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Elton John and Billie Jean King: 40 years of friendship, philanthropy, activism

Elton John and Billie Jean King: 40 years of friendship, philanthropy, activism
November 19th, 2013
02:48 PM ET

Part 1: Billie Jean King & Elton John

Part 2: Billie Jean King & Elton John

Part 3: Billie Jean King & Elton John

By Ken Olshansky and Mick Krever, CNN

When Billie Jean King first met Elton John, she nearly fainted.

“We met at a party,” King says.

It was 1973 and King was at the height of her fame as the premiere female tennis champion. She asked the host of the event what the reason for the party was.

“And he goes, ‘Oh, it's for Elton John,’” King recalls. “And I about fainted, because Elton was my favorite, but I'd never met him.”

“I'm so old,” John said as King chuckled, “I started playing [tennis] with a wooden racquet and hitting a ball up against a wall.”

Billie Jean King and Elton John spoke with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview that aired on Tuesday.

They are two revolutionaries, two comrades in arms, and this year they have two very special anniversaries.

For tennis legend Billie Jean King and rock superstar Elton John, 1973 was a big year.

King was the queen of tennis. She swept Wimbledon, winning singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles - three of thirty-nine grand slam championships she would win over her brilliant career.

She was a blaze of activity on and off the court. That year she founded the Women's Tennis Association, bringing major change in a sport where women were second class citizens on every level.

That year she convinced the U.S. Open to award female champions the same prize money as men, for the first time ever; slowly, every other major followed.

And perhaps most famously, that year she played – and beat – Bobby Riggs, a former triple-crown winner at Wimbledon.

It was a massively hyped "Battle of the Sexes," which was so much more that a tennis match – women's equality, especially on the playing fields, rested on what happened across that net.

That same year, 40 years ago, Elton John was in the midst of an extraordinary run, on record, on radio, and on the road.

Forty years ago he released his iconic double album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," along with hit singles like "Crocodile Rock" and "Daniel.”

And of course it was the year the two met, forging not just a firm friendship, but a powerful partnership in philanthropy, raising hundreds of millions of dollars so far for equal rights and for HIV/AIDS causes.

The Battle of the Sexes

It sounds provocative – and it was meant to.

Bobby Riggs was an aging tennis great, vocally convinced that men were superior to women.

In a heavily promoted match, he and King met in a 1973 showdown, complete with a “sugar daddy” costume for Riggs and a sedan chair entrance for King – “She’d been copying me, right?,” John asked.

“For me, tennis was my platform, and what the King-Riggs match allowed was a platform for me to fight for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls and women,” King said. “So this match, I knew, was a seminal moment.”

It wasn’t about the athleticism.

“He was the same age, exactly, as my dad; he was born in 1918,” King said. “It was the exposure we got. It was the emotional impact it had.”

But had she lost, she admitted, it would have set back the cause of equal rights, which just a year earlier had received a massive boon when a law mandated that federally funded sports programs provide equal funding for women.

John not only watched the match, at a Los Angeles hotel, but screamed so loudly he lost his voice.

“I honestly knew that all men I knew in my life wanted her to win,” he told Amanpour,” because Bobby was so cocky and so arrogant.”

A lifelong cause

Both King and John were almost preordained to take the cause of equal rights head on.

And though King says she realized as young as 12 what her cause would be, John had a slower start.

“I didn't know anyone who was gay,” he said. “I didn't really do anything about it until 23 when I first had sex.”

The 1950s saw the first signs that post-war austerity was ending, and a new society was coming – his family got its first refrigerator and television.

“I'm very glad I grew up when I did,” he said, but it was “a horrible decade to live in.”

“The Tea Party seem to want to go back to those days,” he told Amanpour. “They can have them. You know, because they were the worst, secretive, manipulative, horrible days where people just were too frightened.”

For King, enlightenment came from the very sport that would catapult her to fame.

“The question I asked at 12 about tennis is, ‘Where is everybody else?’ because everybody was wearing white shoes, white socks, white clothes, you know, white tennis balls in those days.”

“And that's really what we're talking about today.”

“At 11, I wanted to be number one,” King said. “And then at 12, I realized my calling, my sense of destiny.”

From then on, tennis would be a means to an end.

A tumultuous path

She may have had the drive to push for social change from 12 years-old, but that doesn’t mean the path would be easy.

In 1981, she would be painfully – and very publicly – outed.

She was married, but after gossip of an affair was circulated, she held a press conference, against the advice of her publicists and advisers.

She admitted to the affair with a woman, but said it had been over “for quite some time.”

That, King told Amanpour, would never had been the way she would choose to come out as gay.

“In the beginning, it wasn't a relief,” she said. “I thought, well, if I'm really going to be true to myself, then I need to do this. But I was outed. I wasn't ready. I think you know when you're ready. That's why I wouldn’t out somebody.”

Her husband, Larry King, didn’t at the time want a divorce, and she had already started seeing Ilana Kloss, the partner whom she would stay with to this day.

“It was,” she summed up, “a mess.”

With age, resolution

“Where I am musically and personally is kind of the same place: I'm very relaxed,” John said. “I think for the first time in my 66 years on Earth, I feel completely balanced.”

He and his partner, David, have been together 20 years.

They tried to adopt a child from the Ukraine, but “found it so difficult” that they “reconfigured.”

“I said, well, this child in Ukraine is trying to tell me that I can be a father. So I must follow this. We'll have our own child,” he said. “Up to that I was dead against it.”

John has a new album out, The Diving Board, and the song “The Ocean’s Away” deals head on with the passage of time.

“It's about the men and women in the First and Second World Wars who gave their life,” he said. “People have no idea, none of us have any idea of the horror that people went through.”

“Millions of the men, millions of women, millions of animals, died to save our rights,” John said. “And we should never forget that.”

It stands in stark contrast, he contended, to some of the worst ills of modern society, and a focus of celebrity, not “the rights things.”

“I hate the celebrity that is around now,” John said. “The vacuous, talentless, horror show that they get paid millions of dollars for, when there are people who are teaching kids every day that are trying to scrape by and earn a living. It's a joke.”

PHOTOS: Elton John through the years

An ongoing fight

“We're out there every single day with our energy and we're going to make this world a better place, no matter if it's through tennis, through music, whatever, to try to help the LGBT community, just help humanity,” King says.

Amanpour spoke with King and John at the site of Smash Hits, their celebrity-filled tennis fundraiser.

John has caused some criticism for agreeing to perform in Russia, a country that has started a crackdown on its gay citizens.

“I’ve been going there since 1979 and I have had great times in Russia,” John said. “What's happening there is so awful. But I've been asked to go. People from the LGBT community over there have said please come. I don't want to abandon them.”

“You don't prove anything by not doing something,” John says. “Everything is about chipping away.”

PHOTOS: Billie Jean King through the years

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Gay Rights • Latest Episode
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. ashok

    Very inspiring. To be at the top of your profession, to have it all and then feel the need to go out and bring sunshine into other people's lives. Candle in the wind was the first time I heard Sir Elton John sing.

    November 19, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • Avalona22

      Elton John is awesome, he really has some sort of musical genius, in the arrangements of the melodies and music, most of his songs are hits for good reason. A musician who has that element in his compositions is Gabriel of Urantia (, he too is a genius but who is largely unrecognized for his talent. Besides Elton and a few others he is among the best of our times, his music is very unique too, visionary, like most good artists their stuff goes beyond their times.

      April 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  2. keleolisa

    Which one's Elton John?

    November 19, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Reply
    • robertporsche

      Elton also do not know.

      November 20, 2013 at 6:09 am | Reply
    • Anthony Weiner

      Stop with the stupid humor.

      November 21, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  3. kaye mandigma-nolan

    Thank you, Sir Elton for the music, thank you, Ms. King for being an inspiration in tennis, and thank you Ms. Amanpour, for bringing us the world ... God bless you!

    November 19, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  4. David Knutson

    This is a brilliant interview, inspiring, with insight to our society...keep up the good work...

    November 19, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  5. Betty

    Thanks for this excellent interview. Life is really changing and it is great to hear the story of courageous people who have dared to lead the way.

    November 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • robertporsche

      Bizzare people. Not normal.

      November 20, 2013 at 6:10 am | Reply
      • Jesus Christ

        Who wants to be normal if they post comments like yours?

        November 21, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  6. Michael A.

    Elton john just can't keep up with the new diverse music.There Is a huge amount of talent out in the world waiting to be discovered.

    November 20, 2013 at 9:12 am | Reply
  7. Name*joe Tanzania

    Awesome!!!! Lov u John and King

    November 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  8. alice natividad

    why wouldn't you be as you were born? man as man and woman as woman. , then it could have been a better and an ideal world for you. but instead you wanted to reverse what our dear GOD has planned for you. and so.......................

    November 21, 2013 at 12:19 am | Reply
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      November 21, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  9. George Greengorn

    Brilliant interview ! Brilliant people ! Thank you for being in our lives!

    November 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  10. Isabel

    Great interview,good job!

    November 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  11. Lynn O'Hare

    Ms. Amanpour – I enjoyed the interview but was disappointed that Billy Jean King chose a cigarette company as a sponsor. Cigarette smoking kills people.
    You look terrific in purple and I always enjoy the depth and brilliance of your interviews.

    November 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  12. Jerry

    Let me excuse you here if I say the wrong thing but I want to enquire how my community can seek some sort of help from Billy Jean and Elton John's philanthropic aid. Many of you in the world take for granted having full clothing, having dinner, lunch and break fast, enjoy medical needs, security, soap, salt and something you think minor. I come from a tribal community in Papua New Guinea who had never sat on a car or seen a vehicle and they do not believe planes carry people and land on land. I know you will read this and will think as fraud but I want to seek help from anybody to seek support from philanthropic organisations. Please help us. I as an educated person from a large uneducated tribal incorporated and association to liberate my people from poverty and bring them into modernisation. Please forward my contact. Papua New Guninea. with kind regards, Jerry

    November 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Reply
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