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Eminem, Lewis Hamilton, Kristin Scott Thomas and more ask Elton John everything theyve always wanted to know about him

On a Thursday morning in his Toronto hotel room, Elton John is in high spirits. He is 12 months into a three-year farewell tour that has sold out arenas and sports stadiums around the world, and earned some of the most rapturous reviews of his 50-year career. The last time I had notices like this I had a full head of hair and the writer had to spend half the review explaining who I was, is how he puts it. His musical biopic Rocketman has grossed nearly $200m at the box office. And hes about to publish his autobiography, Me.

Full disclosure: I spent three and half years working with John on the book. I was both delighted and impossibly flattered to be asked, but work on it got off to a deeply peculiar start. The first interviews took place on the set of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, in which he had a cameo role that involved wearing one of his old stage costumes. Thus, I enjoyed the disconcerting experience of interviewing Elton John while he was dressed as Elton John in 1974: an outfit entirely made up of multicoloured marabou feathers, a headdress covered in jewels and mirrored glass, and a pair of silver platform boots with ELTON written on them in giant red letters. Of course I can walk in them, he frowned, when I mentioned the latter. Listen, Ive jumped off pianos in bigger platforms than these. Its like riding a bike you dont forget.

But however mind-boggling he looked, it was nothing compared with what came out of his mouth: a succession of stories about his life in 1975 when he was both the biggest pop star in the world and horribly depressed so lurid that I assumed theyd never make it past the first draft. But they all ended up in the book. No spoilers, but put it this way: youll never look at a snooker table in the same way again.

Arriving for the screening of Rocketman at the Cannes film festival earlier this year. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

It set the tone for how things were going to be. Id travel to wherever he was, hed talk about his past with startling candour, hooting with laughter at the awfulness of his behaviour or the sheer preposterousness of his own success: Me and Bernie [Taupin, his longtime collaborator] used to look at each other all the time, utterly baffled, like, What the fuck is happening to us now?

There are lots of reasons why Elton John has earned national treasure status, most obviously his ability to write songs that have become part of the fabric of life, but high on the list is that its hard to think of another member of the rock aristocracy blessed with such a self-deprecating sense of humour, or such a keen sense that, from the moment he set foot on stage at the LA Troubadour in 1970 a gig that transformed him into a star his life has been completely ridiculous. He talked a lot about the danger of losing touch with who he really was a gifted but shy, music-obsessed boy from a council house in Pinner. But listening to him, that was what he sounded like: someone who, for all his talent, couldnt quite believe the way it had all turned out.

Today I ask him the questions we have been sent, and he is charmingly, fan-ishly delighted that one is from Bob Dylan (Dylan stopping him and Taupin on the stairs of a New York venue and telling them he liked their songs was one of the pairs first What the hell is happening to us? moments). He dissolves into laughter recalling the late Freddie Mercurys way with words, or John Lennons attempts to come up with his own drag name. And he is admirably unfazed by the tone-lowering line of inquiry pursued by rapper Eminem: once again, no subject seems is off limits.

When a tour ends I have a huge void of time to fill. What are you going to do when this big tour is over?


Ed Sheeran, singer-songwriter

I dont have a clue. Ive got another couple of years to go. What Id like to do is spend time at my house in Windsor, walk around the garden, catch up with friends, spend some time with the boys [his sons Zachary and Elijah]. I just want to do nothing for about six months and catch up with my social life in England. Whether Ill be able to do that is another matter Im not going to miss travelling, or life on the road, or staying in hotels, but Im an enormous fidget. When I got sick a couple of years back, I was forced to spend seven weeks at home in Windsor, recuperating. It was the longest time Id spent there in years, and I really enjoyed it: seeing the boys when they got in from school, hearing their news. I remember when I came out of rehab, theres this thing they talk about called the hole in the doughnut: how are you going to fill the time you used to spend drinking and taking drugs? I had all these extravagant ideas about learning to speak Italian and how to cook, and of course I never did any of them. So Im not planning on anything like that. Id just like to take it easy and enjoy the fruits of spending three and a half years on the road.

At the Dodger Stadium, LA, in 1975. Photograph: Terry ONeill/Iconic Images/Getty Images

In the song Tiny Dancer, did you work your way up to the cathartic chorus gradually, spontaneously, or did you have it thought out from the start?


Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter

This is a very good question. Tiny Dancer has a really long lyric, a very cinematic, California-in-the-early-70s lyric, so it had two verses and a middle eight before it even gets to the chorus, and it lent itself to a long buildup. The middle eight sets it up well, then it slows down for a moment when I say softly, slowly That line suggested a big chorus. I dont remember much about writing it, but I do remember trying to make it sound as Californian as possible. Writing a song like thats a bit like having a wank, really. You want the climax to be good, but you dont want it to be over too quickly you want to work your way up to it. Bernies lyric took such a long time to get to the chorus, I thought, Fuck, the chorus had better be something special when it finally arrives. And its here I come, literally.

Tiny Dancer: I do remember trying to make it sound as Californian as possible.

Have you used your wedding gift yet?


Eminem, rapper

Ah, no. Eminem bought me and David matching cock rings when we got married. That was his gift. They sit there, like the crown jewels, in this beautiful box on satin cushions. Theyre wonderful to look at. I dont know if any guests weve had have used them. God, I hope not. Theyre kind of sacrosanct. The fact they came from Eminem makes it even better. Its very him, as is this question. I call him up every couple of months, and every time he picks up the phone he says the same thing: Hello, you old cunt, how are you? Justin Timberlake says the same thing, actually.

With husband David Furnish at the Ritz, 2001. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock

Over the years, you and I have talked about the need for a new championship song that can become a sports anthem. Hows it going?


Billie Jean King, tennis champion and founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative

Billie Jean has always gone on about We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions by Queen being the ultimate sports songs. I couldnt ask Bernie to sit down and write a lyric like that hes not that kind of writer. We wrote Philadelphia Freedom for Billie Jeans tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, but its not really about tennis; Bernie just wrote about Philadelphia. And to be honest, We Are The Champions cant be beaten: its so good at what it does, any sport can use it. Queen had that market sewn up, which was hysterical, because Freddie Mercury hated sport; he knew nothing about it at all. If youd mentioned Arsenal to Freddie, hed have thought it was something to do with gay sex.

Your path to success hasnt always been easy. You werent born into privilege and youve had to battle other peoples preconceptions in many aspects of your life. How have you overcome these challenges, and what drives you when things seem difficult?


Lewis Hamilton, Formula One champion

The challenges I had were shyness and my sexuality. Ive always tried to be honest. I didnt hide my sexuality from myself or people around me as soon as I realised I was gay, I told everyone I knew; it didnt give me a hang-up. Shyness never really held me back a lot of creative people are shy and pull themselves out of that on stage. Its when you come off stage and youre stuck with yourself again that the problems start. I found challenges hard to overcome until I got sober, because I didnt know how to deal with them.

In 1975. Photograph: Charles Knight/Rex/Shutterstock

Being sober is all about asking for help to get through challenges. You cant just barrel through and do things yourself you have to reach out. It took me a long time to get where I am now: I was too trusting, I didnt like confrontations, so I made bad decisions, especially in business. The fear of confrontation went back to my childhood, my parents rowing all the time, and it really held me back. It became less and less when I got sober, but its still there. It doesnt magically disappear.

Which song from the last five years do you wish you had written?


Charli XCX, singer-songwriter

I wouldnt have minded writing Lil Nas Xs Old Town Road, but I think The Joke by Brandi Carlile. I just love it, Ive played it continuously. Its just the kind of song I could have written, quite Elton-ish. Its the song that launched her into the stratosphere after seven albums it was nominated for four Grammys. Shes a friend, I love her and people are now giving her the respect she deserves.

Out of everyone youve worked with, who is the most annoying?


Fat Tony, DJ

Well, he wasnt annoying, but I was perplexed when I went to work with Timbaland, the hip-hop producer. I did a track for him in Las Vegas for his Shock Value album. I loved his work, so I went to the studio, said hello and just sat at the piano and wrote this song. Hes obviously quite shy, and while I was writing it, he didnt really communicate with me. He was making beats with some other guy. Im there for three or four hours, trying to write something really good, and all I was hearing in my headphones was him messing around with beats, no feedback at all. He didnt tell me he liked it, didnt tell me he didnt like it. It was confusing; I was convinced I was doing something wrong. When I left, he just said, See you again, and I thought, Well, maybe you wont: I was crestfallen, a bit angry.

Anyway, the next day he rang up and said: Hey man, its fucking genius. I love you, sorry if I didnt communicate, Im really shy. And the track turned out brilliantly. Its called Two Man Show. The funny thing is, the finished songs got him going I like that yeah dont it sound good to you, dont you agree? over my piano part. So it was fine in the end. I still love him to death.

If you could be one woman alive and one woman from the past, who would you be?


Cara Delevingne, model and actor

From the past, I would love to have been Elizabeth Taylor, because (a) she was fucking talented and brilliant, (b) she was beautiful, (c) she had a lot of sex, and (d) she had the most fantastic jewellery. And she became one of the worlds greatest philanthropists. I mean, its a very easy choice. She was a very dear friend of mine. She had an absolutely filthy sense of humour, very British. Its hard to pick someone from today, because there are so many candidates, but I think Id choose Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. Shes one of the few politicians that I respect and love shes got dignity and shes humane. I think shes doing a brilliant job.

You like to obsessively collect different kinds of objects art, photography, jewellery. Where did this obsession start?


Alessandro Michele, Gucci designer

It started when I was a kid. My mum and dad would be shouting at each other, or shouting at me, and Id run to my room, where I had my records, my toys, my books. They were like my best friends they didnt shout at me. I kept them in pristine condition I started really valuing objects. Then when I first started making money, I collected art nouveau and art deco. And Im capable of getting rid of stuff. Just before I got sober, I sold everything. But I didnt stop collecting, I just started collecting different things. Photography, obviously, but also napkin rings, china and tablewear, which Gianni Versace got me into. The real gay me came out when I was sober!

Id love to be a minimalist, but I just have to accept what I am. Im a magpie. You learn about things by collecting you buy things, you read up about them, you learn. I mean, I could write a book about napkin rings, but I dont think it would be a very big seller.

We had the best time on holiday with you and David in the summer; who are your favourite holiday companions of all time, aside from me and David of course?


Victoria Beckham, designer and Spice Girl

Theo Fennell, the jeweller, and his wife Louise. Theyve been my friends for about 35 years and are just the nicest, funniest people. If you have people on holiday with you, you have to have funny people, and Theo is one of the funniest people I know. Ive never had a dull moment with them in all the time Ive known them.

If you were a Spice Girl, which Spice Girl would you be?


Sam Smith, singer

Obviously Posh. Although, there was a side of me before I got sober that would definitely have been Mel B.

You saved my life. How many other lives have you saved?


Donatella Versace, designer

I have absolutely no idea. Donatellas talking about addiction here. I am responsible for helping a lot of people get sober and hopefully to stay sober. Thats your responsibility, and its part of the process. You give them your phone number, you take theirs, you make sure you phone them, check up on them, see theyre OK thats what I did with Eminem.

I remember very, very well the night Donatella decided to go for help. It was an intervention, which isnt always the best way of doing things if people arent ready for it, it turns into a disaster. With Donatella, I knew she was ready, because she came to see me play a show in Reggio Calabria three weeks beforehand. She was in a terrible state, and I knew she was giving me a message: I need help, I need this now, Im at my lowest ebb. She didnt take much persuading to go.

With George Michael, Andrew Ridgeley and Bernie Taupin in 1985. Photograph: Silverhub/Rex/Shutterstock

Some people, you try and they just dont want to know. George Michael was like that. He did go away to Switzerland for a while, but he was too stubborn. It was weird; when he died, Ozzy Osbourne said to me, You know what, Elton? I dont think he wanted to be here any more, which seems like a harsh thing to say, but I think it was right. He didnt want to be here. He had a choice, he knew what he had to do and he wouldnt do it. So there you go.

What are your real or imagined top three drag names?