Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Sheila Discusses The Early Days
But in recent times that resilience has been sorely tested, as she has faced estrangement from the man who owes so much of his global success to her love, support and encouragement — her only child, Reginald Dwight, better known to the world, of course, as Elton John.
Sheila and Elton have not spoken for seven years, after a rift sparked by her continuing friendship with two men who, she says, Elton demanded she cut out of her life — his former PA, Bob Halley, and his ex-manager John Reid.
Sheila, who set great store by the two men’s support and companionship, refused. Harsh words were exchanged on both sides and she and Elton have not spoken since — not even when her husband, Elton’s stepfather Fred, passed away five years ago, nor when Sheila turned 90 earlier this month.
But as Sheila revealed in Saturday’s Mail, in the first part of this exclusive interview with me — who has known her for three decades — she believes the fault lines in their relationship stem back far farther, to the influence of Elton’s husband, David Furnish, whom she blames for turning her son against her.
Of course, as his millions of fans around the world know, Elton is no stranger to controversies. Though often wonderfully warm-hearted and generous, he is also famously temperamental and demanding.
In the past he has fallen out with, or attacked, former friends and associates including Keith Richards, Madonna, Simon Cowell, Billy Joel and Lily Allen.
And earlier this month he became involved in a feud with the fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana over their views on gay fatherhood and IVF children, after one of the duo described such children as ‘synthetic’.
For Sheila, the row only served to compound the pain over her estrangement from her famous son.
For, as she reveals today, she has never even met her two grandchildren, Zachary, four, and Elijah, two, whom Elton and David fathered through IVF with an American surrogate mother.
For a woman who had long dreamed of becoming a grandmother, it is a bitter blow. Sheila admits that there was a time, back at the beginning of Elton’s career, when she had hoped he would find a young woman, settle down and have a family by more conventional means.
When he finally revealed that he was gay, she is honest enough to admit that it took a little while to adjust.
‘John Reid was about 21 when he met Elton and they began a relationship. In fact, it was John who persuaded Elton to tell me he was gay. When he told me, I cried,’ she says. Sheila’s husband, Fred Farebrother, soon talked her round. ‘Fred said: “Look, it’s his life.”
‘I said: “I know it’s his life, but I really thought one day he’d get married and I’d have grandchildren. Like any mother does.” Then Fred said to me: “You’ve got to accept it, he’s your son.” And so I did.’
Not only did she accept it, but she and Fred supported Elton throughout many tumultuous years of failed relationships, before he finally settled down with David Furnish. Which makes it all the harder for her to bear that Elton has not wanted her to meet his children.
‘I was never even told that he intended to have a child by a surrogate mother,’ she says. ‘When I found out it did surprise me. I didn’t know he had a son until I read it in the newspapers.’
Today, she fears it may already be too late for her ever to form a relationship with her grandchildren.
‘That little boy’s four now. He’s not seen me, he doesn’t know I exist. What’s the point? It wouldn’t be normal. It wouldn’t be like an old grandma with the kids, where you could take the kids out.
‘They’re with nannies all the time and it doesn’t matter what I said, it wouldn’t be right.
‘If I saw a kid misbehaving, I’d say: “Don’t do that.” But I’m sure I wouldn’t be allowed to say that to them. No point me meeting them and perhaps adding to any confusion.’ Indeed, despite their life of privilege, Sheila says she feels sorry for her two little grandchildren.
‘He might say they’ve got a good life, but they haven’t got a normal life when they’re living with nannies. And they haven’t got a proper gran either, have they?’
She fears Elton’s age, too, will inevitably impact on the boys’ childhoods. ‘Elton is 68, two years off 70. I was just 22 when I had Elton, so we were young together. That’s the thing I am concerned about. Because the kids are not going to have it like he had it.’
She is equally concerned about the publicity that the boys have been exposed to by their two fathers.
She well remembers Elton once warning her, in his early days as a performer, ‘Be careful who you speak to, Mum, because there’s a lot of Press here’.
‘So we spent our life not talking to anybody and I have never spoken to the Press until now. I had no desire to.
‘Now, Elton and David Furnish are on Facebook and Instagram with the kids there, too. They’re everywhere, telling about their lives to everybody. So where is the security now? It all seems to be about publicity.’
Sheila knows a thing or two about the pressures of raising a child, having brought up Elton through some very difficult years when her marriage to his father, Stanley Dwight, was failing. She eventually divorced Stanley when Elton was 14 and went on to marry Fred Farebrother, a painter and decorator, who became a devoted stepfather.
Memories of all the sacrifices they made in those early days come flooding back. Sheila smiles with pride as she recalls Elton as a four-year-old playing their piano at home in Pinner, North-West London. ‘His feet couldn’t reach the pedals. He was playing for the local kids’ charity things, weddings and parties — he’d do all the hits by Winifred Atwell and Russ Conway, top pop pianists of the time.
‘He was very good at it. I used to let him play for fun. We’d have people at the door wanting to hear him because there were write-ups in the local paper about him being such a “boy genius” when he was so young.’
Music has always been in the family. Elton’s father was a gifted trumpeter and his grandfather a cornet player. ‘That’s how I met his father, at dances. And then he joined the RAF and he did very well for himself.’
Elton actually looks more like his father than he does his mother and Sheila says that looks are not the only thing the two men shared.
‘I had two men in my life who were very clever but had no bloody common sense,’ she laughs.
‘But of course I was proud of Elton — I always have been. That’s what we worked for, to make him successful.
‘Although he was an only child, I made sure he wasn’t spoilt. I took a job to pay for him to go to a small private school, and he had elocution lessons which have helped him in his professional career.’
She says that, in return, he was always a loving, hard-working son.
‘He used to do a paper round when he was around 12 and saved his money up to buy me presents. I’ve still got the little presents he bought me. He worked in a local record shop as well.
‘They loved him there, because he knew all the hits. And he worked in a pub playing the piano at 16. Fred got him that job. Oh, my Elton was a grafter. He wasn’t a lazy child at all. But I didn’t like him being in the pub. I’m not one for pubs really.
‘They wanted a pianist to play Friday and Saturday nights. He was still at school when he started and used to go and play for them. I think it was half-a-crown [12½p] a night. And Fred used to set up all the gear for him and go round with a box for contributions.
‘I’d sit there in the public bar and I hated it. But I had to go because Elton was frightened to go there on his own in case of trouble. One night a fight broke out and he was trying to get out through a window. Fred dragged him back in and said: “Sit down and play, that’s what you’re here for.” He would be scared stiff but he bravely carried on, while we were watching out for any further trouble.’ Later on, after professional music lessons were paid for, Elton won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Of Music.
‘When we lived in Northwood, Elton lived with us, and so did Bernie Taupin, the lyricist. And that is where they wrote Your Song.’
It would go on to become their first major hit single in January 1971. And as Elton’s career took off, Sheila and Fred became a vital part of his support network.
‘In the early Seventies I gave up a good job with the Civil Service to be his housekeeper. We had to go and look after Elton’s house in Virginia Water, in Surrey, while he was away touring. I was scrubbing and cleaning and cooking and being the bottle-washer, answering the phone and taking all the abuse of his mood swings for years.’
On other occasions, she was invited to travel the world with him. She even went with Elton to Russia, where he became one of the first Western artists to perform behind the Iron Curtain. ‘I was frightened all the time I was out there,’ she admits. ‘But Elton said the powerful Russian business bosses who attended his concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg with their children wanted to see his parents and he would not go without us.’
But as his fame grew, so too did the difficulties as Elton battled drugs, alcohol abuse and a string of failed relationships.
As Sheila puts it: ‘We had to put up with a lot. All the bad times, all the moods and the drugs — I went through all that with him.’
Matters came to a head in 1990 when Elton realised he had problems from substance abuse and that he was also bulimic. He was persuaded by a friend who had similar problems to go into rehab in America.
Always looking out for him as a caring mother, Sheila says: ‘He hated me at that time because he knew I didn’t like the drugs, and he knew I knew what he was doing. I told him to stop, but when someone is on drugs you can’t tell them anything.
‘We just hoped he would come through the other side and luckily he did. And we used to all be like one family. Elton had the talent but the others all helped to make the whole thing happen.
‘But he was good, he was very kind. He had always been very kind to me until he got with David Furnish.’
Ah yes, David Furnish, the man whose name Sheila can barely bring herself to mention. Elton has credited Furnish with bringing stability to his life, but Sheila believes he is responsible for the way Elton has severed ties with so many old friends and associates — and, of course, with his own mother. Sheila insists her son had been conquering his drug and alcohol addictions before Furnish came on the scene. ‘Elton realised he had a problem and went into rehab in America before he met Furnish,’ she says firmly.
They met when someone Elton knew through Alcoholics Anonymous brought David Furnish to dinner at Elton’s magnificent mansion.
‘I’ve still got the letters he wrote me from rehab about how much he loved me and how much he missed me and what a wonderful mother I was. All those things seem to have since been forgotten. But I’ve kept everything. I’ve kept all the letters. I’ve got the nasty letters he wrote to me as well as the nice ones.’
Despite some reports to the contrary, Sheila’s relationship with her son had soured long before she decided to sell a collection of Elton memorabilia that she had built up over the years. As she explains, she did this only through practical necessity.
After Fred died five years ago, Sheila decided to downsize from her £1 million Thameside home, just two miles from her son’s £15 million mansion in Old Windsor.
She moved to her two-bedroom bungalow ten minutes from the beach in West Sussex and simply had less space to house mementos.
She says: ‘It upset me that some people thought I was cashing in on these items. But it wasn’t like that at all. I simply had no room for all of it and the money was put to good use on this property. Elton didn’t need the stuff; he has plenty of his own.’
Whatever the exact cause of the rift — and there are, of course, often two sides to every family feud — Sheila is resigned to the fact that they are estranged.
‘It would be nice if my son would pick up the phone every now and again and say: “Hello Mum” like it used to be. He used to call me from wherever he was in the world on a Saturday to give him the football results. It didn’t matter where I was going, I had to be there to answer that phone.
‘I did all those things. But he forgets all those things. Because he lives in a different world now — I call it Elt’s World.
‘He obviously doesn’t want to have anything to do with me and I’m quite OK with that. If that makes him happy and he’s happy, that’s OK by me. But he wouldn’t see me without anything, I know that.
‘If I wanted anything, I know he’d give it to me but I’ll never ask. It’s not in my nature. I’ve never asked. He used to say to me: “One thing about you, Mum, you never ask me for anything.” ’
Even so, it is to Elton’s credit that he continues to support Sheila financially and to provide a roof over her head, despite all that has passed between them.
Her thoughts turn to the future and the acceptance that time is running out for a reconciliation.
‘I haven’t got much longer to go and he’s hopefully got a long while to go for the sake of those children. When you get to 90 you think: “Well how much longer have I got?” — although John Reid’s already saying: “I’m doing your l00th birthday party.”
‘God, what am I going to be like?’ she adds, with a twinkle in her eye.
- Daily Mail
at 3:51 PM