A few summers ago, two hot TV starlets whose names you’d recognize traveled to Burning Man, the annual arts-and-hedonism festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. It was an odd juxtaposition, these two parading around the weeklong absurdist free-for-all—a place where cars shaped like octopuses roam and citizens offer lectures in topics from physics to S&M in exchange for shelter. Or rather, it would have been an odd juxtaposition, if anyone knew those two actresses were there. “They put on Kabuki masks and walked around naked,” says a friend.
While Burning Man has long been popular with tech types—Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, MTV creator Bob Pittman—it’s lately become a fixture on the socialite calendar, with Stavros Niarchos and his sister Eugenie braving the sand storms, not to mention Alexandra von Furstenberg, Margherita Missoni, Bettina Santo Domingo, Lady Victoria Hervey, Francesca Versace, PC Valmorbida (the Aussie behind L.A.’s hip Prism Gallery) and David de Rothschild, to name a few. It girl Tali Lennox (daughter of Annie Lennox) twice accompanied her father, film producer Uri Fruchtmann, to the event. Meanwhile, one New York City finance type (and fixture on the nightlife scene) is rumored to have spent close to seven figures on a custom RV, prompting one socialite to sniff: “Who the fuck would spend a million dollars on a camper!”
Photographs by Barbara Traub, author of Desert to Dream: A Dozen Years of Burning Man Photography
Welcome to the new Burning Man. It was founded in 1986 as a summer-solstice ceremony with 20 people and has grown exponentially since; the 2012 festival drew some 50,000 visitors. The vibe, however, remains the same, operating on the tenets of Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-reliance. As the principles state, “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” But the influx of well-heeled travelers has created a market for what die-hard Burners condescendingly refer to as “pay-to-play” or “turnkey” camps. Meaning, for a price, one can now fly from Reno to Burning Man’s landing strip on a six-passenger Cessna Turbo 207 and then be escorted to a tricked-out RV—turning Burning Man into one kick-ass party with visuals you won’t see anywhere else. Naked afternoon bike ride, anyone?
Jodi Guber Brufsky, founder of Beyond Yoga (and daughter of Hollywood film producer Peter Guber) went to Burning Man in 2011 with her husband and some friends. When she showed up in Black Rock City, the group’s RVs had been arranged with an air-conditioned dome at the center serving as their private commissary, complete with a chef specializing in raw vegan food. Says Guber Brufsky, “There were margarita machines going all day long, snacks and a costume area,” adding, “There was nothing they couldn’t provide.” Which is saying something, since they were in the middle of the desert. The price tag for the trip: upwards of $20,000 per person.
For a sample of the vitriol that some hard-core Burners feel toward this moneyed crowd, simply google “turnkey” and “Burning Man.” Or, better yet, ask filmmaker Chris Weitz (About a Boy, A Better Life), who met his wife at Burning Man and married her there in 2008. “Plug and Play camps, in which people live for a fee and have their needs catered to, are a big problem,” he says. “Taking the monetary exchange off-site doesn’t change the fact that you’re paying strangers to do what you and your friends should figure out. Look, you have to realize that the Black Rock Desert is a place that turns a glass of ice water into a luxury and a Pop-Tart into a gourmet meal. But that’s no longer the case if you have your own freezer.”
Burning Man isn’t for the faint of heart, that’s true. There are frequent dust storms, and—at nearly 4,000 feet above sea level—even cream with the highest SPF is no match for the midday sun. So why brave it? Says Guber Brufsky, “What’s incredible at Burning Man is the ability to be anonymous. It gives people the permission to be uninhibited in a safe environment.” Like the starlets walking around naked. Or the supermodel and her boyfriend who were seen running around dressed in Native American tribal costumes two years ago. It’s a voyeur’s paradise, and $20,000 is simply a front-row ticket to the show.
Morgan Wandell, a television producer in L.A. who runs in jet-set circles and has been to Burning Man 10 times, certainly doesn’t rough it. (He once hired then-unknown actor Armie Hammer to drive his RV from Los Angeles to Reno.) Talk about extremes: He knows a guy who had maid service for his RV. “I said to him, ‘Don’t tell anyone ever again that you had maid service at Burning Man. That’s the most un–Burning Man thing you could ever say or do.'”
Wandell believes it’s vital that everyone contribute to Burning Man; he and his friends run a bar out of their camp, inviting strangers to drink for free (there is no money exchanged at Burning Man). As he intones: “You have to come out here and be your authentic self. Because guess what—you’re not interesting because you’re rich and you go to the Hamptons in the summer. No one cares about that here.”
The end-of-summer festival also offers a pretty spectacular backdrop to play dress-up. Says designer Emilie Ghilaga, “I’ve always thought Burning Man was the true fashion week.” Since it’s so hot during the day, clothing is often optional. At night the girls are heavy on a Mad Max, apocalyptic leather-and-fur feel. Yvonne Force Villareal chronicled her Burning Man sartorial choices for Vogue; she brought a vintage Gucci baby-blue fur and a Dior lace-and-gold gown. Burning Man—which is known for serious recreational drug use—brings new meaning to high and low. “If you know fashion,” says one tony festivalgoer, “you know that look isn’t cheap.”
Despite the online grumblings, for the most part, it’s been a peaceful coexistence between socialites and Burners. (Although Lady Victoria Hervey has noticed a change, saying: “I went for the first time six or seven years ago, when it was less commercialized.”) There was also a memorable snafu in 2011, when champagne company Krug hosted a dinner on the Playa and invited writers for Notes on a Party and Town & Country. One plugged-in partygoer recalls the sponsored event: “It was fucking really fun, but there was definitely backlash.”
Perhaps that’s why interior designer Rachel Horn declined to comment for this story. In August 2011, she and her husband were featured in the New York Times, discussing the Airstream trailer they retrofitted for the festival with Corian countertops. Horn’s business partner (and husband) e-mailed DuJour, saying: “We would rather not commercialize Burning Man any further.”
But as another well-to-do Burner says, all this talk about commercialization is silly: Everything has a price tag. “A lot of the stuff that people think is super cool, some of the rich people are funding. Opulent Temple“—an electronic-dance-music not-for-profit—”comes in, and they’re essentially donating the DJs and the equipment and the bus.”
Weitz, who was co-executive producer on a documentary about Burning Man called Spark, is part of Ashram Galactica—a group of 60 to 165 people who build a free hotel and bar. Of the backlash against the socialite crowd, Weitz says, “Radical Inclusion is a big deal at Burning Man, so theoretically nobody has anything against anyone from the get-go.” He simply advises newcomers to give themselves over to the festival. “It’s up to you whether or not you’ll gain anything by it, but it would be good for starters to abandon the idea that you ‘do’ Burning Man.” He adds a sharp critique: “Nothing cushions you from participation like money.”
Wandell puts a fine point on the festival’s appeal: “There’s none of this nonsense like in the outside world where people say, ‘We’re here and then we’ll go there for a drink and that’s going to be better.’ No. You’re at the coolest, best party on the planet, and everything you’re seeing and everything you’re doing is amazing. Wherever you are, that’s where you’re supposed to be.” Burn, baby, burn.