I first met Diana in 1981, just before her marriage to Prince Charles. It was at Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle. The evening was completely surreal.
The percussionist Ray Cooper and I were supposed to be providing the entertainment, but before we performed, there was a disco in the ballroom.
Because the Queen was there, and no one wanted to cause any offence to the royal sensibilities, the disco was turned down about as low as you could get without switching it off altogether. You could literally hear your feet moving around on the floor over the music.
Bewitching: Diana with Elton in 1993 at a television awards ceremony
Princess Anne asked me to dance with her to Hound Dog by Elvis Presley. Well, I say ‘dance’: I ended up just awkwardly shuffling from foot to foot, trying to make as little noise as I could so that I didn’t drown out the music.
If you strained your ears and concentrated hard, you could just about make out that the DJ had segued from Elvis into Rock Around The Clock.
Then the Queen appeared, carrying her handbag. She walked over and asked if she could join us.
So now I was trying to dance as inaudibly as possible with Princess Anne and the Queen — still holding her handbag — while what appeared to be the world’s quietest disco played Bill Haley. I tried my best to come up with a facial expression that suggested this was a perfectly normal state of affairs.
I know the Queen’s public image isn’t exactly one of wild frivolity, but I think that’s more to do with the nature of her job: she can’t exactly sit there cracking jokes during the State Opening of Parliament. But in private, she could be hilarious. At another party, I saw her approach Viscount Linley and ask him to look in on his sister, who’d been taken ill and had retired to her room.
Princess Diana and sir Elton at a memorial mass for Italian designer Gianni Versace in Milan in July 1997
When he repeatedly tried to fob her off, the Queen lightly slapped him across the face, saying ‘Don’t’ — SLAP — ‘argue’ — SLAP — ‘with’ — SLAP — ‘me’ — SLAP — ‘I’ — SLAP — ‘am’ — SLAP — ‘THE QUEEN!’
That seemed to do the trick. As he left, she saw me staring at her, gave me a wink and walked off.
Yet no matter how funny or normal the Royal Family seemed, whether they were asking me if I’d done any coke before I went onstage (as Princess Alexandra once did), or winking at me after slapping a nephew across the face, there’d inevitably come a moment where I’d find myself thinking: ‘This is just bizarre. I’m a musician from a council house on Pinner Road — what am I doing here?’
But with Diana, it wasn’t like that. She was blessed with an incredible social ease, an ability to make people feel totally comfortable in her company.
Her kids have inherited it, Prince Harry in particular; he’s exactly the same as his mum, no interest in formality or grandeur.
That famous photo of her holding an Aids patient’s hand at the London Middlesex Hospital — that was Diana. I don’t think she was necessarily trying to make a big point, although obviously she did: in that moment, she changed public attitudes to Aids forever.
Would-be love rivals Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone
She’d just met someone suffering, dying in agony: why wouldn’t you reach out and touch them? It’s the natural human impulse, to try to comfort someone.
Anyway, that night in 1981, she arrived in the ballroom and we immediately clicked. We ended up pretending to dance the Charleston while hooting at the disco’s feebleness.
Over the years I knew her, she was fabulous company, the best dinner party guest, incredibly indiscreet, a real gossip: you could ask her anything and she’d tell you.
But if I was bowled over by Diana, it was nothing compared with the impact she could have on straight men. They seemed completely to lose their minds in her presence: they were just utterly bewitched.
While I was making The Lion King, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney, came over to England. David Furnish — now my husband — and I threw a dinner party for him and his wife, and asked if there was anyone they really wanted to meet. Straight away, they said: ‘Princess Diana.’
So we invited her, George Michael, Richard Curtis and his wife Emma Freud, Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone, all of whom were in the country at the time.
The most peculiar scene developed. Straight away, Richard Gere and Diana seemed very taken with each other.
She was separated from Charles by this point, and Richard had broken up with Cindy Crawford. They ended up sitting in front of the fireplace together, locked in rapt conversation.
As the rest of us chatted, I couldn’t help notice a strange atmosphere in the room. Judging by the kind of looks he kept shooting them, Diana and Richard Gere’s newly blossoming friendship was not going down well with Sylvester Stallone at all.
I think he may have turned up to the party with the express intention of picking Diana up, only to find his plans for the evening ruined.
Eventually, dinner was served. We moved into the dining room and seated ourselves at the table. Or at least, most of us did. There was no sign of Richard Gere, or indeed Sylvester Stallone.
I asked David to go and find them. He came back with both of them, but he was wearing a fairly ashen expression.
‘Elton,’ he mumbled. ‘We have . . . a situation.’
Me: Elton John Official Autobiography by Elton John is published by Macmillan on October 15, £25. © Elton John 2019
It transpired that he’d discovered Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere in the corridor, squaring up to each other, apparently about to settle their differences over Diana by having a fist-fight.
He’d managed to calm things down by pretending he hadn’t noticed what was going on — ‘Hey, guys! Time for dinner!’ — but Sylvester clearly still wasn’t happy.
After dinner, Diana and Richard Gere resumed their position together in front of the fire, and Sylvester stormed off home.
‘I never would have come,’ he snapped, as David and I showed him to the door, ‘if I’d known Prince f***in’ Charming was gonna be here.’ Then he added: ‘If I’d wanted her, I would’ve taken her!’
We managed to wait until his car was out of sight before we started laughing.
Back in our living room, Diana and Richard Gere were still gazing raptly at each other. She seemed completely unruffled.
Maybe she hadn’t realised what was happening. Or maybe stuff like that happened all the time and she was used to it.
After she died, people started talking about something called the Diana Effect, meaning the way she managed to change the public’s attitudes to the Royal Family, or to Aids or bulimia or mental health. But every time I heard the phrase, I thought about that night.
There was definitely another kind of Diana Effect: one that could bring Hollywood superstars to the verge of a punch-up over her, like a couple of love-struck teenage idiots.
She was a very dear friend for years, and then, completely unexpectedly, we fell out. The cause was a book Gianni Versace put together called Rock And Royalty, a collection of portraits by great photographers. The proceeds were going to the AIDS Foundation, and she agreed to write the foreword.
DAZZLING LIZ GOT HER HANDS ON MY JEWELS
Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John backstage before he performs in New York in 1992
Liz Taylor had a grand image, but she wasn’t like that at all in real life. She was hilarious — she had a really filthy English sense of humour — and incredibly kind, although you had to watch your jewellery around her.
She was obsessed. If you were wearing something she liked the look of, she’d somehow just charm you into giving it to her. You’d walk into her dressing room wearing a Cartier watch and leave without it, never entirely sure how she’d managed to get it off you.
Then she got cold feet. I think Buckingham Palace didn’t like the idea of a member of the Royal Family having anything to do with a book that featured shots of naked guys with towels draped around them. So, at the last moment, Diana withdrew her foreword. She said she had no idea of the book’s contents, which just wasn’t true: Gianni had shown her the whole thing and she had said she loved it.
I wrote back to her, calling her out, telling her how much money she had cost the AIDS Foundation, reminding her that she had seen the book. The letter I got back was very formal and severe: ‘Dear Mr John . . .’
I was angry with her, but I was also worried. She seemed to be losing touch with all sorts of really close friends, who would be honest with her, and surrounding herself instead with people who told her what she wanted to hear.
I knew from personal experience that wasn’t a healthy situation.
I didn’t speak to her again until the day Gianni was murdered. I don’t even know how she got hold of the number; we hadn’t had the house in Nice for long. She was just down the coast, in St Tropez, on Dodi Fayed’s yacht. She asked how I was, if I’d spoken to Donatella. Then she said: ‘I’m so sorry. It was a silly falling-out. Let’s be friends.’
She came with us to the funeral, looking incredible. When she walked in, the paparazzi in the church went crazy: it was like the biggest star in the world had arrived, which I suppose she had.
They didn’t let up throughout the service, although I feel I should point out that the famous shot they got of her supposedly consoling me — where she’s leaning forward towards me, speaking, while I’m red-eyed and glazed with grief — is one moment in the service where she wasn’t doing anything of the sort.
They snapped her just as she was leaning past me, reaching for a mint that David offered her. The warm words of comfort coming from her lips at that exact moment were actually: ‘God, I’d love a Polo.’
I wrote to her afterwards, thanking her, and she wrote back offering to be a patron of the AIDS Foundation and asking if I would get involved in her landmine charity. We were going to meet up next time we were both in London to have lunch and discuss it.
But there wasn’t a next time.
One Sunday morning, at the end of August, we were woken by the sound of the fax machine going off. David went to look at it and came back with a sheet of paper, with a handwritten message from a friend in London: ‘So sorry to hear about this awful news.’
Neither of us knew what it meant. With a mounting sense of dread, I switched the television on. And that was how I found out Princess Diana had died.
Me: Elton John Official Autobiography by Elton John is published by Macmillan on October 15, £25. © Elton John 2019.
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