When Leigh Blake was a 15-year-old living in the U.K. projects, she was thrown out of school for having multi-colored hair and spending too much time following The Who all over Britain. She landed her first job at Hutchinson Publishing at the age of 16, but remained a fixture in the rock scene, befriending the Talking Heads on their first U.K. tour (after her first Talking Heads show, she says, she called up acquaintance Brian Eno and said "Brian, you have to see this band, they’re going to be mega!"). Careers in fashion, artist management, and documentary filmmaking soon followed.
But for the past quarter-century, sparked by the deaths of friends in the 1980s and motivated by travel to Africa and India, Blake has leveraged her background in the arts world to combat the global AIDS epidemic. Since 1989, she has founded several pop culture-associated philanthropic organizations including Red Hot, Keep A Child Alive (where Alicia Keys has focused much of her global charity work), and Artists Against AIDS Worldwide. Through the latter, Blake helped organize the 2001 star-studded remake of Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On."
Her focus now is Arms Around The Child, created to provide a wide range of support, health care, and education to children who have lost their parents to AIDS or other atrocities. The organization is a founding partner in the U.S. Government’s Children in Adversity Policy Partnership, and funds centers like Jalore, India’s Child Care Home, which takes in and educates homeless or stigmatized children affected by HIV, and initiatives like South Africa’s Operation Bobbi Bear, which provides education and services to sexually abused children.
On December 10, Arms Around The Child will hold The Other Ball at New York’s Highline Ballroom, sponsored by fashion brand Topshop Topman and hosted by musician and producer Mark Ronson. Billed as "more black leather than black tie," the fundraiser will be less of a gala than a high-end living-room hang, with performances from The Black Keys, A$AP Rocky, Mikky Ekko, Lykke Li, Miguel and Nate Ruess. The event committee includes music industry titans like Clive Davis, Russell Simmons and Judy McGrath.
"Everyone’s a starfucker, but I’ve never been afraid of celebrities," says Blake about her ability to recruit top names to donate their limited time to her work. And while she’s never been an artist herself, her passion for music as well as her cause helps her make connections. "Celebrities don’t want to deal with suits in large-scale organizations, they want to deal with people of their sensibility. They look at my work with Red Hot, my documentaries—it keeps them safe, they know they’re going to look good, and have someone to talk to that is of their tribe." She also has a world-class reference in Bono, with whom she’s worked on a number of projects, and who’s been spotted at events doing a hilarious, endearing impersonation of Blake and her legendary persuasive powers.
Building on these relationships (and to help support her own material needs), Blake plans to launch a new company in 2014 called Fame Currency to help celebrities focus and manage their involvement with philanthropic causes. But her primary focus will continue to be Arms Around The Child, which she dedicated herself to after her travels through third-world countries convinced her that the true horrors of HIV, AIDS, and other epidemics were the victims’ children left uncared for, exploited, and stigmatized. "Traumatized children grow up to be traumatized adults," she says, and that only perpetuates tragedy.
And while Blake partially credits her ADHD for her energy and productivity, she says that when the work gets overwhelming, she’s driven by the smiles, photos, and texts from the children she’s worked with, as well as "how little it takes to change their lives forever."