Elton John Is Still a Glass Act, but with New Hits, Hair and Friends—Andrew and Fergie
09/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Sarah Ferguson, disguised as a bobby, tried to crash Prince Andrew's bachelor party on July 15, her accomplices were her future sister-in-law, Princess Diana, British comedienne Pamela Stephenson and Renate John, a 32-year-old former recording engineer. Renate's husband, Elton John, 39, a close friend of the 26-year-old Andrew, caroused and played piano until the stag party pooped. Eight days later, Elton and Renate claimed their front-row seats at the royal wedding, which confirmed their place in the Yorks' inner circle. Ironically, the royal connection may also have strengthened their own two-and-a-half-year-old marriage. As royalty watcher Nigel Dempster wrote in his column, quoting a friend of the Johns, " 'There had been talk between Elton and Renate of a separation. But invitations from the royal couple worked wonders; thanks to Andrew and Fergie they were regarded as a couple again. Now everything seems okay.' "
According to some wags, it would take a royal miracle to keep Elton John married. In 1976 the pop star—who is currently in the midst of a 25-city U.S. tour—declared his bisexuality to the press. "The gay business really hurt me," John admitted in a recent interview. "A lot of radio stations stopped playing my records." When he showed up to root for the Watford Football Club, which he co-owns, Elton remembered, "Twenty thousand people would sing, 'Elton John's a homosexual, tra-la-la.' ...I might have become a very big casualty," added the pop star, who otherwise refuses to talk about his depression, even to writer Carol Thatcher, Margaret's daughter, who had hoped to collaborate with him on his memoirs.
Marriage hardly seemed the obvious solution to Elton's woes. Nor was Renate the obvious choice. "She's a very private person, completely down-to-earth," says Patti Nolder, her former boss at AIR studios. Elton is neither of those things. When he shops for clothes, according to his tailor, Tommy Nutter, he "shows up in one of his Bentleys. If he comes in his red one, he'll wear red to match. He stops all the traffic and everybody runs up and asks for autographs. I have to go out and get him and bring him into my studio where we can relax."
When the flamboyant singer, who was born Reginald Dwight in Pinner, England, married the German-born engineer on Valentine's Day 1984, cynics said Elton had found a cover, not a lover. It didn't help that the couple, who had met when Renate worked on Elton's Too Low for Zero LP, had never even dated; their three-month courtship was conducted entirely in the studio. But now "he absolutely dotes on her," says Nolder. "They're together all the time." As Elton puts it: "It's nice to come home and actually share things. I've no regrets about giving up my bachelorhood. I could see myself ending up as eccentric and incredibly fussy." As for Renate, being Elton's wife has its pluses. "She used to be in jeans and T-shirts all the time," says Nolder. "Now she's very glamorous—straight out of Dynasty."
Hanging out with the royal family can do that to a person. Elton has long been the closest thing Britain has to a court musician. John was first seen as a royal escort in 1976, when he took Princess Margaret to a movie premiere. He has also become friendly with the Queen Mother, who had him over for dinner last year and then came to the Johns' for tea. "He's had a dance with the Queen Mother at Windsor several times," says a friend. His latest royal buddy is Andrew, who has gotten him to perform at several Windsor Castle affairs. At the request of Andrew and Fergie, the BBC's Radio Two played Elton's music on the morning of their wedding.
Not that he needed the exposure. Sixteen years after his first hit record, he shows scant sign of commercial or creative decay. Wrap Her Up and Nikita, the singles off Ice on Fire, his 27th LP, were hits on both sides of the Atlantic, and since unveiling his new show in Detroit last month he has had to add several dates to the tour. And he's still the joy of British gossip columnists, who made much hay last year from two court cases involving the singer. In the first, a gold-and-diamond Cartier watch that Elton had reported stolen in 1983 was found by police in the pajamas of an ex-lover of one of Elton's friends, who was later cleared. In the second case, Elton and his writing partner Bernie Taupin successfully sued music publisher Dick James for back royalties in a claim that may eventually bring them millions. Unsated, Fleet Street reports regularly on the fate of Elton's pate, which has been subjected to three hair transplants in Paris. "I'm glad I had them because before I had no hair at all," Elton told an interviewer. "It just astounds me how people are so interested in it."
Still, it wasn't to evade the media that Elton decided to spend this year living in Holland. His motive may be largely financial: If he spends fewer than 120 days in England, he can avoid paying Britain's stiff income tax. While out of the country, he worked on a new album, Leather Jackets, due out this month. When he can, he visits Renate at their mansion, two miles from Windsor Castle. Unlike Elton's place, Windsor Castle features neither a chandelier over the pool nor a 100-seat theater.
Wherever he is in the world, Elton phones a local reporter who covers Watford Football Club games—not just to ask the score but to listen to an entire 90-minutes-or-longer play-by-play. The club has just unveiled its brand new West grandstand, which Elton reportedly subsidized to the tune of nearly $1.5 million. Says the club's director, Muff Winwood: "He kept phoning up all the time to ask how the stand was doing. He's like a kid with a new toy." The club itself, says Winwood, "started as a tiny fourth-division club, and with Elton's involvement has become a first-division, big-city football club." Renate apparently feels the same way about soccer that her friend Princess Diana does about polo—she doesn't love it but she can muster enough interest to attend the important matches. "She's so sweet and unassuming," says Winwood. "All the ladies at the club get on with her."
What more could a man want than a wife, a football club and an enormous collection of preposterous hats? "We are trying for children," Elton has said. "It just hasn't happened yet. I simply want to be a family man—I was an only child, and I didn't like that very much. Please God that we can have one."