ELTON JOHN has always taken a principled view of his relationship with the press. 'They can say I'm a fat, old sod,' he once said. 'They can say I'm an untalented bastard. They can call me a poof. But they mustn't lie about me.'
On Thursday, for the second time in five years, Elton John has been awarded huge libel damages because a newspaper told a whopper about him. This time it was for pounds 350,000, damages given by a High Court jury against the Sunday Mirror. In December 1992, under the banner 'World Exclusive: Elton's Diet Of Death', the tabloid printed a story about the pop star being seen spitting a seafood canape into a napkin at a party in Hollywood. The description 'Exclusive' here turned out to be about as appropriate as the Sunday Sport's when it boasted of being alone in breaking the news that Hitler was once a woman: Elton was not even at the party.
It may seem an excessive act of pop- star petulance on Elton John's part to alert his lawyers to a 'fictional' little tale about his party-going habits. After all, he hardly needs the money: he is the 76th richest man in Britain, with an estimated fortune of pounds 120m; pounds 350,000 is the kind of sum he regularly pops in charity collection boxes.
But Elton wasn't just following his stated declaration that purveyors of tabloid porkies should be punished in the High Court. If they had put a squad of character assassins on the case for six months the Sunday Mirror could not have come up with a story more damaging to the star's self-esteem than this one, which suggested he had not, as he had claimed, conquered a string of dietary afflictions and was still vomiting up his food.
'Personally, the most important thing I've ever done was to admit I had problems with food, drugs and alcohol and to start the recovery process to get back my pride,' he told the judge in court. And, despite the millions of records sold, despite the ownership of a football club, despite having earned a place in the nation's heart as a sort of Queen Mother of pop, the evidence suggests he was not exaggerating. Self-esteem is important currency to the man who can buy anything, because it is one with which he has only recently become acquainted.
In one sense the Sunday Mirror was closer to the story of Elton's life than its editor realised. Until 28 July 1990, a date of some significance in the rocket man's history, his whole make-up was bulimic: a catalogue of investing, ingesting and divesting; of profound dissatisfaction with himself and of endless purges in unsuccessful attempts to find happiness through change.
There was the time in 1984 when he got married to prove to himself that he was not homosexual; there was the occasion in 1976 when he bought Watford Football Club to prove he was an ordinary geezer, and then sold it in 1990 to help to 'simplify' his life; and there was the time in 1988 when he sold the entire byzantine contents of his mansion through Sotheby's because he wanted all evidence of his former self out of his life. 'A cleansing shower,' he called it.
The first big purge was his name. Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in Pinner in 1947. He didn't get on with his dad, Stanley, a martinet RAF officer; but from the off he was close to his mum, Sheila. As, indeed, he was to his food. By his mid-teens his shape precluded him from following his initial ambition to become, like his cousin Roy who scored and broke his leg in the 1959 Cup Final, a footballer.
Instead he trained his podgy fingers to move with unusual speed and dexterity over the piano keyboard. When the puppy-fatted 20-year-old was signed up as a recording artist in 1967, his new mentor, Dick James, declared Reg was no name for a pop singer. So the young Dwight went to the deed poll and emerged as Elton Hercules John. Giving himself a middle nom de plume was a flourish that was to become characteristic.
With immediate success, James packaged Elton John as a sensitive singer- songwriter, which was pop's growth industry on the cusp of the Seventies. With his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, Elton wrote mournful numbers that were particularly well received in student bed-sits. But, by 1972, introspection was beginning to pale as a sales tool. So Elton reinvented himself as a Liberace for the glitter age, all stack heels, spangled coats and sequinned underwear. He even made a spectacle of his physical shortcomings, with drawers full of silly glasses.
There was something warm and friendly about the excess, though; he looked daft, never threatening. In the height of his Seventies success, Elton was the kind of pop star mums didn't mind their children worshipping. By the end of Eighties, 20 gold albums later, he was the kind of star children didn't mind their mums worshipping. Perhaps it was his shape: he was a cuddly kind of idol.
But - like some morality tale for kids with stars in their eyes - despite his success, Elton was not a happy little idol. He was an accomplished social mover, friend of royalty and jolly chat- show guest, but in private he was prone to extensive periods of depression and self-loathing, known as 'Reg's little moments'. These centred on his sexuality, his appearance, his retracting hairline . . . almost every aspect of his character.
To cheer himself up, he became not just a comfort eater but also a comfort drinker, a comfort snorter, a comfort shopper, a comfort bonker: this man could comfort-binge for Britain. In 1975, at the height of his international fame, he made an attempt on his own life, involving a bottle of valium.
According to his biographer, Philip Norman, Elton's daily diet at that time consisted of about 20 pots of Sainsbury's cockles and a family tub of ice-cream. That was before breakfast. He would then chuck up the lot and start again.
Although Elton kept his problems sufficiently separate from his professional life, his friends and family knew the worst. By the mid-Eighties his mum, who had always supported her Reg through a failed marriage and regular depressions, had had enough and moved out of his life to Minorca.
Elton recently gave a glimpse of his personal habits at that time, which may explain why Mrs Dwight packed her bags. 'I wouldn't wash, and there would be vomit on my dressing-gown from bulimia. I had no life. It was pure craziness. There would be empty whisky bottles and mirrors with coke on them, and I would be searching on the carpet for cocaine. I had become an animal, a pig.'
In 1989, when Elton's private life was probably not best held up for public scrutiny, the Sun published a story alleging that he had a taste for young rent boys. Elton sued, the allegation was a patent untruth. The Sun was convinced that if they dug up enough dirt the star, worried about revelations in court, would not pursue the case. It wrote untrue stories of how he 'demanded that the young male prostitutes found for him should be drugged with vast amounts of coke before being brought to his bed'.
It reached the level of comedy when the Wapping lads printed a story called 'Elton's Silent Dogs', about his 'vicious rottweilers silenced by a horrific operation'. Like so much of the Sun's Elton coverage, it was about as accurate as a Watford forward's shot on goal: Elton owns a noisy grey-and- white mutt called Thomas.
Elton, with some courage, held out. But the stories seriously damaged Sun sales (to the tune of 200,000 copies). In part this was because Sun readers didn't want to have stories about poofs shoved, as it were, down their throats; but also because, warts and all, they loved the boy.
Rupert Murdoch, apparently fed up with a lost cause, ordered a retraction. The Sun backed down before the case arrived at court, devoted its whole front page to an apology and gave him the biggest pay-out in newspaper libel history: pounds 1m.
But, despite yet another fresh start, Elton was not happy. His records still sold well, his concerts sold out, he was a vigorous fund-raiser for charity, everyone loved him. (When he played at the Wembley Arena just after his case against the Sun, his rendition of the song 'I'm Still Standing' brought a tear-provoking ovation.) But he still could not get on with himself.
It was not until he formed a passionate relationship with a young man in 1990 that he began to identify the problem. His lover, too, was addicted to various substances, and suggested that they both sought help.
At first Elton violently resisted the idea. But finally, on 30 July 1990, he agreed. For initial therapy, the pair were asked to make a list of each other's key faults. His lover's read: 'Elton does drugs, he's alcoholic, he's bulimic, he has terrible fits of rage.' Elton's began: 'He never puts his CDs away tidily.'
Under the tutelage of a former alcoholic called Beauchamp Colclough, Elton became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Over-Eaters Anonymous, and has attended no fewer than 1,350 counselling sessions in the past three years. Colclough primarily encouraged him to be positive about himself 'not to be apologetic about my character'.
Now 46, he is happily co-habiting, eating decently, living cleanly. And with a new thatch of hair that he claims has improved his confidence no end, Elton admits he is 'lucky to be alive'. He takes an Aids test every six months, and devotes most of his concert royalties, record sales and libel settlements to Aids charities (he even has one of his own, The Elton John Foundation).
So when this paragon turned up at the High Court this week to face down the Sunday Mirror and its suggestion that his self-improvement was all a sham, there could only be one winner.
In court he performed with the same accomplishment that he shows on stage (he is no novice to litigation, perhaps it's something to do with the wigs). And the jury awarded him the eighth biggest pay-out in the libel hit parade. Then, as an afterthought, the members of the jury asked for an autographed photo.
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