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Sir Elton John is one of history's most successful artists. He has entertained audiences the world over for more than four decades, selling 250 million records and receiving a Tony, a Golden Globe, an Oscar and six Grammys.
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But to hear him tell it, his greatest achievement has nothing to do with music. In 1992 he established the Elton John AIDS Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to preventing HIV and eliminating HIV- and AIDS-related discrimination. The foundation, combining the U.S. and U.K. organizations, has raised more than $225 million.
"We've made incredible advances in 30 years," John told Martina Navratilova in an exclusive interview for My Generation. "But the worst thing is stigmatization. People are still ashamed of this disease. Nobody is ashamed of getting cancer. No one is ashamed of getting TB. But people who are infected [with AIDS] don't tell anybody; they think their self-worth is terrible, and they spread the disease. People who are afraid of getting tested don't get tested. The stigmatization of this disease in the richest country in the world is crazy.
"When AIDS first happened in the early 1980s," John continued, "I lost a lot of friends. I took a lot of drugs and I drank a lot of alcohol. And [because] I wasn't committed to doing something, I didn't speak out." In 1985 Sir Elton learned about a 13-year-old Indiana boy named Ryan White, a hemophiliac who had contracted AIDS through a transfusion of infected blood. White became a national symbol for the disease after he was expelled from his school and shunned by his community.
"I thought, 'This is a young kid (who) can't even go to school,'" John says. "It really brought me down to earth. Six months after Ryan died, I was sober. And Ryan was a catalyst in that."
Acknowledging the clout he could have wielded as a celebrity, John regretted not having done more — and not having done it sooner. Once he got clean and sober, however, he resolved to redeem that lost time and start giving back.
A close friend of Elton John's, My Generation contributor, AARP Fitness Ambassador and tennis superstar Martina Navratilova, sat down with the legendary performer to talk about his journey from self-absorbed pop star to life-saving AIDS advocate and loving father of a young son. (Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John was born via surrogate to John and his civil partner, David Furnish, on Christmas in 2010.)
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