Elton John Didn’t Come Out -- and Other Surprising Facts About the “Rocketman”
If you've seen the movie, you don't know everything
In the summer of 1976, Elton John was everywhere: selling out Madison Square Garden in New York City; sitting atop a pile of fan letters for a photo op in Los Angeles; dominating the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”; and smiling from magazine stands.
“Could You Make Elton Happy?” Teen Beat asked on its September 1976 cover. “We have his surprising answer.”
To Teen Beat’s target audience of young, boy-crazy females, the surprise answer would come some weeks later. In the Oct., 7, 1976, Rolling Stone interview, “Elton John: It’s Lonely at the Top,” the 29-year-old pop star discussed sex and sexuality.
“I haven’t met anybody that I would like to settle down with -- of either sex,” John said.
“You’re bisexual?” journalist Cliff Jahr asked.
“There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex,” John replied. “I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be.”
Even in the anything-goes 1970s, stars of John’s caliber -- arena gods possessed of the era’s Infinity Stones of pop success (gold records, world tours, Grammy nominations, stretch limos, a Time magazine cover) -- didn’t talk about bedding someone of their own sex. Yes, David Bowie had, in 1972, to U.K.’s Melody Maker, said, “I’m gay,” but Bowie wasn’t yet a mainstream star. He would never, in fact, be as mainstream as John, who, in terms of career album sales, would be bested only by Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks and the Beatles.
Elton John saying he was sexually and romantically interested in men was a pop-culture moment -- but was it what we’d now call a coming-out moment?
1. Happy anniversaries
The one thing that comes shining through in John’s overall story -- a story told by journalists, biographers, the 2019 biopic Rocketman, and, most of all, by John himself -- is its star subject’s willingness to talk about everything. His success, his failings, his two-decades-long struggle with addictions, his path to sobriety, his thoughts on Janet Jackson concerts. (“It’s f--king lip-synced! Hello! That’s not a show! I’d rather go and see a drag queen. F--k off.”)
So, in a very real way, Elton John wasn’t coming out to Rolling Stone in 1976, he was just doing more of the same: He was telling his truth.
Indeed, even prior to the bisexual question being posed in the interview, John offhandedly mentioned that while in New York for the Madison Square Garden shows he’d visited two gay clubs. And when the conversation explicitly turned to John’s sex life, the interviewer asked John if he wanted the tape recorder turned off. Rolling Stone gave Elton John every out, but, at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal act in parts of the United States and under certain interpretations of U.K. law, Elton John wanted to be out. More than that, as far as he was concerned, he was out.
"I've been waiting for people to ask me this,” John would recount decades later. “It's not exactly a secret. … I just thought it was common knowledge."
Here are more surprising details about Elton John’s uncommon and uncommonly open-book life. Like the movie Rocketman, these factoids are not presented in linear fashion. John’s too fashionable for that.
On Dec. 21, 2014, John wed ad exec-turned-producer David Furnish. The ceremony was held in England, and, more important, came nine years to the day that John and Furnish formalized their decades-long relationship in a civil ceremony.
2. The Hail Mary pass
Years before John met Furnish at a dinner party, he met a recording engineer while working on his 1983 album, Too Low for Zero. Her name was Renate Blauel.
John proposed in 1984, and five days later, on Valentine’s Day, the couple wed in Australia.
“You may still be standing," Rod Stewart reportedly wrote his friend and fellow pop star in a telegram that referenced John’s then-hit “I’m Still Standing,” “but we're all on the f---ing floor."
To hear John tell it, the marriage made perfect sense to a drug addict, which is what John was through much of the 1970s and 1980s. His list of self-destructive behaviors at the time also included alcohol abuse and the binge-and-purge cycle of bulimia. .
"I was so unhappy, so I thought, what can I do to change?” John explained of his marriage to Blauel to the Sydney Morning Herald. “I'll move here. That will change things. Or, I'll get a new boyfriend. Oh, I know what: I've had enough boyfriends and that's not made me happy, so I'll have a wife; that will change everything.”
4. The late bloomer
Having a wife didn’t cure John’s addictions. John and Blauel divorced in 1988 with John as troubled as ever. It would take two more years for John to find what he really needed all along was rehab.
“In the end, I knew there was really no choice,” John told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I realized this was my last chance."
Early publicity photos of Elton John, circa the late 1960s, reveal a stylish young man, cool in shades, and blessed with what appears to be a budding flare for the dramatic.
They also show a virgin, not to mention a future LGBT trailblazer who’d didn’t really know he was gay. Indeed, around this time, John was engaged, unhappily and chastely, to a woman.
“I got off to a very slow start,” John told Variety in 2019. “I was like the tortoise and the hare, and then suddenly the tortoise overtook the hare, and I made up for lost time.”
5. The manager
Everything changed for Elton John -- including his virginity -- when he arrived in the United States for a series of career-making shows.
"I had sex [for the first time] in San Francisco in 1970,” John told NPR in 2013.
His partner was John Reid, his “first great love,” his future manager -- and the future de-facto villain of Rocketman.
In the film, Reid is portrayed by Game of Thrones alum Richard Madden. The character is aloof and volatile, and not at all like the all-business version of Reid seen in the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. (Reid is played by in that film by another GoT veteran, Aidan Gillen.)
Reid’s relationship with Mercury and Queen, of course, was all business, and, despite a fiery termination scene invented for Bohemian Rhapsody, it ended uneventfully. Reid’s relationship with John, however, blurred lines, and ended in ugly fashion in 1998 with John accusing Reid of mismanaging his millions. A court battle ensued.
While Reid represented a seminal relationship for John, the pop star once said he doesn’t think Reid was ever “really that comfortable with coming out, as such, as a relationship.”
7. It was in the cards
Until the final split, and even after they ended their live-in romance in the mid-1970s, Elton John and John Reid remained close. When John married Renate Blauel, in fact, Reid didn’t just fly to Australia to attend the wedding. He served as best man.
The most significant professional relationship of John’s life has been with Bernie Taupin, the lyricist behind nearly every significant John song, from “Your Song” to “Candle in the Wind.” John and Taupin connected in 1967, when John was 19, Taupin was 17 -- and their luck was good.
One day, John read a record-label ad seeking “ARTISTES/COMPOSERS” and “SINGER-MUSICIANS” in the British magazine, New Musical Express. When John applied in person, he told the label he could sing and compose, but not write lyrics. A worker at the front desk turned to a pile of envelopes -- the envelopes had been submitted by lyricists who’d responded to the same ad. The employee fished out an envelope, and handed it to John.
“I took it back on the tube train or the subway, and I opened it and I read it and it was Bernie,” John said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “... [I]t could have been any envelope, talk about kismet."
8. Mummy dearest
Another key to John’s story is his childhood -- his unhappy childhood. After he found success on the world stage, John would reach out, and attempt to include his parents, Stanley Dwight and the former Sheila Eileen. But there was no closure. “I never had his approval,” John said of his father, who died in 1991.
As for his mother …
While Sheila Farebrother, as she was known after a second marriage, attended her son’s 50th birthday celebration dressed as Queen Elizabeth II -- it was a costume-themed event -- she subsequently fell out with John after she sided with ex-members of his team, including John Reid, and called John’s husband, David Furnish, “that f--king thing.” For her own 90th birthday party, which John did not attend, she invited Reid -- and hired an Elton John impersonator. But mother-and-son rapprochement eventually occurred, and John was with Farebrother in her last days in 2017. In her will, she left him two urns.
It might not have been a happy home, but John’s family home was a musical one. His father, Stanley, and an aunt, Win, played piano. Stanely even played trumpet in a jazz band. But it was John’s grandmother Ivy, depicted in Rocketman as a singularly positive influence on the young Reggie, who made the greatest impact: It was she who first sat down the future star at the family upright.
In a matter of months, the 3-year-old was picking out the melody to Winifred Atwell's "The Skater's Waltz" by ear. At 7, he began formal piano lessons. The lessons, he would recall, were “much against my will, but I had a nice music teacher, so that was alright.”
At age 11, John won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he spent Saturdays for several years learning classical theory and musicianship.
In Elizabeth J. Rosenthal’s biography, His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, John paints himself as a lazy, reluctant pupil who skipped class and barely practiced. His teachers, on the other hand, recall a model student who could reproduce complicated concertos after one listen.
10. No horsing around
“I’ve never been a half-measured person,” John told the New York Times in 2019. True to form, the singer didn’t merely adopt Elton John as a stage name; he made it his legal name.
On Jan. 6, 1972, per the biography, Elton: The Biography, by David Buckley, Reginald Kenneth Dwight officially became Elton Hercules John.
The new middle name came not from the Roman god, but from the horse on the British sitcom about junk-dealers, Steptoe and Son.
Eight days after John’s name change was formalized, on Jan. 14, 1972. a show called Sanford and Son premiered on NBC. Sanford was the American remake of Steptoe, with a pickup truck in place of a horse. Elton John would be all the Hercules U.S. audiences would need.
11. The piano man
Elton John and David Bowie weren’t just contemporaries, they were friends -- until, that is, the mid-1970s when Bowie called John “the Liberace, the token queen of rock.”
John was not amused.
12. The wardrobe malfunction
The Wisconsin-born Władziu Valentino Liberace was a classically trained pianist who brought sequins, candelabras and showmanship into living rooms worldwide via regular TV appearances from the 1950s on. As such, he was a hero to the young Reginald Dwight.
"He was so charming and so lovely and very, very funny and very, very intelligent,” John recounted to NPR. “... He was being who he was -- he wasn't publicly out -- but he didn't give a flying monkey about what he was wearing; he just went for it.”
John would go onto dismiss Bowie’s attempted Liberace dig as “a bit snooty.” Bowie died in 2016 with his and John’s relationship unmended. “David and I were not good friends toward the end,” John said of Bowie.
One of the lessons John learned from Liberace was to dress to impress -- especially when, as John would put it to NPR, “you’re stuck at a piano … [behind] a nine-foot plank.”
It took time and confidence, however, for John to let his Liberace flag fly free. For the first couple years of his solo career, John favored hip, but almost-stately designer suits by Nudie Cohn, the tailor who designed Elvis Presley’s iconic gold-lamé suit. He modeled a floral-patterned Nudie Cohn jacket in a 1971 British-TV performance.
And then John apparently wore the same jacket again when he served as best man at Taupin’s March 1971 wedding to Taupin’s first wife, Maxine Feibelman.
John’s days of fashion recycling, however, were numbered. He would soon branch out into more -- more jackets, more sunglasses, more everything. The headdresses, jumpsuits, sky-high platform shoes and Muppets -- or, rather, clothes fit for an appearance on The Muppet Show -- followed.
Even into the 1980s, John was not above literally making a clown out of himself on stage. In 1986, he joined George Michael at London’s Wembley Stadium for the final live show by Michael’s Wham! John and Michael were friends and future collaborators (notably, on a 1990 cover of the John hit, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”), and John wasn’t about to let his pal’s group go quietly into the night: He dressed like Ronald McDonald.
Looking back, the older, now-more conservatively dressed John thinks his finest costume moment came on Sept. 13, 1980, before a mammoth crowd at New York City’s Central Park. Offstage, before his encore, he changed into his ultimate wardrobe piece: a Donald Duck outfit, complete with duck feet and duck-bill cap.
“It was so hard to get into!,” John recalled for the UK’s Chronicle. “I was frantically putting my hands in the feet and my feet in the hands while the crowd was waiting ..."
The outfit wowed -- and gave John fits. He struggled to play his touching 1972 classic, “Your Song,” without laughing. He didn’t always prevail. The suit was so oversized, Buckley observed in Elton: The Biography, that John could not “get his legs under the keyboard properly.”
The scene, the biographer wrote, was “completely quackers.”
14. When everything comes together
As evidenced by the David Bowie flap, John is no stranger to a good beef. John and Madonna have their own shady history, too. -- and John started it.
In 2002, John insulted the singer’s title track for the James Bond film, Die Another Day. He called the song “the worst Bond tune ever,” and said that the film’s music supervisors would have been better served to choose an artist with a campier sound. “Somebody like Lulu and Shirley Bassey,” he suggested -- or even, he added helpfully, someone like himself.
Madonna held her fire.
Two years later, Madonna was nominated in the Best Live Act category for the U.K. music industry’s Q Awards. She didn’t win, but that wasn’t good enough for John. While accepting an honorary award for songwriting at the same ceremony, John shared his thoughts on Madonna’s live show. They weren’t kind.
“Since when has lip-syncing been live,” he asked the Q Awards audience. “Anyone who lip-syncs in public on stage when you pay 75 pounds to see them should be shot. Thank you very much." John then lamented, sarcastically, that he wouldn’t get a Christmas card that year from Madonna.
And still Madonna held her fire. Her team issued a polite statement noting, among other things,
“Elton John remains on her Christmas card list whether he is nice ... or naughty." (John would later note that a couple of the Christmas cards he sent her were mailed back.)
The Madonna statement also made the entertainer’s position clear: “Madonna does not lip-sync.”
Then, in 2012, John declared that Madonna’s career was over, and called the singer a “fairground stripper.”
And still Madonna held her fire. At the Golden Globes that year, Madonna played the good sport when asked about John. “He's been known to get mad at me, so I don't know,” she said. “He's brilliant, and I adore him, so he'll win another award. I don't feel bad."
In a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, John finally sounded notes of contrition. “I probably went too far with Madonna, and I got very personal and I wrote her – she was very gracious,” he said.
In October 1975, Elton John played back-to-back, sold-out dates at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. The shows played to Hollywood royalty (see: Cary Grant), of-the-moment stars (including tennis’ Billie Jean King, who sang back-up on “The Bitch Is Back”), his parents, his grandmother and an estimated 100,000 ecstatic concertgoers. The concerts were, in a word, perfect. On both nights, even the performance of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was timed to the sun setting over the stadium’s left-field seats.
16. The godmother
A couple of nights prior to the first Dodger Stadium show, and amid what had been officially declared “Elton John Week” by the city of Los Angeles, the burned-out singer swallowed dozens of tranquilizers, and announced to the guests at his Los Angeles home that he’d be dead shortly. Then he jumped into the pool. Emergency responders fished him out, and pumped his stomach.
“It was stress,” he told the U.K. Telegraph. “I’d been working nonstop for five years. … And, of course, my grandmother came out with the perfect line: ‘I suppose we’ve all got to go home now.’”
Though the thirtysomething Elton John had spoken of wanting to become a parent when he married Renate Blauel, he expressed no such ambitions when he settled down with David Furnish in the 1990s. John, in fact, was adamant that he did not want any part of pint-sized tantrums and the like. "But life throws you challenges and life throws you curveballs — and great curveballs,” John said on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. By 2013, John and Furnish were the parents to two children born via surrogacy. For the role of godmother, John and Furnish came up with inspired casting: Lady Gaga.
19. The promise?
John was close with British royal family beginning in the 1970s. Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth were both fans of his music. In 1981, John was called on to play Prince Andrew's 21st birthday party -- and that’s when he met his future dear friend, Princess Diana.
“When I arrived, there was no one there but the dance band and Princess Diana,” John would remember. “We danced the Charleston alone on the floor for 20 minutes.”
John and Princess Diana would remain close for nearly two decades. But it wasn’t always private dance parties and royal luncheons. In 1997, John and Diana had a falling out when John and designer Gianni Versace released a coffee-table book called Rock and Royalty. The book, which was produced for charity, featured photos of semi-nude male models along with photos of the as-always properly attired royal family — including Diana and her sons, William and Harry.
Fearing backlash from her harsh taskmasters at Buckingham Palace, Diana put her friendship with John on “deep freeze,” and stopped speaking to him for several months. It took the July 1997 murder of Versace to thaw the ice. After the designer’s death, Diana reached out to John on the telephone, and the two reconciled. But the second act of their friendship would prove short-lived: Diana died in a car crash six weeks later.
After Princess Diana’s death, Bernie Taupin rewrote the lyrics to his and John’s 1974 hit, “Candle in the Wind.” John performed the reworked song, titled “Goodbye England's Rose,” at Diana’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. The eyes of her family, her young sons and, via TV, fans around the world were upon him.
"Me playing at the funeral was one of the most surreal things I have ever done,” John would tell London’s Telegraph. “What was going through my mind was 'Don't sing a wrong note. Be stoic. Don't break down …’ My heart was beating quite a lot, I have to say."
21. The first sugar bear
John would later record the song with famed Beatles producer George Martin alongside him at the studio. One week after the funeral, on Sept. 13, 1997, “Goodbye England’s Rose” was released as a single (titled, “Candle in the Wind 1997”); its proceeds were earmarked for charities favored by the late princess. The song would go on to sell 11 million copies in the United States alone, and become the biggest hit of John’s career, as well as one of the top-selling singles of all-time.
Despite the song becoming ubiquitous, and despite John being willing to play the original “Candle in the Wind” in subsequent concerts over the years, the singer has not returned to “Goodbye England’s Rose,” not even for his 2007 performance at Wembley Stadium’s “Concert for Diana” (pictured, above). His rendition at Diana’s funeral marks the one and only time he’s played the tribute version in public. John reportedly has vowed to not sing the song again, unless asked to do so by Prince William and Prince Harry.
Before heading to rehab, John had spent much of the previous 20 years practicing self-abuse. But, as he sang, he’s still standing, and still working into his eighth decade. (He turned 72 in 2019.) Sadly, the two bandmates from whom the then-Reginald Dwight cribbed his pop-star name, however, were not as fortunate with time: Elton Dean died in 2006 at the age of 60; John Baldry was 64 when he passed away in 2005.
Elton Dean and John Baldry came into the orbit of the future Elton John through the 1960s R&B outfit Bluesology. It was during this period that the virginal, confused John was engaged to marry Linda Woodrow, a British secretary. Feeling trapped and hopeless, John put his head in the gas oven of the apartment he shared with Woodrow and Taupin. Taupin found John -- and “[couldn’t] stop laughing,” according to Buckley’s Elton: The Biography: Prior to popping in his head, John had placed a pillow in the oven (for comfort), and opened all the kitchen windows (for fresh air). The scene might have looked darkly comic to Taupin, but John’s pain was anything but. Taupin and Baldry got John out of the apartment, and into a pub where the three drank and talked -- and Baldry convinced John he should not marry Woodrow. John listened. So did Taupin.
Baldry, known to musicians as “Long John,” would be immortalized in a Taupin-John song inspired by John’s crisis: “Someone saved my life tonight,” John sings in his 1975 hit of the same name, finishing the line with the term of endearment, “sugar bear.”
22. The unknown soldier
Unlike “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”’s sugar bear, the identity of another name-checked Taupin-John character has been more difficult to pin down. According to Taupin, the Daniel of the 1973 hit of the same name is a “nobody.”
“I don’t have any set idea on who he is,” the lyricist once told Rolling Stone. “I just started the song with that corny rhyme ‘plane’ and ‘Spain’.”
But John remembers things differently: He remembers Taupin’s lyrics clearly explaining that, as he told NPR, Daniel “was a [Vietnam War] veteran that had lost his eyesight, and he was moving to Spain because he loved Spain.”
This backstory, however, was contained in the song’s third and final verse -- a third and final verse which John deleted because he thought it made the song too long. For listeners then, Daniel remains a nobody, or, perhaps more accurately, becomes anybody they want him to be.
24. The other jaw-dropping wedding
While John and Taupin’s working relationship is unique in its origin and its longevity, it’s also distinguished by its method of collaboration: The two literally never write songs together, as in, they never write songs in the same room.
As John has told it, “I just go to the studio, and there’s 24 lyrics waiting for me, and I look through them and see which one I want to start with, and then I try to write a song.”
Because of this arrangement, many of the characters in John’s songs, such as “Tiny Dancer,” aren’t about John, but rather Taupin or the people in Taupin’s life.
At the same time, as Elton John biographer Tom Doyle pointed out to Biography, the two songwriters “are completely in tune and on the same wavelength which allows for a certain intimacy to come through in the songs which people related to in a big way.”
In 2010, conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh offered Elton John a reported $1 million to play his Palm Beach, Florida, wedding to his fourth wife, Kathryn Rogers. John, who’d long campaigned for causes that Limbaugh mocked, accepted.
While John had a history of being a bridge-builder -- he reached out to Axl Rose and Eminem after each was called out for homophobic lyrics -- this move seemed more shocking. Rose and Eminem, after all, were fellow artists. John didn’t have anything in common with Limbaugh and the host’s world. Then again, maybe they had something in common with John.
“I went onstage and I said, ‘I bet you’re all wondering what the f--k I’m doing here,'” John told Rolling Stone. “And they just broke – it was one of the best audiences I’ve played. I’m playing and I say, ‘Listen, I’m not so bad after all. I’m queer, I’m gay and you love me.’ OK? Point taken.”
25. Endings, beginnings
Ryan White was from Kokomo, Indiana. He liked school and skateboarding. From birth, he battled hemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder that required regular plasma infusions. When he was 13, he was diagnosed with AIDS. The year was 1984 -- and perhaps the only thing topping deaths from AIDS was fear of the disease.
Even though White rallied, health-wise, and sought a return to the classroom, the seventh-grader was barred by order of the area’s superintendent. While the courts let White back in, the community continued to shun the boy -- and worse. “... [O]ther children … wrote obscenities on his locker and shouted insults as he passed in the halls,” the New York Times reported. “Vandals broke windows of the family's house and slashed their car's tires.”
White’s story attracted the attention of Hollywood producers, football star Joe Montana, Michael Jackson, Donald Trump -- and Elton John.
John wasn’t just there for photo-ops (though, indeed, he did photo-ops with White); he was there for the end, when the 18-year-old White was dying in 1990.
"One of the most beautiful scenes I think I can remember is walking into Ryan's room and seeing Elton standing on a chair decorating Ryan's room," White’s mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, told the Associated Press. "He said, 'When he wakes up, I want him to know how much he was loved.'"
John remembers being “pretty screwed up at the time,” but inspired by White and his mother.
"I couldn't believe that a family who had had so much hatred flung at them and so much bigotry could be so forgiving,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “... And it felt good [to] be able to contribute. . . . For that week or so I didn't do any drugs or drink. I was too busy organizing things and trying to help."
On April 11, 1990, the day of White’s funeral, John served as a pallbearer, sang a song, “Skyline Pigeon,” at the memorial -- and began to reassess his own life.
“I realized that I only had two choices,” John said to NPR. “I was either going to die or I was going to live, and which one did I want to do?”
John got sober, and got an idea -- “about giving something back and making up for lost time,” he told CBS News.
John, who despite his relationship with White, felt he had sat out the battles for AIDS funding and education in the 1980s, established the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992.
“White changed the world,” John would say in 2015, “and he certainly changed me.”