In this day and age, risqué can be risky. But Cynthia von Buhler is bringing sexy back to NYC.
The illustrator has thrown, by her own estimation, hundreds of over-the-top parties over almost three decades. But this year marks her first-ever New Year’s Eve bash — and she’s going all out: hosting a massive, “Eyes Wide Shut”-style blowout for 800 guests at the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.
Attendees, who are shelling out $200 to $400 per ticket, are coming “from all over the world — Amsterdam, Germany, Australia,” said von Buhler, 54. “We have people flying in just for this.”
‘New York has become more sanitized, and this is old-school underground craziness.’
Although von Buhler makes clear the Illuminati Ball “is not a sex party,” there is no mistaking the titillation factor. Hers is a sophisticated, fun brand of sexiness — giving guests the old-fashioned thrill of the tease.
“New York has become more sanitized, and this is old-school underground craziness. It’s respectful, but erotic and decadent,” she said. “I think this is a chance for people to really let their hair down and be free.”
At the Dec. 31 bash, there will be a human “cake” — with a model’s face, hands and feet sticking out of a body-shaped dessert — and a swimming mermaid in a tank. Von Buhler plans to create her own version of the New Year’s Eve ball drop: acrobats descending from the bank’s famed stained-glass dome.
And then there’s Kamadhenu the cow goddess and her four maidens. “You can milk the maidens’ [fake breasts] and also taste their milk [from a baby bottle],” the hostess said.
Although she doesn’t want to give away too much of the plot line, she revealed that the New Year’s Eve story centers around “human-animal hybrids who have escaped a lab,” including half-woman, half-bird sirens.
By day, von Buhler is a Newbery Medal-winning illustrator and children’s book author. By night, she has developed a reputation for throwing some of the sexiest, most provocative parties around. Last year, she hosted two Illuminati Balls, with scantily-clad fire-breathers, contortionist and aerialists, guests in masks and bustiers, and dancing men in bondage-style bikinis.
She was inspired by photos of heiress Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s 1972 Surrealist Ball, which was attended by Audrey Hepburn and Salvador Dalí. “A lot of the people were wearing stag heads,” von Buhler said.
And it has nothing to do with black magic, she makes very clear. “I’m not into the occult at all,” von Buhler noted. For her, “the whole idea of the Illuminati Ball is, it’s an Illuminati that has been started to help animals and the environment.”
It all started in 2011, when the married Berkshires native, who had long been hosting wild events, produced her first immersive party a la the theatrical experience “Sleep No More.” The theme was Speakeasy Dollhouse, a louche wise-guys-and-gals period bash. “My grandfather was murdered in Manhattan in 1935, right after Prohibition ended,” von Buhler said. “He was a bootlegger.” (She is also descended, the artist said, from “Italian royalty.”)
Von Buhler added that, after the Speakeasy, she lost her deal with a Norfolk Street landlord “because of noise. We shot a gun off in the alley.”
She’s since hosted five or six additional immersive productions, including more intimate affairs for no more than 40 guests at an eight-acre estate an hour north of the city. There, she said, “We swim naked in the lake.”
For three of her affairs, she has created an accompanying graphic novel, including “Minky Woodcock: the Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini,” released in August of this year tied to an immersive event themed around the magician. Titan Comics, which is distributed by Random House, will publish von Buhler’s Illuminati Ball graphic novel in October 2019.
It’s gotten to the point where the artist — who was commissioned by Steven Spielberg in 2001 to illustrate a kids book to benefit the Starbright Foundation for seriously ill children — wants to be a solo act. “I prefer to create my own projects [now] rather than illustrate other people’s words,” von Buhler said.
She also likes creating her own world. That’s why attendees to the black-tie New Year’s Eve party will be given masks, and high-paying VIPs will receive watches that grant them entrance to an upstairs space where a dancer will perform ritualistic interactions.
The funny thing is, “It’s my least favorite holiday,” von Buhler admitted. “A lot of times, New Year’s Eve is just about drinking. But this [party] really could change your life.”
— With additional reporting by Kirsten Fleming