In 1993, the recently sober rocker started a gathering of friends to fight HIV/AIDS at a viewing bash that has seen Hanks and Bruce Springsteen cram into a booth, Prince work the room, Heidi Klum go wild (and help raise $6 million in 2016) and Liz Taylor demand "Get me my f—ing wheelchair."
Attending the Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar viewing party is sort of like going to the Golden Globes — while the Academy Awards are happening. Champagne is flowing, there are stars at every table and the TV people always are invited. So are supermodels (Gigi Hadid, Naomi Campbell), musicians (Bono, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Mariah Carey), athletes (Serena Williams, Johnny Weir), reality stars (Kardashians and Real Housewives), gay icons (RuPaul, George Takei, K.D. Lang) and designers (Donatella Versace, Christian Louboutin). Many are John's friends who walk the white carpet every year in support of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. "I think it's an equal opportunity star night," says filmmaker John Waters, who has rarely missed the event since 2002. Adds longtime HIV/AIDS fundraiser Sharon Stone, "People have to go to other parties, but people want to go to Elton's party."
This year will be the 25th for the bash that raises at least a third of the annual funding for EJAF, which in 2016 awarded $8.6 million in grants across North America and the Caribbean (it has a special focus on such communities as transgender people, the recently incarcerated, sex workers and IV drug users and is one of the biggest funders of needle-exchange programs in the country). "Everybody matters who has HIV and AIDS," says John, who was inspired to start his foundation in 1992 after losing many friends, including Freddie Mercury and Indiana teen Ryan White, who became an advocate when he was banned from school in the '80s after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion. He died in 1990 at age 18.
John didn't start the Oscar party. In 1993 — the year before Vanity Fair launched its fete and the last year agent Swifty Lazar threw his famed Spago event — the Hollywood political activist Patrick Lippert, an executive director of Rock the Vote who had become ill with AIDS, came to EJAF with the idea and threw the first bash at Beverly Hills' Maple Drive restaurant. Lippert died three months later at 35.
Since then, the soiree has transformed into a major event that raised a record $6.3 million in 2016. (EJAF and its U.K. partner have raised a total of $385 million.) This year, the party takes place for the fifth time in an enormous tent at West Hollywood Park — three blocks from where John performed his first U.S. show at the Troubadour in 1970. Ticket prices start at $5,500 and go to $100,000 for top tables at the sold-out soiree, and the night's live auction, led by Paddle8’s Alexander Gilkes, features a 13.10-carat diamond necklace by Bulgari and a five-day vacation at Steven Tyler's Maui pad.
Gordon Ramsay is handling the menu once again, and soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones performs for 950 guests as John and his husband, EJAF chairman David Furnish, go table to table to thank guests, as is their tradition. Ahead of the silver anniversary, they and 27 friends and supporters recall the sparkly and substantive history of their purpose-driven party.
JEANNE GINDER-WHITE, Ryan’s mother We first met Elton in 1986. It was the first-ever amfAR benefit in New York. AmfAR called and asked if Ryan would like to do this event with Elizabeth Taylor as a special guest. Ryan went on Good Morning America and David Hartman asked him, “Who are you looking forward to meeting?” Ryan said Elton John. I ask him why and he said, “Because he’s not afraid to be different.” Elton later ended up flying us out to L.A. We ended up staying 10 days, and he just became part of our family.
ELTON JOHN I spent the last week of Ryan White's life in Indianapolis with Judith Light and Howie Long. I was kind of the little secretary. A lot of people who'd been bigoted and ignorant toward the family were forgiven. I thought if this is Christianity, they are true Christians because they are able to forgive people and here am I complaining about wallpaper in the hotel. Something's not right.
GINDER-WHITE Elton was at the hospital and he took care of everything. His people wanted him to come back because he had an album coming out, but he stayed. There were flowers from all around the world. He constantly was taking the cards off of them so that they could be thanked. He took control of the media. He was filtering calls. He went out shopping to decorate Ryan’s room, and he had these signs and posters that kids had made. After Ryan died, Elton had tears running down his face. He said, "With all the money that's in this room, we can't bring this boy back to life." I think this was the realization for Elton that he had anything he could want but he didn't have his life, between his partying and cocaine and alcohol.
JOHN Six months later I got sober. I had played Russian roulette with my sex life, with drugs and alcohol, and now I've got to give something back. I had done things for AIDS while I was using. I did something for Elizabeth Taylor. I did the “That’s What Friends Are For” record with Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight — but I didn’t do enough. I wasn’t at the forefront as a gay man.
BILLIE JEAN KING, EJAF board member I've been friends with Elton since 1973. He had a second chance in his life; he was on drugs, and he knew God, a higher power, let him have a second chance. He hasn't wasted one second since.
JOHN The foundation was originally two people, John Scott and myself at a kitchen table in Atlanta in 1991. John Scott was my boyfriend.
JOHN SCOTT, founding executive director, EJAF The whole idea of a celebrity-based charity was relatively new then. Elizabeth Taylor formed hers in 1991. Elton formed his in 1992.
JOHN Elizabeth was a huge hero. She spoke out at the time when no one was speaking. I mean, Nancy Reagan’s best friend was Rock Hudson and she kind of disowned him. Until Ryan White died there wasn’t really anything done about AIDS. It took a child to die for the American government to do anything about AIDS whatsoever, to even mention it. And Elizabeth stood up for those people.
JOHN The Oscar party was given to us by Patrick Lippert, who used to do a fundraiser on Oscar night for political causes. He came to us and said, "I'm dying of AIDS. I would like to give you this opportunity to raise money for AIDS." It was just when Swifty Lazar's viewing party sort of came to an end.
THERESA LIPPERT, Patrick's sister Patrick was quite the organizer. As executive director of Rock the Vote, he was credited with registering 350,000 young people to vote in 1992. Before that he had worked with Tom Hayden as a treasurer and fundraiser and was well loved by Tom and Jane Fonda. We found out in July of 1992 that he had AIDS. Jane and Tom had split by then, but they both came separately to visit him. And Jane said to him, “Are you going to do anything for AIDS?” He said, “No, I don’t want to be the poster boy for AIDS.” He ended up doing a fundraiser for Rock the Vote during Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. He raised $250,000 and he was so happy with the turnout that he said, “You know, I do want to do a fundraiser for AIDS.” Patrick was working on the party from his hospital room. He was quite sick. I saw the name lists on the walls of his room. I saw him working two phones. But when I saw the nurses running down the hall with faxes, I knew he had taken over the hospital. They shot him up with enough drugs so he could attend his party. It was the year of The Crying Game. Sarah Jessica Parker and Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan and Billy Baldwin were there, and Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson when they were together.
LESLEY BRACKER, former president of Hollywood political group Young Artists United (whose members included Parker and Ryan) All of us were in our 20s, and the only party at the time was Swifty Lazar’s and it was for older people. We were so hungry for our own Oscar party.
DANIEL SLADEK, co-founder, Young Artists United George Michael was there. Sharon Stone was there; it was quite something in 1993. People were crammed into booths, tucked into every corner. There was a seriousness to the event because everyone who was there was impacted by the fact that our friends, our co-workers, were sick or dying or had passed away.
LIPPERT At one point Patrick asked my husband Fred if he had a sweater in the car. It was warm, but Patrick was shivering. Fred was going back to the hotel to get our two boys for the afterparty and he brought Patrick back a sweatshirt. He put it under his tux but he was still shivering the whole time. Patrick was friends with Marisa Tomei, and that was the year she won supporting actress for My Cousin Vinny, and she brought the Oscar with her and so we all got to hold it. It was practically still warm from the show.
KELLY MEYER, philanthropist and first-year benefit committee member Maple Drive was very cool. Very hot. Everybody went. The restaurant had a definite groove factor.
LIPPERT Patrick had hoped to raise $50,000 that night and ultimately raised $150,000. He raised triple what he had planned on.
JOHN If anti-retroviral drugs were around then, Patrick might still be alive today. The same thing with Freddie Mercury. Some people just missed these new treatments by a year or six months.
DAVID FURNISH I watched many friends die from AIDS. It was a terrifying, terrifying time. The imprint of that will never leave my soul. There was no hope.
ELIZABETH ROGERS, philanthropic consultant and co-host of the first party The second year, for me and for a lot of people, there was a lot of nostalgia for Patrick. It was emotional.
JOHN I remember sitting in a booth the second year with Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen [who both won Oscars that night for Philadelphia] and Patti Scialfa and Prince and Emma Thompson all squeezed into a booth talking. It was so exciting.
SCOTT When that one shot was taken, we were on the front pages everywhere the next day. It absolutely put us on the map.
RITA WILSON What's interesting about that particular picture of us is that there is one Oscar missing. Steven won two that night [for Schindler's List] and he left one in the car because he didn't want to be carrying two Oscars around all night. I don't think we left that booth for the whole night.
EDDI BARBIS, board member, EJAF There was that amazing year when Elton won the Oscar for The Lion King. That's when the party was at the Four Seasons in 1995. Two years later, one of the all-time greatest groups was when Frances McDormand won best actress for Fargo, and Joel and Ethan Coen won, and When We Were Kings won for documentary and Muhammad Ali was there. They were all there in the lobby just hanging out.
SCOTT It wasn't a huge amount of money in the early days, and then InStyle approached us to come on board and be the sole partner.
CYD WILSON, former InStyle exec and current executive director, SAG-AFTRA InStyle did it for eight or nine years. We started with Elton at Maple Drive, then we took it to Spago in Beverly Hills. In order to make it a big fundraiser, we had to expand the size so we could sell tickets and bring in major sponsors like Chopard and Jaguar. Oscar night is a hard night to raise money. You are competing against all those other parties where people can go for free. You are inviting all of the award winners and nominees. And originally, Elton did not want to perform. Even the sponsors were like, "Why isn't he performing? You will be able to sell more tickets." About halfway through our relationship, Elton decides, "OK, I will perform one or two songs, but I want to put the focus on a brand-new performer."
JOHNNY BARBIS, John's former manager and EJAF advisory board member We started out with Nelly Furtado when I was at DreamWorks [Records] and we were breaking her as a new artist with "I'm Like a Bird."
JOHN We've had John Legend, Florence and the Machine, Foster the People. I usually do a song with whoever is playing, and they donate their time. We've never paid. We wouldn't pay anyone. We’ve had four-star Charity Navigator ratings for 11 years now. That makes me proud because only 4 percent of the charities in America do that that many years consecutively. All of the expenses of every fundraiser we do are underwritten ever since I started; 98 percent of what we raise gets to the foundation. I don’t want people — whether it’s a dollar, whether it’s $100,000, it’s meaningful — to think that we’ve wasted their money.
MATTHEW MORRISON, actor Ed Sheeran sang once, and it was before Ed Sheeran was Ed Sheeran. Everyone was blown away. I had never heard of him.
JOHN The year in 2002 that Denzel [Washington] and Halle Berry won Oscars, they came to us. That was a landmark year.
FURNISH That was a huge breakthrough for Oscars and diversity, and the fact they chose to come and support us was special and pretty overwhelming. My most memorable moment was the year Elizabeth Taylor came for her birthday in 2005 and I met her at the red carpet. She got out of the car and said, "Please take me down the red carpet." I held her hand and put my arm around her. She was in extraordinary pain; you would have had no idea whatsoever. She looked fabulous. She stopped and spoke to every single journalist down the red carpet, smiling and being brilliant as she always was about AIDS.
JOHN She gets toward the end of the carpet and says to my David, "Get me my f—ing wheelchair."
FURNISH That's what a pro she was.
SCOTT CAMPBELL, EJAF executive director I remember the year of the writers strike when Vanity Fair didn't have a party. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar and came with her statuette.
CYD WILSON One of the fun years, we hosted it across from Vanity Fair in what is now John Varvatos. That year we got five times the number of A-list celebrities because we were right across the street. This was when they were at Morton's. Vanity Fair had call times for a lot of guests, and some of them would drive around until their call time. We sent notes to people saying, "Come have a drink and then you can go across the street."
JOHN D'AMICO, West Hollywood city council member When it was at the Pacific Design Center, they had to pay for the site. We said, "Just move it across the street [into a park] and put that money back into services and grants." They just have to make sure the grass is growing when they are gone.
FURNISH We can fit more people in — it's an elegant, fun night, and we can have a really nice cocktail area and look after our sponsors. We get fewer Oscar winners going through the door, but what we do get now is a cross section of younger Hollywood in film, TV and the music business.
JOHN It's nice to see people with a statuette in their hands, but on the other hand our object is to raise money and it always has been, and so we have plenty of memories from the past.
JOHN WATERS There is some alarming fashion sense there, and there are some great beauties and some alarming ones, too. I like the alarming ones even more.
CARMEN ELECTRA There's a lot going on, people are constantly moving. I remember I walked by Chris Brown on the way to the women's restroom and he said, "You smell good." It was kind of odd.
JOHN DEMSEY, chair of MAC AIDS Fund, executive group president, The Estee Lauder Companies I remember Pam Anderson with photographer David LaChapelle — in hot pants, both of them.
TRACEY JACOBS, UTA partner who represents John and Furnish If you're not at the Oscars, it's the only game in town.
SANDRA LEE One night I got to meet Prince. It was such a shock, watching him in the room be so normal and sweet and kind. My sister went over and kept Nicki Minaj company and spent 30 minutes with her. You see Jane Fonda and Lady Gaga at the same event.
JERRY O'CONNELL There's nothing stuffy about that party at all.
REBECCA ROMIJN I sat on the floor with Sharon Osbourne and we just hung out and we didn't care about wrinkling our dresses.
TIM ALLEN It's always been a shitload of fun.
HEIDI KLUM, event committee co-chair On the occasions when Elton sits behind the piano and starts to sing, the crowd just goes wild. I feel very honored to be at Elton's table every year. I also love to table-hop and catch up with other friends. It's the kind of party where you want to get on the table and dance — which we have totally done!
SHARON OSBOURNE I'll bid on something and wonder what the hell do I do with this thing, or where am I supposed to get the money to pay for it. I'll wake up in the morning and think, "I must've been drinking again."
ALLEN One year, a Bentley convertible was up [for auction]. I collect cars, and nobody was bidding on it. My wife looked at me with that look like it was a divorce car. "If I ever catch you in a lime green Bentley convertible, you might as well park it at your bachelor condo."
SHARON STONE My brother-in-law, Bruce Singer, is a major car collector and I'm a car nut — one year, we auctioned this Corvette that had been up on blocks. The only miles it had on it were the miles to move it from the showroom to the truck to move it to back to the blocks. It had maybe less than 6 miles on it. It sold for $1.1 million.
JOHN Sometimes I put my hand up and I've gotten stuck with something like Sharon Stone's car.
STONE One time I bought Elton's red piano and then I gave it to amfAR to sell again.
CAMPBELL Our sponsor Bulgari donates watches to a man and a woman who win the Oscar ballot.
ERIC MCCORMACK The second year that I was there, I won the men's watch and the next year, Elton got up at the end to announce the winner. He started with the ladies' watch, announcing [my wife] Janet McCormack. We couldn't believe it. And then for the men's, Elton said, "Oh f— off, it's Eric McCormack." From that night on — every year we're filling out our ballots, strangers are looking over our shoulders to look at our picks and I'm like, "What are you doing? Do your own sound editing!" This past year, Janet won again.
ALLEN He cheats.
STONE It's fun because the people who go have become a group of friends. They come and stay and care about one another. It's like being with a bunch of friends — a bunch of well-dressed friends.
OSBOURNE It's always been a family event. Sort of like another Christmas dinner — this is just what we do at this time of year; the family gets together and we go. You feel good being there. Its great people.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG, EJAF advisory board member Knowing Elton for a zillion years and knowing how hard he fights for everyone, the fact that this is the 25th year — sigh, I think we all thought this would be gone by now — goes to show Elton's commitment. We've come a long way, but we're still fighting.
IAN SOMERHALDER EJAF has worked so hard and succeed at bringing this issue to the forefront of society, in the media, in households and in global governmental policy as an issue to be conquered by all of us to help our fellow humans; wiping out taboos and prejudice by breaking down cultural and societal barriers. It’s the only way to watch the Oscars, it’s so fun, benevolent and I get to see my wife in a pretty dress!
FURNISH We were very lucky to associate ourselves with probably the biggest awards night of the year on the planet, and that’s a fantastic position. Twenty-five years later we are raising more than we ever have.
JOHN It's going to be very moving this year — it's 70 years of me, 50 years of me and Bernie Taupin, and 25 years of the AIDS Foundation. We've got a lot of landmarks. It's not the time to talk about [my birthday]. I won't be 70 by that point. I'll be clinging onto 69 as long as I can.
GOING ONCE, TWICE, SOLD!
While many guests are glued to the Oscar telecast, others have an eye on their pocketbooks during the auction. Sharon Stone's Corvette once snagged $1.1 million, while Helmut Newton’s Naked and Dressed, a signed print with four nudes, went for $700,000. Other top sellers: Private lessons with tennis great Rafael Nadal and a supermodel print from Herb Ritts; both went for $190,000.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.