The Tragic Truth About Elton John

The following article includes mention of child abuse, addiction, eating disorders, and suicide.

Elton John has lived a fabulous life, but it has not been without its low points. Beginning with a childhood lacking in love, John's road to stardom has been a bumpy one filled with plenty of chaos and heartbreak.

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, the performer took to music as a young child, eventually leaving school at 17 to work as a messenger for a publishing house and play with a band, named Bluesology. He met his longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, in 1967 and – despite a poorly received debut album – became one of the biggest rock stars on the planet within only a handful of years.

Since then, John has continued to be open and vulnerable with fans, revealing the darkest points of his life, which has only made him more relatable. His willingness to share his lowlights alongside his highs has allowed people to see the man behind the tinted glasses.

His father was cold and physically abusive

Elton John had a complicated relationship with both of his parents, but it was his father, Stanley, who had him walking on eggshells for much of his early life. His father was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, and when he was at home, John found himself living in a state of terror. Stanley was not just critical and disapproving, but also physically violent.

"That's the way it was in the 50s — you got slapped round the face, you got a good hiding. 'It was bloody good for you' — it wasn't good for me," John told The Guardian. Something as small as taking off a school blazer in the "wrong" way was enough to set Stanley off. John's father later left the family home after finding out about his mother's affair, but their relationship remained fraught.

Stanley hurt John in non-physical ways, too — like being a present and loving dad to his other four sons. "It wasn't that he didn't know how to relate to kids. He left us, remarried and had another family, and by all accounts was a great dad to them. It wasn't children, it was me," John said in an interview with The Sunday Times. Music was a salvation for a young John, who has admitted that his father's disapproval is what motivated him to become successful. They were estranged for 15 years when Stanley died in 1991, and John has expressed disappointment that his dad never came to see him perform live.

Elton John called his mother a 'sociopath'

Anyone who watched "Rocketman" knows that Elton John had a tough mother — so tough that even Bryce Dallas Howard (who played her in the film) assumed the script exaggerated situations until insiders confirmed it was accurate. From beating John with a wire brush during a potty training session to harboring resentment over his talent as a prodigal youngster, all accounts point to Sheila being withholding of love and prone to bouts of cruelty. 

Things only got worse when John met his now-husband, David Furnish, in 1993. Sheila disliked Furnish so much that she attempted to sabotage the couple's 2005 civil partnership ceremony — and when that didn't work, she did her best to ruin the day with poor behavior and dramatic outbursts. John and his mother stopped speaking in 2008 after an intense phone call turned into a huge rift. The singer refused to invite his mother when he and Furnish married in 2014, and their estrangement lasted until shortly before Sheila's death in 2017.

Though she never met her grandchildren, Zachary (born in 2010) and Elijah (2013), John thinks it's a good thing Sheila stayed away. "She never liked anybody. She never asked to see the children," John explained on "CBS Sunday Morning" in 2019. "But I'm glad they didn't meet her because she would have criticized them like she criticized me. She couldn't help herself. She's a sociopath."

He became addicted to cocaine after trying it in 1974

One of the darkest parts of Elton John's story is his drug and alcohol addiction, which lasted for 16 years before finally seeking help. He first tried cocaine in 1974, and, even though he threw up afterward, became hooked on the substance's euphoric feeling, and it became more and more of a problem as time went on.

"Because I was doing coke, I wasn't a rational human being anymore," he wrote in his 2019 memoir, "Me" (via The Mirror). "You become unreasonable and irresponsible, self-obsessed, a law unto yourself. It's your way or the highway. It's a horrible drug." At the height of his addiction, the singer recalled how he was ingesting cocaine every four minutes when possible. Not even regular seizures could deter him from using.

John went short periods without substances but continued to go back to drugs and booze until deciding to enter rehab in 1990 — a decision made after the death of young AIDS patient and activist Ryan White, to whom he had grown close. John had difficulty finding a facility that would treat him in Los Angeles – most turned him away due to the number of addictions he struggled with (including sex, shopping, and food) – and landed at an intensive rehab program in Chicago. The singer has remained sober ever since, thanks in large part to his religious commitment to attending AA/NA meetings. "Wherever I went in the world, I found a meeting to attend," he told Variety.

His addiction tied into his eating disorder

Cocaine is known to suppress one's appetite, so it became a big contributing factor when Elton John developed an eating disorder. John would go on days-long benders where he would stay awake for days at a time, eating virtually nothing. After crashing, he would awake and feel ravaged due to the virtual starvation, which led him to binge tens of thousands of calories at a time.

"This is how bleak it was, I'd stay up, I'd smoke joints, I'd drink a bottle of Johnnie Walker and then I'd stay up for three days and then I'd go to sleep for a day and a half, get up, and because I was so hungry because I hadn't eaten anything, I'd binge," he recounted on "Piers Meets Elton: A Life Stories Special" (via The Sydney Morning Herald).

John felt unable to stop binging but also had extreme concern for his weight, which led to the development of bulimia nervosa. "For breakfast, I'd have a fry-up, followed by 20 pots of cockles and then a tub of ice cream, so I'd throw it all up," he told his biographer, Philip Norman (via The Mirror). "I never stood still. I was always rushing, always thinking about the next thing. If I was eating a curry, I couldn't wait to throw it up so that I could have the next one." Interestingly, John has said that the disorder was one of the things that connected him to his friend, Princess Diana, who also dealt with it.

He attempted suicide more than once

Elton John was 21 years old the first time he attempted suicide in 1968. He was living with his musical partner Bernie Taupin — who writes most of the lyrics accompanying his melodies — and a woman named Linda Woodrow. Woodrow and John became romantically involved and eventually, engaged, as John was in denial over his homosexuality (he later married sound engineer Renata Blauel, at the time publicly identifying as bisexual).

Woodrow was not a fan of John's music and the pair never had sex, with the relationship leading John to take drastic measures. "The obvious course of action was simply to be honest. But the obvious course of action didn't appeal — actually telling Linda how I felt was beyond me. So I decided to stage a suicide bid instead," the pop legend wrote in his memoir (via Entertainment Weekly).

Years after that first suicide attempt — which was the basis for the hit song, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" — John again attempted. The incident occurred in 1975 when John's relatives were gathered at his home in Los Angeles to celebrate "Elton John Week." He swallowed 60 valium and had his stomach pumped only two days before his iconic performance at Dodgers Stadium. Thankfully, becoming a father changed John's perspective on life and gave him priorities outside of music. "I want to be there, I want to take them to baseball, I want to take them to soccer games. My life is completely changed," he explained to Rolling Stone in 2016.

His former lover and manager stole millions from him

Though John Reid played an instrumental role in Elton John's early career, he was much more than just a manager. Reid was also John's lover — his first-ever boyfriend, who moved in with the singer after only a few weeks of dating even though John was not out of the closet at that time. "I really was in love ... that intense, guileless, naive kind of first love," John wrote in his memoir (via Entertainment Weekly). "And I'd just discovered sex. It made sense to move in together."

The couple broke up in 1974 shortly after a physical fight that got them both arrested for assault, but Reid continued his work as John's manager until 1998. Their business breakup occurred after an auditor found that Reid stole tens of millions from John while representing him. John filed a lawsuit against Reid, as well as the accountancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, and the managing director of John Reid Enterprises, Andrew Haydon. He settled with Reid out of court before the trial, receiving millions of pounds in compensation, and lost the suit against Price Waterhouse Coopers and Haydon.

In court, John emotionally explained why he never questioned Reid during their 26-year business relationship. "I thought he would kill for me in any circumstances. I trusted him and I thought he was by far the best person to manage my career," John said in court (via The Guardian). "I trusted him all those years. I trusted him implicitly."

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the second most common form of cancer in men, with about 60% of cases being diagnosed in men over 65 (per the American Cancer Society). A fair number of celebrities have dealt with this form of cancer – including Robert De Niro, Ian McKellan, Ben Stiller, and Dennis Hopper, who died of the disease — but few have been as forthcoming about their experience as Elton John.

John was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017 after abnormalities were found during the then-69-year-old's routine checkup. He quickly underwent surgery to remove his prostate, which led to several complications. One of these complications was urinary incontinence, which forced John to wear diapers when he returned to his Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace. "Pissing myself in front of an audience while wearing a giant nappy: this was definitely hitherto uncharted territory," he wrote in his memoir a few years later (via Variety).

John also experienced increasing pain post-surgery, and it was eventually discovered that fluid was leaking from his lymph nodes. He suffered through the pain for a few months, having the fluid drained regularly so he could continue his everyday life before the surgical complication was cured by accident. "A routine colonoscopy shifted the fluid permanently, days before my 70th birthday," John wrote in "Me" (via Out). Unfortunately, John continued to have health problems in the months that followed.

John nearly died from a post-surgery infection in 2017

Shortly after his lymph node complication, Elton John found himself ill once again due to another post-surgical issue: a life-threatening infection he picked up on tour in South America. The singer was forced to cancel shows when the pain became too intense to ignore, and he later learned that he would have died had he stayed on tour for even one additional day.

Once back in the United Kingdom, John was taken to a hospital and then transferred to the London Clinic for immediate surgery. "My last memory is of hyperventilating while they were trying to find a vein to give me an injection ... By 2.30pm, I was on the operating table, having more lymphatic fluid drained – this time from my diaphragm," John wrote in his memoir (via the Daily Mail). "For two days afterwards, I was in intensive care."

Though doctors were treating the infection with "massive intravenous doses of antibiotics," John's fever returned, and he spent a total of 11 days in the hospital being treated for the infection. "So I was incredibly lucky — although, I have to say, I didn't feel terribly lucky at the time," he continued. "I lay awake all night, wondering if I was going to die. In the hospital, alone at the dead of night, I'd prayed: Please don't let me die, please let me see my kids again, please give me a little longer." John spent the following seven weeks recovering at home, during which he had to re-learn how to walk.

He almost died (again) from untreated appendicitis

We're not saying Elton John is a cat, but the talented singer has skirted death enough times that he just might possess nine lives. In 2013, before his bout with prostate cancer and the post-surgery infection that nearly killed him, John had a close call that could have ended fatally when his appendicitis went untreated. Though relatively common, appendicitis can be deadly because of the risk of the appendix bursting.

"I did nine shows, 24 flights and played the White Tie and Tiara Ball [the annual fundraiser for his Elton John Aids Foundation] with Coldplay with a burst appendix," John told The Guardian in 2013. Despite being in immense pain, John at first assumed he had food poisoning before doctors misdiagnosed the pain as a colon infection. His appendix eventually burst due to the lack of treatment, causing him to develop an abscess between the back of his abdomen and his cecum.

"I was so lucky, because usually if it bursts, it causes peritonitis. If that happens, you have to be in hospital within an hour, otherwise you're brown bread. I'm lucky to be alive," John explained to the outlet. He was able to have surgery, but only after doctors treated the painful abscess. "I was in a lot of pain, and I was hallucinating from the morphine and the anesthetic," he recalled. The remaining dates of his European tour were postponed for his surgery and recovery.

He lost a band member in a devastating way

Elton John is known for his feuds, but also for his long-lasting friendships, including ones with Elizabeth Hurley, Ozzy Osborne, Victoria Beckham, and Lady Gaga. Some of John's longest relationships are with collaborators, and he tends to keep people around for decades when they get on well. Take Bernie Taupin, whom John has been writing songs with since they first met in 1967.

Bob Birch was another one of John's longtime collaborators, spending decades as a bassist in John's touring band after first joining in 1992. His playing was also recorded on many of John's projects between 1995 and 2006, in addition to his work with other icons such as Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Tina Turner. John was devastated when Birch was found dead of an apparent suicide in August 2012.

"I cannot find the words to describe this tragic death, and how much I loved him. May he rest in peace," John wrote in a statement on his website (via the BBC). "He had been a member of my band for 20 years; we played over 1,400 concerts together. He was one of the greatest musicians I have ever worked with, and in all our years on the road he never played or sang a bad note."

His hip and knees have caused mobility issues

Like many senior citizens, Elton John has suffered from pain and mobility issues in his joints. By 2016, he had already had surgery on both of his knees due to pain that he attributed to "too much tennis, and too much jumping on and off pianos" in one Rolling Stone interview.

His knees continued to be an issue in subsequent years, but John also found himself with major hip problems after a 2021 fall on a hard surface. The injury forced John to postpone his "Farewell to Yellow Brick Road" tour until 2023, as treatment was not alleviating the excruciating pain. "I have been advised to have an operation as soon as possible to get me back to full fitness and make sure there are no long-term complications," he said in a statement (via Billboard).

Even after the surgery, John was in much pain as he navigated physiotherapy to regain his mobility. "I can't move sideways, can't get in and out of a car," he explained on the talk show, "Lorraine," a couple of months after the procedure. The singer was spotted in a wheelchair the following year, although he has been known to use one even for minor injuries such as a sprained ankle. In 2023, just after the end of his farewell tour, John was hospitalized after another nasty fall at his home in France. He underwent a knee replacement the next January, and then a second one on the other knee a few months later.

If you or anyone you know may be the victim of child abuse, needs help with addiction issues, needs help with an eating disorder, or is in crisis, contact the relevant resources below:

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

  • The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

  • The National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

  • Call or text 988 or chat