Elton John rarely does anything by half, and the 25th annual gala for the AIDS Foundation that bears his name was certainly no exception. While the event, held at New York’s majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, featured a monumentally star-studded guest list, speeches from former President Bill Clinton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Alec Baldwin (who slipped in a brief Trump impersonation), host Neil Patrick Harris and John himself, and was capped by an intimate performance from none other than Aretha Franklin, its most memorable moment came from the mother of Ryan White, the teenager whose death in 1990 led directly to the creation of the foundation. The event raised more than $4.3 million.
Harris spoke of the $385 million the Foundation has raised to date, and the $10 million it has awarded this year — “That’s like a Fox News settlement.”
White’s mother Jeanne recalled in a tearful speech how John, her “guardian angel,” reached out to assist the grief-stricken family in every way he could. “Media requests, flowers, all were taken care of by Elton — he was quite the secretary,” she laughed. “Losing a child is the worst pain a mother can go through, but what helped was having a cause — Ryan’s cause. I knew I had to keep speaking out because it was what Ryan would have wanted me to do. and it has been such an tremendous comfort to me to have Elton speaking out as well. I am overwhelmed by what Elton and this Foundation have accomplished over the past 25 years — I don’t have enough words to tell you how much it means to me to be here to pay tribute to what he has done for Ryan and for all people who have been touched by this terrible epidemic.”
John responded with a tearful speech of his own. “I am so deeply touched by [White’s] words, and it brought so many memories back to me of a time in my life where I didn’t like myself very much. But when I was there in Indianapolis for the last week of Ryan’s life, I had an epiphany. … I had lost touch with my soul, I had lost all sense of pride, but here was a beautiful family who had gone through such awful traumatic things. What the White family did was to light a candle in my soul. Six months after Ryan passed away I got help and I became sober. [Ryan’s family] gave me my life back, and I determined that when I got sober I was gonna try and do something good with my life instead of wasting it.”
He then thanked his husband David Furnish, who is chairman of the Foundation. “When I got sober I never thought I’d have someone I’d be in a relationship with for 24 years, who I would marry and have two young children, being in a same-sex relationship — see how the world changes? It changes because we make it change, and if we want to make it change in the best way we can do that.”
He then made way to introduce “the greatest singer of all time,” Aretha Franklin. The legendary singer, very slim, was in fine voice as she delivered a nine-song set beginning with “I Knew You Were Waiting” (her duet with George Michael) and including a deft take on “Say a Little Prayer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closing with “Freeway.” The Queen was, as ever, accompanied by fur coats (two on this evening). Earlier performances included Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell and a stunningly-sung version of John’s “Can You Feel the Love” from Heather Headley.
The event’s head-spinning guest list included Sting and wife Trudie Styler, Billy Joel and wife Alexa, Clive Davis, Maxwell, Sheryl Crow, Ethan Hawke, Keke Palmer, Diane Lane, Billie Jean King, Glenn Close, John Waters, Michael Ovitz, Aileen Getty Susan Lucci, Toni Collette, Sandra Lee, Denise Rich, Chayenne Jackson, Marina Abramović, Donna Karan, Padma Lakshmi, Matt Lauer, Judith Light, Sting and Trudie Styler, Bernie Taupin, Julie Taymor and Paddle8 founder Alexander Gilkes as a distinguished auctioneer.