Elton’s partner of a steady nine years, David Furnish, came from the Canadian advertising world to conquer the affections of one of music’s true icons, Elton John.
Now, a relaxed and settled David, talked to London’s Evening Standard newspaper about his life with the contemporary Mozart on October 14, 2002:
David Furnish turns up at a west London hotel in a bad mood. “I’m very tired,” he says to no one in particular. “I had a very late night last night and I’m exhausted.
Luckily Mark is on hand to soothe the nerves. Mark is the man who does the make-up.
Paul does the wigs for Elton.
“Oh, he has to take his hairdresser everywhere,” says Furnish. “When I first met Elton, I found that a little odd, but when I saw what his hairdresser does with the weave, well, I realised how important it is for Elton that Paul is there. When Elton is on stage the whole thing gets soaked and has to be dried and fluffed. And it has to be treated with chemicals so … Paul’s the only one who knows how to do it.”
His mobile phone rings and lots of gossiping ensues. Furnish laughs a lot and makes reassuring noises.
“Elton,” he says looking all cheery, “he’s on tour. He’s always on tour, but he’s in a very chirpy mood. I like it when he’s like that. I feel I can relax.”
The atmosphere in the room eases. It is hard, initially, to know what to make of David Furnish. I had always assumed that he was a bit-part player.
Over the past nine years, since they got together over a dinner party at Elton John’s Windsor house, Furnish has always been photographed tacked on to Elton’s side grinning like an over-enthusiastic fool.
In real life, however, he’s really rather slick – white teeth, slightly perma-tanned, very wellgroomed, good hair, great clothes.
“I’m in Commes des Garcons today,” he says, showing off his black and red silky shirt and black trousers with a faux-tattered seam.
He may be stylish now, but he is renowned for letting his partner dress him up like a pampered poodle. When Elton wanted them to go in his ‘n’ hers complimentary Louis Quatorze to his birthday party in 1997 at the Hammersmith Palais, Furnish agreed. Elton wore a towering wig while Furnish, dressed in ruffles, sported long purple tresses. He looked slightly ridiculous.
“Hmm,” he says when asked about it, “that was a nightmare. I mean, I do have to say that if, 10 years ago, someone had told me I’d be wearing that type of get-up in front of the world’s press I seriously would not have believed them. But I love the fact that Elton is so dramatic. When he says: ‘Let’s have a party,’ he really means a party – not having a few friends round for some beers and a take-out curry.
“We had such a great time that night. We had to come to London in a sealed furniture van because the wig was so huge and we got stuck in a ridiculous traffic jam which was entirely of our own making. We had a camera in the back so we could see what was going on, and we saw friends of ours just leave their cars and get out and walk. Elton got this huge headache and told the driver to turn around because he couldn’t bear it any longer. “He said: ‘Sod the party.’ I was supporting his wig with one arm, grabbing the walkie-talkie with the other and telling the driver to ignore him and … well, Elton says he went from Shirley Bassey to Shirley Temple in a second. You know, all big-mouth one minute and then sweetness and light when the van door opened.”
There is something deeper and steelier, however, that lurks beneath the Elton John-influenced exterior of David Furnish. The first sign of this was when Furnish made a documentary about his lover. At the time everyone assumed Tantrums and Tiaras would be a one-sided eulogy, but it wasn’t. It was an exhilaratingly, sometimes coruscatingly honest portrait of Elton John, complete with all the childishness, all the excesses of a rich man’s life mixed with a lot of humour and tenderness. The documentary was nominated for a Bafta.
“Tantrums and Tiaras was very difficult,” says Furnish, talking over Mark’s head (he has popped up to dab a bit more concealer around the eyes), “because I had only been with Elton for a year. I didn’t feel we were particularly firmly established in our relationship, but he kept asking me to do a documentary on him because he was being badgered by other people to do one. I had never picked up a camera and I knew Elton hated being photographed. He’d often storm out of photo sessions. At first, I hid the cameras behind flower pots and in the ceilings, but that didn’t work, so I just followed him around. I didn’t know how he would react when he saw it. I thought our relationship would probably be over, but he loved it. I think he learned a lot about himself. It was like video therapy.”
The reason why the documentary really works is that Furnish gets near the bottom of what it is like to be stratospherically famous and, more than that, what it is like to go out with someone that well-known.
When the couple are on holiday in the South of France, Furnish asks Elton to go for a walk with him. Elton declines. Furnish pushes him. “Why can’t we go for a walk?” he says. “I would really love to go for a walk, just the two of us.” In the end, Elton snaps at him and stalks off. “That’s what I mean,” says Furnish, “it was video therapy. It was our first holiday together. I didn’t want to stress him because he’d been working hard, but our holiday was being dominated by his celebrity. There were imbalances in our relationship that I wanted to talk about, and having a camera in my hand enabled me to ask him difficult questions. I was trying to help him see that I wanted an area in our life that was somewhere near normal.”
Before David Furnish met Elton John he was perfectly normal. He was a young sort-of-gay man doing very well for himself. He was on the board at advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather. He had a swish flat in Clapham. He had friends. The only slight problem was that he wasn’t living his life fully as a gay man.
“There have been two things that have been difficult in my life: one is going out with an incredibly famous man. I knew when I met Elton that I was very attracted to him. I didn’t expect to feel that way but I really liked him, so I let things happen and so did he. But at some point, of course, I stopped and thought about how it would change my life.
“One day I was an ordinary Joe, the next I was super-famous, super-extravagant Elton John’s boyfriend, and I didn’t know how that would feel.
“The other difficult thing was living my life as a pretend straight man. And I can tell you, of the two, that was a million times more painful and awful and soul-destroying.”
His problem, basically, was that his straight-laced, uncommunicative family could not accept the fact that he was gay. He grew up in a small suburb of Toronto where nothing much happened. His father, who he describes as a “measured, ordered man”, was a company director. His mother stayed at home. When he was 21, having lost his virginity to a girl – which he describes as being “a very lonely experience” – he confessed his leanings to his mother. Her response was to tell him that he hadn’t met the right girl yet.
“That was the end of the conversation,” he says. “I went away thinking there was something wrong with me.” He thought about his sexuality, he says, every 10 minutes. “I did want a family. I wanted children, but I could feel that it wasn’t going to happen.”
In the end he decided to come to the UK to get away. But even here he kept his sexuality a secret.
“In those days,” he says, “no one really accepted gay men in my workplace. I understood that clients might have a problem with it, so I kept very private. It was terrifying, though. Every time I queued for a gay club I’d hide my face in case a client or a work colleague saw me. It was debilitating to live like that, as if I should be ashamed.”
His secret life was all put paid to when he appeared on the front of the newspapers, having been outed as Elton John’s boyfriend.
“I knew it would happen eventually,” he says. “Elton kept sending me long-stemmed yellow roses and people started wondering who they were from, even though he sent them under a pseudonym. When the news broke, my boss was great about it. He said he thought I’d seemed a lot happier since I’d been with Elton. He didn’t think that clients would mind.”
Mind? I imagine the clients were clamouring to have Elton John’s partner look after their account [reporter].
“I never thought of it that way,” says Furnish. Of course, he had to tell his parents. So he went back to them and said: “Hello, I’m gay, I’m moving in with Elton John.”
They looked befuddled for a bit and then offered their congratulations. So why had his mother never brought the subject up over the past decade?
“She said she didn’t want to embarrass me,” says Furnish. “We had become estranged. My family are like the one in The Corrections [Jonathan Franzen‘s recent best seller]. That book moved me so much because I could really relate to it. My family were just not brought up to say anything about anything until faced with it. That’s just the way they were. But they have met Elton and we’re all a family again, so it turned out really well.”
Everything seems to have turned out really well. The press love them because they are fun and generous with their time, and pose in mad clothes. The gay community love them because they are a famous, long-standing, devoted gay couple who do high-profile work with their Aids Foundation. Every single celebrity in the world seems to love them: Elizabeth Hurley stayed up with them when she was losing weight after having had her baby; Princess Diana used to visit to kick her shoes off and “have a laugh”; the Beckhams are constantly popping in and out of their Windsor house as if they live next door.
However, there’s always the unavoidable gossip, and the rumour surrounding this particular couple is that their relationship is more of a platonic friendship than a fully-blown love affair.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” says Furnish, blushing, “I love Elton. It’s a totally monogamous relationship. I am very happy with this man.”
But surely other men try to flirt with him?
“Yes, sometimes they do,” he says, “but I don’t notice that much. Maybe it’s a warped power thing for them. You know, ‘Ooh, I flirted with Elton’s boyfriend,’ It’s just silly.”
But what about the real him, the David Furnish who used to go home to Clapham and cook some food and watch a video? Where is he beneath all this jet-setting and make-up and partying with people from Jagger to Madonna?
“Actually,” he says, “I still find her quite terrifying. But to answer your question, I am still here.
“Of course some things have changed, but Elton and I still sit at home and watch DVDs and things. I really regret the fact that Elton never came to Clapham. If I met him now, I’d demand that he did – that he saw my life in the way that I saw his. I wish I could’ve said: ‘This is me before you.”’
And what about the lack of privacy? In Tantrums and Tiaras, Elton was depicted surrounded by a coterie of hangers-on who seemed to pop in and out of whichever house or hotel they were staying in any time they wished.
“Now that was difficult,” says Furnish. “On that first holiday in France I accepted it. Elton had been an addict. Before he cleaned up he was used to having these people coming in and out. In a way, they supported him and he needed them there. He had just never got used to the idea of privacy.
“After a while I changed things. When we would get to a hotel, I would close the door and hang a Do Not Disturb sign up. I told him: ‘This is the way it is now. It’s you and me.’ Now we even have our own one-bedroom flat in Venice where we cook and hang out just by ourselves. Not even one member of staff. We were there for two weeks this year. It was the happiest time we’ve ever had. Elton even loaded the dishwasher!”
This is all just play-acting, surely. The conundrum is that, despite how normal, charming, caring and balanced David Furnish seems, his life has been thrown totally out of kilter by his relationship. For example, he has just made two documentaries about the fashion industry for Channel 4. Like Tantrums, they are extremely watchable. Furnish picks his way through a world of fantasy, frippery and fragile egos. There are interviews with Donatella Versace and Tom Ford, Jennifer Lopez, the Beckhams and Elizabeth Hurley.
Furnish is not disingenuous enough to pretend that the access he got to these people had nothing to do with his boyfriend.
“No,” he says honestly, “I would not have met Jennifer or Tom if it hadn’t been for Elton. However, I think the documentaries are good. I may be Elton’s boyfriend but I am still David Furnish. I write. I make documentaries. I am trying to make a film of an A L Kennedy book. I have Ed Harris on board but it’s hard to get funding because it’s a complicated story and unless you call it My Big Fat A L Kennedy Wedding then no one wants to cough up.”
Then he suddenly looks pretend-sternly at me. “And no,” he says mock-ferociously, “Elton is not going to fund it, so just don’t ask.”