Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Elton's USA Today Interview

OLD WINDSOR, England – He once favored Minnie Mouse costumes and towering Mohawk wigs. Now, as he sips coffee in his elegant dining room, Elton John wears a navy blazer, dress shirt and dark pants, which all adds up to a Midwestern-bank-president look.

But then there are his spectacles.

On this late-June morning, rock megastar John is quite literally looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses. Perhaps the round pink lenses perched on his nose are a fashion statement, but they also seem an appropriate accessory for a man who proclaims his belief in the goodness of human beings, his conviction that his friend Rush Limbaugh doesn't truly oppose gay marriage, and his own good fortune.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," John says. Since he swore off alcohol and cocaine 22 years ago, "it's been a joyride. … I have a child, which I thought I'd never have. And my life is a constant delight."

It's also a life of constant achievements, among them the best-selling single of all time, Candle in the Wind 1997, which he sang at the funeral of his friend Princess Diana; an Academy Award for a song from The Lion King; 57 Billboard Top 40 hits; a knighthood bestowed by the queen in 1997. And in 2010, John, who had thought he was too old to become a father, celebrated the birth of his son, Zachary, who was conceived from a donated egg.

Now John, 65, is bringing his celebrity and his optimism to a project of deadly gravity. For two decades, John, who is gay, has poured his time and money into the battle against AIDS. Today he publishes a book, Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS (Little, Brown, $27.99), which implores readers to help end the global stigma against those infected with the virus and the equally widespread stigma against those most vulnerable to HIV infection, such as gay people and users of intravenous drugs.

"We have to get rid of this stigma, which I think is the biggest barrier to progress," John says, his words pouring out with rapid-fire passion. "We need to stop the ignorance and the hatred. … It's very idealistic, saying love is the cure, but it really is."

John spoke with USA TODAY at his countryside mansion, where in the garden a bronze statue of Mercury gazes over a large fountain and beds of white lilies. Inside, superb black-and-white photos of jazz musicians hang on the walls, and exquisite porcelain dishes and vases nearly hide the tabletops.
Over the course of an hour-long conversation, John is loquacious, funny, catty and disarmingly candid about his own failings. Though he is now one of the most veteran of celebrity AIDS activists, he does not seem to have forgiven himself for being late to the cause.

"I lost maybe 60 or 70 people to AIDS," he says quietly, but "I did nothing for the HIV movement in the 1980s."

At the time, HIV infection meant ostracism as well as certain death. People with AIDS often became outcasts, vulnerable to violence and rejection. They were forced out of schools and fired from jobs for fear that they would pass on the disease to others with a sneeze or a handshake. A swimming pool in West Virginia was closed after a gay man with AIDS took a dip.

While his friends died by the dozens, John was lost in a haze of cocaine and alcohol addiction, combined with bulimia and a monstrous temper that led him to throw tantrums if he didn't like the curtains in his hotel room. He also was promiscuous and now considers it a "miracle" that he didn't get infected with HIV.

He was "out of control," John writes in his book. "I was going to change, or I was going to die."

The turning point

Then, in 1986, John befriended Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who had contracted HIV from blood-based treatments for his hemophilia. Shunned by his classmates and neighbors, White spoke publicly about the disease before dying in 1990 at age 18. John, shattered, sang at White's funeral and helped bear his casket.

White and his family "made me want to change, to be a better person," John writes. "Our friendship was the catalyst that helped to change my life."

Even so, he needed one final push. It came shortly after White's death, when John's companion at the time, Hugh Williams, walked out on the singer to go into rehab. John shut himself in his house and snorted cocaine for a week, according to his book. Then, overcome by misery and loneliness, he tracked Williams to an Arizona clinic and hurried to see him — only for Williams to confront him with a devastatingly long list of the star's addictions. That did it. John entered rehab himself and has been sober ever since.

It's easy now, he says. "If I ever find myself in a situation where there are drugs, I can smell the cocaine. I can feel it in the back of my throat, that horrible feeling of taking the first hit of cocaine. And I leave."

His attempt to overcome bulimia was aided by a close friend who was arguably the world's most famous bulimic: Princess Diana. The two often would compare notes on the condition.

"It was so nice to talk to someone — 'Oh, you did that too?' " he says. "And she said it was so awkward to run to the toilet after the meal. … It helps you feel not so bad about yourself, and it's a little bit of camaraderie."

According to John's book, Diana was mulling a role as an ambassador for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which John started after becoming sober, before her death in a car crash in 1997. Now John's foundation is collaborating on several AIDS projects with a charity founded by Diana's younger son, Prince Harry, in the African nation of Lesotho. John says he sees his lost friend when he looks at Harry and his older brother, William.

"I see (Diana's) beauty in William, the kind of upright beauty," John says. "William is just beautiful and stoic. He has his mother's grace. And Harry has his mother's wit and naughtiness."

Making a difference

Even without Diana's involvement, John's AIDS foundations — one in Britain, one in the USA — have won widespread respect and now give away more than $18 million a year. John's U.S. foundation has "done a lot of important, cutting-edge stuff that nobody else would do," such as supporting programs that supply clean needles to addicts, says Kevin Frost, head of The Foundation for AIDS Research, a non-profit that receives funding from John's foundation.

After his son, John's AIDS advocacy is "the most important thing in his life," says his friend David Burtka, a correspondent on E! News and the partner of actor Neil Patrick Harris. "He has to do it, because his heart is telling him to do it."

John's hope of eroding stigmas has led him into some deeply unlikely alliances. After he agreed to perform at Limbaugh's wedding in 2010, the two men bonded over music and formed a friendship, despite Limbaugh's conservative views.

"He sends me the loveliest e-mails," John says. "What I get from Rush privately and what I get from Rush publicly are two different things. I'm just trying to break him down."

Now the cause that has consumed so much of John's energy has reached a historic crossroads. For the first time since the epidemic began, scientists say they have the treatments and prevention techniques to slash the spread of the virus. John's book exhorts readers to recognize the moment and lobby for the money needed to seize this chance.

The disease can be conquered "with a little bit more compassion, a little bit more cash," John says. "It's an incredible opportunity."

Experts on HIV cheer the book's message about the new possibilities in the fight against the virus. But scientists are more cautious about the book's bold assertion that HIV "would simply cease to exist" if the medicine and prevention methods now in hand were applied worldwide.

"We can prevent millions and millions of new infections," says Mark Dybul, who headed President George W. Bush's international AIDS program, but "we're not going to eradicate HIV with the current technologies and current advances."

The only disease humans have eliminated is smallpox, "and that took tremendous effort and money," as well as a vaccine, says Sally Blower, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California-Los Angeles. She emphasizes that she has not read John's book.

In response to the scientists' comments, the head of the U.S. branch of the Elton John AIDS Foundation says John is merely describing what's possible in an ideal world. If drugs and prevention techniques could be supplied to everyone, and worked with 100% efficiency, AIDS cases would melt away, says the foundation's Scott Campbell. The book isn't trying to spell out a global AIDS strategy, he says — it's trying to inspire readers.

Their 'happy-natured boy'

At this crucial moment in the fight against AIDS, there are more claims than ever on John's time. He has a spouse, filmmaker David Furnish, 49, who entered into a civil partnership with John in 2005, and now a son, Zachary, born to a surrogate mother on Christmas Day 2010.

It's not clear whether Furnish or John is Zachary's biological father — the sperm of both men was used in the fertilization process — but the cherubic little boy John proudly carries into the room to meet a reporter has long golden hair. Furnish's hair is dark; John's is reddish-blond.

Zachary "has brought to David and me the most incredible pleasure, and he's brought us the most incredible sense of responsibility and love," John says. "He comes with us everywhere. He loves traveling. He loves people. … He's just a happy-natured boy."
Before Zachary's birth, when John looked out a car window, he studied the fashions, the vehicles and the men and women. He was, he admits, a "lech."

Now, he says, his gaze is focused differently: "Who's that kid? What's he wearing? What's his mum pushing him in? … It's just changed the way I think, all for the better, thank God."

Far from leaving his AIDS work behind now that he's a dad, John says fatherhood "has probably helped me in my advocacy, because I want (Zachary) to live in a better place. I want him to live in a stigma-free world. It's never going to happen, because it's an impossible dream. … But the situation can improve."

- USA Today

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