After 40 years in the music industry, living legend Sir Elton John is still standing—and taller than ever. He's sold more than 250 million albums worldwide, won five Grammys®, earned a Best Song Oscar® for The Lion King's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and has the best-selling single of all time, "Candle in the Wind." Now, he's left his mark on the Great White Way, where his Broadway hit Billy Elliot earned him a Tony® and continues to sell out theaters.
Growing up in the London projects, Elton says he never could have dreamed of such success. "Music was something I grew up with and I loved passionately and I always wanted to be involved in," he says. "I never really imagined being a singer. I was an organ player in a band, and I got fed up while doing that."
Elton says he then auditioned at a record company, which was also looking for songwriters. "I said I couldn't write lyrics and they said, 'Well, there's some lyrics from a guy from Lincolnshire,' who turned out to be [Elton's longtime collaborator] Bernie Taupin," he says. "I started writing songs for other people and nobody recorded them, and so in the end I recorded them myself and became a recording artist, which wasn't on my radar. Everything that happened after that was the biggest surprise."
The world views Elton as a music legend, but Elton says he sees himself as something else entirely. "I see myself as someone who's taken a long time to get where I am personally," he says. "I've got now balance in my life, where the first 30 years of my success—or maybe 20 years of my success—I had a great time and then I took a lot of drugs, drank a lot of alcohol and lost my way."
Elton says he was inspired to seek sobriety by a very special person, Ryan White, the Indiana teen who was infected with HIV after a blood transfusion. He died in 1990 at age 18. "I was at his funeral, and I spent the last week of his life in Indianapolis with [his mom] Jeanne and his family," he says. "The way they handled themselves pointed out to myself that ... I hadn't become the person I wanted to be."
"There's so many artists that we can look through the history books [at] and say, 'God, they were so brilliant onstage and then they had so many problems off,'" he says. "I became one of those people."
Six months after Ryan's death, Elton says he checked into a Chicago hospital to detox. "It's been 20 years this year," he says. "[It was] the best six weeks I ever did for myself. Then all things happened for me—The Lion King happened. [Elton's partner] David happened. We formed our own movie company. The charity—the Elton John AIDS Foundation."
In addition to his unforgettable songs, Elton's also known for his outrageous outfits. "It was a part of my life which I had so much fun," he says. "I lived as a teenager and I didn't really have the ability or the chance to wear what I wanted to as a kid. So I think when I became successful in 1970, all hell broke loose."
Elton says his costumes let him unleash his inner rock star. "When you're sitting at the piano, you're not David Bowie, you're not Mick Jagger, you're not Rod Stewart, you're not Freddie Mercury," he says. "So I just needed to put some attention on me."
Years ago, his costumes made a statement. Today, Elton sells most of them for charity. "We sell clothes every two years," he says. "David and I take our personal wardrobe, sell them all and give the money to the AIDS foundation, and sometimes we sell a couple of stage outfits as well."
Costumes, theater and fame aside, Elton says he's now in the best place he can be in life. "I am so comfortable. I've been with David for 17 years," he says. "It's important that you have someone really wonderful to share your life with."
In 2009, Elton says he and David even tried to adopt two Ukrainian boys. "Unfortunately, it was so complicated that we couldn't do it. There were too many laws that said we couldn't do it in Ukraine," he says. "It broke our heart because we fell in love with these kids. One was 15 months; one was 3. They were brothers. One was HIV-positive, and one wasn't."
Despite their heartbreak—which played out in the media—Elton says he and David are still discussing adoption. "I said until that point no [to fatherhood] because I'm too old," he says. "And I thought: 'You know what, Elton? You're not too old. You're still very young at heart. You've done everything you possibly can in your career—the only thing you haven't done is be a good parent.'"
Elton says he's ready for the challenge of parenting. "I think that life's all about learning," he says. "It's all about as you get older trying to learn a little bit more, trying to change the way you are. And I think that a child probably would be the icing on the cake."
Onstage, Elton has spent the past few years nursing another baby—Billy Elliot. The Broadway musical is based on the film about an Irish boy with a passion for dance. The musical premiered in London and moved to Broadway after rave reviews. In 2009, it took home 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
In the musical, Billy's father is initially unsupportive of his passion for dance. Elton says the story reminds him of his own father's reaction to Elton's love of music. "My father never really encouraged me. Even when I became successful as Elton John, he never came to see me," he says. "At the end, [Billy Eliot's] father comes to the opera house in London and sees Billy come onstage and dance on one leg. It made me cry because my dad never, ever saw me."
Still, Elton says his father's reaction gave him the drive to succeed. "I wanted to prove a point," he says. "I just wanted him to say: 'Good, well done. I was wrong.' But, no, that never happened."
Looking back at an old photo, Elton has some advice for his former self. "Don't go out with the feathers," he jokes. "I learned so much in my life, and even the drug use got me to where I am now. But I would definitely say to people and looking at myself then: Be true to yourself. Be honest. Be loyal. And stay away from those bloody drugs for Christ's sake."