Remembering celebrity fancy dress for the grand Cointreau Ball

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In the years before we had to endure Instagram selfies from the Amalfi Coast, mid-winter was one of the hottest times on the Sydney social calendar.

For an epic 14-year run, Bastille Day would be marked in Sydney with the grandest party of them all, the Cointreau Ball, the ultimate celebration of the ’80s and ’90s.

On par with today’s Met Ball in New York, and dressed up as a promotion for the French liqueur, it was really more of a licence for a boozy knees up, where titled socialites would disappear under dinner tables and get up to all sorts of a mischief before dessert had even arrived.

Remember, this was an era when such things were rejoiced rather than frowned upon.

Today’s PS Spotlight shines back on those days of unbridled hedonism, when 400 or so of this town’s most glamorous citizens would converge on a secret location in a fleet of limos to indulge in an all-night event (one went for 48 hours) of bacchanalian delights, a sort of Mardi Gras at the Ritz, which Sydney has not seen since the last Cointreau Ball was held in 1999.

And yes, a much younger PS managed to get along to a few Cointreau Balls, and while some of the memories are admittedly a little hazy, a few are indelible.

Like the year Sheila Scotter, the grand dame of Australian society who retained an imperial air about herself well into her dotage and was the founding editrix of Vogue Australia in 1962, turned up dressed as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. It was a fitting costume as she sailed into the room.

Society set hairdresser Joh Bailey was dressed as a living Academy Award one year, his hairless body (thanks to a painful wax session) entirely covered in gold paint that also camouflaged his goosebumps. Bailey was pulled around the exclusive party on a specially made podium on wheels, towed by a glamorous Oscars “presenter” carrying a huge envelope emblazoned with the words: “And the winner is …”

Another year Joh descended a grand staircase in a huge showgirl-inspired number replete with ostrich feathers and giant peacock fan tail behind him with the wingspan of a small private jet. The feathers didn’t last though, after working the dance floor, Joh’s crumpled plumage was a shadow of its former self by night’s end, a sight that would have him in rehab according to today’s petty puritans.

The brainchild of public relations dynamo Deeta Colvin, the Cointreau Ball was the first event in the country to bring dodgem cars and ice rinks into parties. Each year outrageous themes were thoroughly embraced by the party set who turned it into the ultimate costume party, the result of months of meticulous planning.

Before he ended up in jail for dealing cocaine, Gough Whitlam’s self-proclaimed “adopted” grandson (although the Whitlam’s disowned him years ago)  Andrew “Baci” Whitlam turned up to one Hollywood-themed Cointreau Ball as Liz Taylor, but there was no room in the limo for the wheelchair he planned to take with him.

A newly single Johanna Griggs arrived dressed as Marilyn Monroe, aspiring party girl and magazine wunderkind Mia Freedman dressed up as a roller girl (complete with skates), while newlyweds Charlotte Dawson and Scott Miller were the hottest “it” couple in town. They truly looked happy together.

Of course the Cointreau Ball generated its own controversies, too. In its later years one scribe penned it had lost its cutting edge: “a predictable mishmash that’s become a self-regarding outing for B-grade celebrities who look like they’ve been dressed by Helen Keller and Ray Charles.” He was never invited again.

That was also the year when some of Sydney’s socialites had been bumped from the guest list in favour of soap stars, leading another columnist to declare it was “more E Street than Queen Street”.

But that didn’t stop Leo Schofield from turning up in what looked like a creation from a Venetian masked ball. His daughter Nell went for a cocktail commando number. 

Hot fashion designer of the day Leona Edmiston wore a body suit that was covered, top to toe, in glittering sequins. Game show host Larry Emdur channelled Hugh Hefner, turning up with a bevy of his New Price Is Right models to finish off the look.

And who could forget television host Kerri-Anne Kennerley and husband John when they came as the Queen and King of Hearts? Indeed, the photos haunted KAK for years to follow.

Today we now look back and smile and remember what a swell party it was.

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