Meeting Sir Elton John, Max Foster is more struck by his understated husband, David Furnish...
Elton John is a musical icon, surpassed only by Elvis Presley and The Beatles in the American charts and laying claim to the best-selling single of all time - the rendition of Candle in the Wind he performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Like Diana, Elton is more than a celebrity, he's an activist. He's helped raise more than $400m for HIV/AIDS initiatives alone.
I flew out to meet him at the 2018 International AIDS conference in Amsterdam and, as we landed, his team asked that his husband David be involved in the interview too. I agreed, aware that they were a professional partnership as much as a personal one and David would add useful context.
The couple have a lot of people around them but I eventually peeled through the layers to find the pair sitting next to each other in a room that matched the colouring of Elton's purple suit and sunglasses. What came first - the suit, or the wall colour? Or was it coincidence? Elton leaned forward in his chair and shook my hand as I introduced myself and I was taken by how well he looked for a man in his early seventies. Then I met David who was another revelation. His character filled the room even more than Elton's, brimming with energy and charm. I asked how the conference had been going and he lit up, displaying a genuine passion and expertise on the AIDS issue which I learned he had been working on for two decades in his own right. As I hadn't been expecting to interview David, I hadn't really thought about what he would be like or what specifically he would add to the conversation but I immediately felt good about him being there because he had... well, clout.
Once the interview started, I could see why Elton wanted him there too. David listened intently to his partner's answers and developed them with his own ideas, but without taking over. The conversation flowed and they complimented each other. When Elton quipped that he might not be around in a couple of years, David offered him a reassuring tap on the leg.
I wanted to know what drove Elton so I asked him about his fears and he took me back to the 1980s when his social group was devastated by AIDS. It's 'because of the people we lost in the beginning, so that they didn’t die in vain, for nothing. And because of my inactivity during the eighties, because of my drug use and I didn’t do that much. And then when I got sober in the 1990s, I decided to do something.’
If a fear driving him is that of returning to a life of grief and 'inactivity,' then that explains why the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to preoccupy him in such a big way. AIDS isn't the death sentence it once was, if you have access to the right drugs. The problem is that many aren't seeking treatment because of the stigma attached to the disease, which is compounded for members of the LGBT community who fear being persecuted if they come out. Elton and I spoke about his work with a rapid response project in Ghana. In September 2016, they had to take seven people in to hiding who were being sought for rituals and even sacrifice.
‘We also do it because we can,’ David said. ‘We feel very blessed as a couple. We’ve lived our lives very openly. We were profoundly affected by the people we lost from the disease but, as a gay couple, we’ve received a lot of support from society. Elton’s music, and the people he reaches with his music, it has a way of uniting and bringing people together and, as a couple, we’ve felt supported. We’ve seen legislation change that has strengthened our commitment to each other and to start our family in a much more supportive environment and we feel really blessed and lucky. And then we look at the other side of the coin when people are so marginalised because by their sexuality - they don’t have the privileges and the benefits and the joys that we have. We have to make a difference. We have to attack that head on. We feel deeply obligated and passionate to do it.'
The family consists of Elton, David and their two young sons Elijah and Zachary. The boys travel with the couple to events when they are not at school and were behind the scenes in Amsterdam. Elton wants to spend more time with them which is why he is giving up touring. 'Music has given me everything but I actually prefer my kids to music,' he said. He wants to instill in them a sense from an early age that they have to 'give back,' despite their privilege. They have their own bank accounts and pocket money which they are expected to divide up in to spending money, savings and charity. People are even discouraged from buying the children gifts and instead asked to donate money instead.
At the end of the interview, our stills photographer asked David if she could take an picture of Elton on his own and David willingly moved aside. 'It happens all the time,' he told me before referencing Elton's credibility as a top selling artist. But as Elton cuts back on his musical appearances and focuses more on his parenting and charitable work then David will inevitably take a more prominent public role next to his husband and we'll get greater sense of his own clout. His influence on this formidable partnership is underestimated. You'll get a taste of it from watching the interview here: