Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Behind The Scenes at This Year's WT&TB


David Furnish is seated with his back to me, Bond villain-style, having his hair cut in front of a giant perspex triangle filled with dried leaves - Damien Hirst, naturally. His perfectly shorn neck emerges from a long black gown, one hand raised in a rather regal welcome gesture. I have been invited to the Notting Hill home he shares with Elton John to discuss their forthcoming White Tie & Tiara Ball, an annual event which last year raised £6.1 million for the singer's Aids Foundation.

Deceptively small from the outside, their London pad is a homage to Brit Art within. Works by the Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn and Hirst are littered about, with Sam Taylor-Wood's Last Supper - over which a topless woman presides - running provocatively alongside a dining-room table that echoes, in style and length, the one in the picture.

In the kitchen, Dennis, the pair's blind, diabetic dog, is napping contentedly while Joseph, the puppy, is out with the housekeeper on his lunchtime walk. Taking advantage of some last-minute coiffeur tweaking to have a quick snoop, I discover recurring themes in the artwork: namely death, an abundance of phallic imagery and, oddly, statues, paintings and photographs all featuring the McDonald's logo. On the sideboard, a stuffed kitten stares accusingly at me from beneath its glass dome. What did he do, I ask? "Oh, that's just an old piece of taxidermy," laughs Furnish, emerging from his tarpaulin.

As half of the most famous gay marriage in the world, the 45-year-old Canadian filmmaker is remarkably low-key in manner. His face is youthful and benign, his grey suit impeccable. He is polite and eager to please, but I know that he is also deeply mischievous.

The first time I met Furnish, I was working the room at a black-tie dinner in my former capacity as a gossip columnist. He whispered something outlandish (but true) about Ulrika Jonsson. He's had my heart ever since.

Dodging a life-size porcelain baby on the floor and trying hard to ignore the sculpture of a woman with legs akimbo on the coffee table, Furnish fills me in on the last-minute preparations for Thursday night's ball. Held at the couple's £20 million Windsor home, it's become the society event of the summer, attracting A-listers from across the world.

Last year Elle Macpherson, Dame Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Liz Hurley, Joely Richardson, the Beckhams et al all chowed down Maine lobster, while gazing at giant Vegas blow-ups and a cast of seven Elvis lookalikes on the lawn. Although this year's full guest list is not known, confirmed attendees are Will Smith, Bill Clinton, Roger Federer, Freddie Flintoff, Denzel Washington - and the Telegraph's Hilary Alexander.

"The theme this year is 'beach party' so we've got Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys playing," trills Furnish, exuding excitement. "The aim every year is to get people to say that it was the best one yet."

The photographer, arriving via the patio windows, brings with him a whirl of dust and leaves which settle on the porcelain baby. Furnish's eyes widen with worry. I wonder how long he will be able to resist giving that cherubic thigh a good wipe down.

"One year we took the Ball bigger," he continues, still distracted, "and it lost something, because it's still a party in your home, and Elton and I like to try to shake everybody's hand personally. There is no us and them."

One would hope not when tickets are £3,000 a head. That said, the prizes in the charity auction are certainly rather special. "There are a lot of wealthy people in the room, so a weekend in New York is not going to be as exciting for them as an opportunity to stay in our house in the South of France or a tennis lesson with Federer [in last year's auction]. This year we have Mario Testino auctioning his first private client photo sitting."

Furnish insists that he and Elton do not vet the 620-strong guest list. "Anyone can buy a ticket as long as they're prepared to pay the money," he says. Even, say, Ulrika Jonsson? "Um, she'd probably be put on the waiting list." He narrows his eyes, perhaps remembering her snipe that he "was living with the Queen of premenstruality", then composes himself. "But what's important is to keep it fresh."

This is not such an easy feat with charity events that are often crashingly dull. Still, the White Tie ball seems to have struck a balance, raising more than £26.9 million since the first event in 1998. Then there is the style porn of the celebrity mags the week after: those exquisite "hits" and "misses".

"One year Kelly Hoppen and Janet Street-Porter turned up in the same outfit," he laughs, "and another time Ronan Keating and I were wearing the same cream-silk Gucci jacket - the only thing to do was to pose with him immediately and burst the bubble." Then, unable to bear it any longer, Furnish gets up and brushes over the baby's limbs with the palm of a hand.

How long do he and Elton take to get ready for the event? "We're actually very wash-and-go," he says blithely. "I'm probably out the door in half an hour but Elton takes a bit longer. He's very self-conscious about the way he looks and very hard on himself." Furnish looks pained. "I get upset when he looks in the mirror and says: 'Oh I look horrible' - he shouldn't beat himself up. He has a fantastic dress sense."

Elton's decision to make Aids the focus of his charity was deeply personal. "In the Eighties Elton and I lost many friends to the disease. I remember Elton coming back from seeing a dying friend and saying that she looked like a newly born bird in the nest - she was that frail. When you lose friends in that way, and you know that there are still 33 million people infected around the world, you just have to do something."

Beyond the money raised tomorrow night, their aim is to push the "safe sex" message.

"We can't just sit back and think that everything is fine now. In the Eighties there was a message that it was a gay disease but actually, almost 50 per cent of new infections are women. I hope people realise that now."

Has he ever had unprotected sex?

"Yes," he says unflinchingly, "but before HIV. I was tested and still have regular check-ups."

So is the perception that gay men are more promiscuous unfounded?

"I don't know the answer to that," he sighs, "because there is always an element of gay society that is promiscuous, but then most of my gay friends are in loyal, committed relationships."

Are he and Elton monogamous?

"Oh yeah," he says, but acknowledges that he is aware of the rumours that suggest otherwise. "Because we are apart so much people say stuff, but in the end people can think what they think. All that matters to me is that we are completely honest with each other."

Their marriage at Windsor Guildhall in 2005, he says, has made a difference in that respect. "It was the happiest day of both our lives, and as it was such world-leading legislation, we knew we could give it a lot of profile by doing it on the very first day it became possible."

Perhaps because of the seriousness with which he took his own vows, he is angered by the recent outcry over the marriage of two gay vicars, Rev Peter Cowell and Rev Dr David Lord, who became the first gay couple to be married in a church. "As a gay man I often feel that Christianity is misinterpreted and used as a stick to beat us with. Religion should be a uniting force, but unfortunately it seems to be turning into a divisive force. Church attendance is on the decline and I think the Church needs to take a good look at itself and recognise that it's now not about love and forgiveness. Christ said 'love people for who they are and what they are', and yet people are being cast out of the Church."

When tomorrow night's Ball is over and done with, "husband and husband" plan to enjoy some quiet time together.

"What we really enjoy doing, and what we'll need," says Furnish, "is a quiet night in. Our favourite thing in the world is to get the box-set of Sex and the City or Six Feet Under and watch six episodes on the trot while eating beans on toast. That, for us, is heaven."

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