John and young Ryan White
John says he also realized that “most of the money being raised” was going to research, “but so much else needed to be done, immediately.” And John says, “we needed to break down the stigma and discrimination that to this very day so often stands in the way of people getting the help they need.”
A few days after the concert, John says, “I called my friend John Scott and said, ‘I’m starting an AIDS foundation, and I want you to run it.’ Two months later, the Elton John AIDS Foundation opened its doors in John Scott’s kitchen in Atlanta.”
The organization began lean and efficient, because John says, “I wanted to know where the money we raised was going and how it was being spent to make sure every dollar would have the greatest possible positive impact on people’s lives.” Efficiency and transparency are still hallmarks of EJAF today.
Those early days were a lot like any startup, John admits. “For two years, we ran the organization from his breakfast table. Virginia Banks… became the foundation’s secretary. Sarah McMullen, my publicist, worked as my PR guru and as the Foundation’s fundraiser. And that was it, just the four of us and an amazing board of directors.”
To this day, the U.S. arm of the foundation (there is also a U.K. branch) is run by a skeleton crew of four staff members, plus an active board of directors. “John, Virginia, and Sarah are all still serving on our board,” John says, “and we all remain as committed as ever.”
The Early Days
It’s usually reported that a young hemophiliac, Ryan White, was the first person John knew who had died from AIDS, and that catapulted him into action. Not true.
“Ryan White wasn’t the first friend I lost to AIDS, and he certainly wasn’t the last,” John says. “So many have been taken from me by this disease… I never want to forget them. I have a chapel in my home in Windsor, and one entire wall is full of plaques listing name after name after name of people… [who] died of AIDS.”
But White’s death was still an inspiration, “first, to get my own life in order and finally take the difficult but necessary steps toward sobriety — and then to become more involved in the AIDS movement. I didn’t want Ryan’s extraordinary legacy to die with him. I’m alive and here today because of Ryan White. He inspired me to fix my life, to start my AIDS foundation, and he continues to inspire me each and every day.”
John still has regrets. “To this day, I’m deeply ashamed that I didn’t do more about AIDS back in the ‘80s. My friends were dying all around me, and with few exceptions, I failed to act.”
Sure, he gave money and did AIDS benefits and recorded the song “That’s What Friends Are For” with Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Dionne Warwick (proceeds went to amfAR), “But I was a gay man in the ‘80s who didn’t march or give nearly the time, money, and energy I could have,” John recalls. “At the time, I was too deeply consumed by my addictions and by being Elton John the performer. I was pretty much a passive bystander to this human calamity unfolding all around me. I knew [AIDS] was killing my friends. I didn’t yet have the strength or sobriety to do anything about it.”