work, holding fund-raisers for breast cancer. Elizabeth Taylor saved herself from oblivion by gliding through AIDS wards with a solemn, puffed mien, the Madonna of the Damned. English kings losing their grip over their subjects were known to visit institutions of leprosy in their full regalia, to heal the sick with a simple touch. Donna Karan International went public in June of 1996, but the once wildly successful company is now politely described as "overextended," and will bleed $100 million this fiscal year. So perhaps Karan has found a way to heal her ailing empire.
      Donna Karan arrives at the gate of Mort Zuckerman's Hamptons palace at 8 p.m. She is clutching the hand of her husband, sculptor Stephan Weiss, and also the hand of her close friend, Barbra Streisand, who is clutching the hand of her new love, James Brolin. Streisand and Karan, who share unsmiling mouths and sobering noses, look even more similar this evening. Both are wearing pewter, off the shoulder velvet gowns, by Donna Karan, and teal blue furry Boa-scarves around their necks. Their somber entrance is interrupted only by anti-fur protesters, who shout, "It takes diseased balls to hurt animals!" And Karan's mouth frowns deeper at the faux pas. The faux pas, that is, not of shouting perhaps, but of mistaking her furry scarf for a real fur scarf, because everyone knows that this year's fur is the cotton weave kind. Not the real Boa, but the neutered snake.

      And the neutered snake is an apt metaphor for the event. For inside are the folks with all the trappings of wealth and power, save one. They include Michael Milken, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Sidney Poitier, Bob Dole, Harry Belafonte, prostate cancer survivors all. Among them are scores of beautiful, powerful women--Bianca Jagger, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Anna Wintour. And they have paid up to $5,000 for the privilege of meeting these beautiful women. Yet these strange beauties know only one important fact about them, so the men are more retiring than they might otherwise be. "My pleasure," Schwarzkopf says rather shyly when Jagger, his new and stunning acquaintance, asks him to accompany her to her table. He seems to hold her arm weakly, and when he reaches her table, shrivels back to the shadows.

      Donna Karan gives the first speech. "We can beat prostate cancer with Eastern medicine, good nutrition, research, and meditation," she says hopefully. "You must eat healthy to stay healthy. ... Try the carrot sticks and the low-fat yogurt dip." Bob Dole looks skeptically at the scant offerings on his plate, and shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Karan must have seen him, because she reaches out. "Women are light years beyond men in their capacity to feel and intuit. We hope we can help them touch their disease and find a cure for it."

      Emboldened, General Schwarzkopf takes the stage. He looks naked without his ... charts. "For me, it was like war," he begins. "First thing you do is learn about the enemy." The crowd applauds, and Schwarzkopf is mute with gratitude. Deepak Chopra takes advantage of the sudden silence to lead the crowd in wordless meditation. He begins a kind of soundless yogic hopping, his slender feet landing like soft feathers on the stage, which entrances the crowd. The spell is broken by whimpers from Barbra Streisand, whose face is by now moist with tears.

      I am seated in a corner near Wahlberg and his band, who until now have barely been able to suppress their giggles. As Karan rushes over to comfort Streisand, and the room breaks its silence, the band members break theirs. Unfortunately Milken hears them. Or fortunately, perhaps, since this provides an opportunity for enlightenment. He speaks in earnest whispers, and I can barely make out the words "ageless body ... daily massage ... soy powder ... green tea."

       In the back of the room, Michael Korda, author of Man to Man: Surviving Prostate Cancer, has spotted a similar opportunity with James Brolin. "There is definitely sex after prostate surgery," Korda is telling him. "It may not include erection and penetration. The most important thing is the ability to exchange erotic feeling." Streisand comes up and offers each of the men a carrot stick. She squeezes Brolin's hand reassuringly. "I will always love you, no matter what," she says. And together, they make a holy trinity.
Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at the New Republic.