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Billie Jean King and Elton John; Imagine a World

Aired November 22, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Tonight a very special edition as we profile two revolutionaries, two comrades-in-arms and two groundbreaking 40th anniversaries.

For tennis legend Billie Jean King and rock superstar Elton John, 1973 was a big year. In '73, King was the queen of tennis. She swept Wimbledon, winning singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles, just a few of her record 20 Wimbledon titles, among the 39 Grand Slams she won over her brilliant career.

She was racquets blazing 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 at every level. Also that year she convinced the U.S. Open to award women champions the same prize money as the men for the first time ever. And slowly every other major followed.

And perhaps most famously that year, she played and beat Bobby Riggs, a former Triple Crown winner at Wimbledon and a self-confessed male chauvinist pig. It was a massively hyped Battle of the Sexes, which was so much more than just a tennis match.

Oh, and then, Billie Jean turned 30. That same year, Elton John was in the midst of an extraordinary run on record, on radio and on the road.


AMANPOUR: Forty years ago, he released his iconic double album, "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road," along with hit singles like "Crocodile Rock" and "Daniel." It's also 40 years since he and Billie Jean King 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 prevention.

Since then, their Yellow Brick Road has had more than its share of potholes with every aspect of their personal lives hashed out in the press. But they still are at it.

I sat down with Billie Jean and Elton John for their first-ever joint in-depth interview in Orlando, Florida, site of Smash Hits, their celebrity filled fundraiser.


AMANPOUR: 1973, an amazing year for both of you, both at the top of your games; both of you activists. And also you become friends that year.

How did you meet?

BILLIE JEAN KING, TENNIS PRO: We met at a party that Jerry Perenchio held about two weeks before I played Bobby Riggs.

AMANPOUR: And he was the promoter?

KING: And Jerry Perenchio was the promoter. When I got there, I go, oh, Jerry, you know, what's this party about? And he goes, oh, it's for Elton John. And I about fainted, because Elton was my favorite, but I'd never met him.

And I fell in love with him with "Your Song," and I said, "You're kidding."

AMANPOUR: You were his music fan.

Were you a tennis fan?

JOHN: Of course. I'm so old, I started playing by -- with a wooden racquet and hitting a ball up against a wall.

AMANPOUR: So here we are, actually sitting in a tennis stadium, on a tennis court, for Smash Hits.

JOHN: Right.

AMANPOUR: Why is this exhibition important to you?

JOHN: The two great levelers I've found in life are music and sport. They bring people together.

And tennis was one of -- probably the first sport to acknowledge AIDS by far. I mean, it was way ahead of the game.

AMANPOUR: You don't forget that.

JOHN: I don't forget that. That was very moving, at a time when it wasn't fashionable to speak up for AIDS. In fact, it was totally the opposite.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you both to reflect on this year. It's is also obviously 40 years for you since the famous Battle of the Sexes, King-Riggs. You won a record 20 Wimbledon titles. You've had 39 Grand Slam titles and you've done unbelievable work off the court for the (INAUDIBLE) equality of the sexes.

Does it bother you that a certain number of people, a certain generation, might remember you just for that match with Bobby Riggs?

Or is that a good thing?

KING: Oh, I knew that was going to happen because of exposure. So many millions of people watching and at the time in 1973, Title IX had just been passed.

AMANPOUR: Equal rights for sports and federally funded.

KING: It's all of education, no sex discrimination for the first time.

AMANPOUR: It was a huge deal.

KING: There was gender quotas before in American universities and colleges. So that broke down. Now we have more women in universities and colleges.

But 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, men and women, which I had started and devoted my life to when I was 12.

So this match, I knew, was a seminal moment.

AMANPOUR: And you said beating Bobby Riggs meant nothing athletically?

KING: No, because he's the same age exactly as my dad. He was born in 1918. But that's not what mattered. It was the exposure we got. It was the emotional impact it had. People were crazy. They were crazy. I mean, they were making bets. They were having parties. They were -- and, oh, my God, you can't believe --


AMANPOUR: It might have set back the cause if you'd lost.

KING: Oh, I think so. I didn't want Title IX to be weakened; we're only in our third year of women's professional tennis -- professional tennis. Men's and women's was only five years old. I mean, we were just in our infancy.

So I didn't want any -- I didn't want to give any excuse or any reason to go backwards.

AMANPOUR: You watched the match?

JOHN: I watched it at the hotel in Los Angeles and I lost my voice. I screamed so loudly. I -- you know, I think every man that I knew wanted her to win.


KING: Really?

JOHN: Yes, absolutely.


JOHN: No, I honestly knew that all the men I knew in my life wanted her to win because Bobby was so cocky and so arrogant. I mean, when she came out, you know, and I couldn't believe, like wow.




JOHN: But I really think at that time that if she hadn't won, it would have held back the movement of equality.

AMANPOUR: You have a new album out, "The Diving Board."

Reflect on where you are musically, personally and what this 40th year means to you.

JOHN: Where I am musically and personally is kind of the same place. I'm very relaxed. "The Diving Board" for me, I started it two years ago in January, when my son was 1, Zachary. and then I finished it and I had another son the following January.

And I think for the first time in my 66 years on Earth, I feel completely balanced. David and I have been together 20 years. We have a family.

I would never have dreamt five years ago that I would have two children and the child came about because we tried to adopt a little boy in the Ukraine.

And because we found it so difficult -- and it was impossible, basically -- we sat down and we reconfigured what we'd talked about earlier, about having our own child. And I said, well, this child in the Ukraine is trying to tell me that I can be a father. So I must follow this. We'll have our own child.

After that, I was dead against it.

AMANPOUR: Well, the "Diving Board" has been really well received. You're still creative as you were when you were 23. You wrote "Philadelphia Freedom" for Billie.

JOHN: Yes.

AMANPOUR: How did that come about?

JOHN: She asked me to write a song for the --

KING: No, I didn't ask you.

JOHN: No? Did I offer you?

KING: Yes, you did. I would never have the courage to ask that.

First of all, I wouldn't even think about it.

JOHN: All right.

KING: We're going to your concert and he says, I want to write a song for you. And I thought I was going to faint. Then he goes, "How about 'Philadelphia Freedom'?"

JOHN: And "Philadelphia Freedom" was a tribute to her and the tennis and the people of Philadelphia. And the music that was coming of it, it was just so --


KING: Unreal.

JOHN: -- started with Gamble and Huff and the Three (sic) Degrees, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, all that great music, The Spinners, all that wonderful music was coming out with that sound at the moment.

KING: It became number one, and then it crossed over into R&B. And that's what made you happy.

JOHN: Well, I -- I had, yes.

KING: It went on, crossed over into R&B and became number one. And he's like, yes.

JOHN: I'm a white boy from England. So when "Benny and the Jets" went to number one and -- on the black chart and "Philadelphia" followed it, and then "Are You Ready for Love," I had three number one records on the R&B chart. That, to me, means so much. You have no idea.

AMANPOUR: Do you remember the first time you heard "Your Song"?

KING: Yes, I was in San Francisco, driving along Van Ness, which is very hilly. And I heard -- and of course piano is my favorite. And then I heard Elton sing, and I said, well, who is this? What is this called?

So I -- actually, I was so -- I was so nervous I might get in a wreck that I pulled over to the curb. And I listened to the rest of the song. And I said, that's it. He's my favorite, whoever this guy is.

AMANPOUR: "Oceans Away"?

JOHN: Yes.

AMANPOUR: From your recent album, what is that about?

JOHN: It's about the men and the women in the First and Second World Wars who gave their lives, especially the First World War, which was one of the most horrific wars that ever was fought.

AMANPOUR: Soon to be 100 years.

JOHN: Next year.

People have no idea, none of us have any idea of the horror that people went through. But those two wars were epic wars where millions and millions and millions of young people, of -- millions of men, millions of women and millions of animals died to save our rights. And we should never forget that.

AMANPOUR: Does it sometimes pain you to see how the veterans of the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War are treated as they come home?

JOHN: Yes, absolutely disgraceful. The people who come back that have lost limbs and have trauma for the rest of their lives to deal with, and they are treated so badly.

KING: You know, my dad was a firefighter so I totally -- I lived with someone who risked his life every day.

JOHN: Zachary wants to be a firefighter.

KING: They usually -- most kids do when they're young. But it's a very high-risk endeavor and my dad loved his job. But you know, he came home and when I was 10 he almost got killed in a fire and he didn't. But somebody standing five feet away from him did. And that day, I'll never forget as a 10-year old, thinking, I could have lost my dad today.

JOHN: We're focused so much on celebrity in our culture and we don't focus on the right things. And I'm so sick of seeing celebrities on covers of magazines and tweeting and (INAUDIBLE) --


JOHN: -- it's disgusting.

AMANPOUR: OK. But you're a celebrity.

JOHN: I hate them. I know. But I hate the celebrity that is around now, the vacuous, talentless horror show that they get paid millions of dollars for when there are people who are teaching kids every day, they're just trying to scrape by and earn a living. It's a joke.

AMANPOUR: One of the most remarkable things I've heard you say is that from the age of 12 you realized that there was something wrong. There was injustice in the world. You were at an all-white tennis club; everybody was wearing white, you said.

And you said tennis is going to be my platform. I'm going to get to number one. I always thought it was opposite, that you wanted to be number one and then you decided to be activist.

KING: At 11, I wanted to be number one. And then at 12, I realized my calling, my sense of destiny and the question I asked at 12 about tennis is where's everybody else, because everybody was wearing white shoes, white socks, white clothes, you know, white tennis balls in those days; now it's yellow.

But the question I remember so clearly, I asked myself, where is everybody else?

And that's really what we're talking about today. And I knew as a woman I would have more difficulties. My world would be different than if I had been a boy or a man. And it is different.


AMANPOUR: And while many famous athletes are celebrated with statues in front of stadiums and with plaques in various halls of fame, Billie Jean King has an entire thriving sports complex named after her. In fact, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center here in New York, built on the site of the 1964 World's Fair, is the largest and busiest tennis facility in the world.

Not only is it the home of the U.S. Open, one of the four premier Grand Slam events every year, but it's also open to the general public seven days a week, 11 months of the year. So you, too, can double fault where the pros play.

And after a break, what if winning championships between the white lines was the easy part? Billie Jean King and Elton John talk about their wins and their losses off the court, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and more of my exclusive interview with two of the great performers and activists of our time.

For both Billie Jean King and Elton John, the fight for gay rights and equal rights began at home, and it wasn't easy.

In 1981, Billie Jean was publicly and painfully outed, seated beside her then-husband, Larry King, and watched by her parents. And against the advice of all her publicists and advisers, she faced the music head-on.


KING: I did have an affair with Marilyn Barnett. It's been over for quite some time. Any human being can put themselves in my shoes and try to imagine what I have been through the last few days. More importantly, I worried about what my loved ones are going to go through, too.


AMANPOUR: And the minute she made that admission, she lost all her lucrative endorsements and she was embroiled in a bitter palimony suit and then a painful divorce.


AMANPOUR: That's not how you'd have chosen to announce your sexuality.

Will you ever have done? Was it in a way kind of a relief that it happened like that?

KING: In the beginning, it wasn't a relief. But over time, it was, because the way my parents taught me and the way I was brought up is that - - my mother always said, "To thine own self be true," part of Shakespeare's stuff. And that's really what kept bringing home in my head. And 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. But things were very different in the early '80s and the '70s than they are now, but it was a really -- it was difficult because I was still married to Larry. He didn't want a divorce. I'd started seeing Ilana by then. I was a mess.

AMANPOUR: You grew up in the '50s in England. It wasn't exactly a bastion of sort of progressive thought.

JOHN: No. I didn't know anyone who was gay. My family or anyone, I didn't even know until I'd worked with a gay singer (INAUDIBLE) that there might be homosexuals in the world. And I didn't really do anything about it until 23, when I first had sex.

I mean, in the '50s, you didn't talk about sex. It was a different society. It was a deeply conservative -- I'm very glad I grew up when I grew up because I grew up with radio and the, you know, getting our first refrigerator, television, everything you -- you know, it was brilliant. It was so exciting.

But I think the '50s were a horrible decade to live in. I wouldn't ever want -- you know, the Tea Party seem to want to go back to those days.

And they can have them. You know, because they are the worst, secretive, manipulative, horrible days where people just were too frightened. They were pointing fingers, horrible time to live in. But people just living secret lives.

KING: Well, you couldn't be your authentic self.

JOHN: You couldn't be yourself.

AMANPOUR: In the United States, 16 states now approve gay marriage. Did you ever imagine that you would see this when you were first having sex in San Francisco at 23?

JOHN: No, I mean, it -- when David and I were allowed to have a civil partnership in 2005, when Tony Blair was the prime minister, and we got our civil partnership on the first day possible because we were so, you know, we said, we've got to do this. It's an incredible shift in the way society thinks.

And now, next year you can legally get married in church if you want to, thanks to David Cameron, the prime minister.

AMANPOUR: Will you get married, Elton?

JOHN: Oh, yes, our first day possible. Yes, I'm --


JOHN: David and I are very high-profile gay couple, probably the most high-profile gay couple in the world. You have to set an example. If you say, listen, guys, this is our right -- can you imagine 20 years ago? We'd have never thought this possible.


AMANPOUR: Billie Jean, you and Ilana are a very high-profile gay couple. You've been with Ilana more than 30 years. She's your partner in life and a very top level --


AMANPOUR: Are you going to get married?

KING: I don't know. But we do discuss it. And of course Elton's saying, if you get married, we'll come -- I'll come and (INAUDIBLE). I'll come and play.


AMANPOUR: (INAUDIBLE) avoiding the question.

KING: No, no. I -- it's probably my problem, because my challenge is because of what I went through with the palimony in Maryland and then obviously Larry. It was a long, long, horrible experience over many years. And I still think there's residual effects from that. For, I mean, Ilana, unfortunately, has to -- I'm the problem, not Ilana.

AMANPOUR: The world's changing.

KING: Yes, finally.

AMANPOUR: But of course not in other parts of the world. You are about to go to Russia.

JOHN: Yes.

AMANPOUR: In December. And obviously we know -- we've reported on our program a lot about the anti-propaganda law that's meant to not let people talk about being gay.

So what do you do then as a high-profile gay performer in a civil union, about to get married and you go to Russia?

Are you going to tell them to stick it? Are you going to lobby from the stage? What happens?

JOHN: Well, I'm going to go -- I think (INAUDIBLE) 1979 and I have had great times in Russia. 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. I mean, if you don't go, you know, you're --


JOHN: -- you have to go. You don't prove anything by not doing something. Everything is about chipping away. That's the way you have to approach it. I'm not going to go over and say bloody Putin this, bloody Putin that. They're just going to throw me out. I'm just a bloody rock star. And they're going to pay me no credence whatsoever.

What I'm going to do is meet with the LGBT community, see what the -- how I can help them, see what I can do for them. I'm going to say something from the stage that's not going to be -- that's going to be meaningful. But I'm not going to go over there and swaggering about because I don't have, you know, I don't mean anything. You know?

AMANPOUR: Well, you do, obviously, you represent a lot.

So let me ask you, I guess you must be worried, even about that, because you were in China a couple of years ago. You dedicated one of your concerts to the great artist and activist, Ai Weiwei. Again, we've had him on our program and he's a remarkable fellow.

But then afterwards, people were questioned. You know, I think you were --


JOHN: My tour manager was detained for three hours during the show. I was kept for like 15 minutes in my car. I honestly didn't realize the effect. I mean, I -- he's been a friend, he's -- I've bought his art and what he's done in China is incredible. I never -- I didn't really think about it. But I'm so glad I did. I would never go back and say I wouldn't -- I regret saying that.

AMANPOUR: But it's a difficult balance.

JOHN: He needed to be part -- yes.

And then -- and I want to do some AIDS work in China. So if they have blacklisted me, and they probably have, I have much more work to do there with the AIDS epidemic that is so bubbling under the surface there. It's a time bomb.


AMANPOUR: And we told you about Billie Jean's campaign to create an independent professional women's tour, correcting the inequality that awarded her less than $2,000 for her 1968 Wimbledon championship while Rod Laver, the men's winner, took home more than twice as much.

But in America, even revolutions need a commercial sponsor and Billie Jean and her eight fellow athletes found one in Virginia Slims, a cigarette specifically targeted to the emerging market of liberated women.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Smoke in front of a man? Heaven forbid.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): And the message, "You've come a long way, baby," was not just blowing smoke.


AMANPOUR: And we'll be back with a final thought after a break.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, trailblazing on and off the court. But imagine a world where Billie Jean King won even more tennis titles. Did activism come at a cost?


CHRIS EVERT, TENNIS PRO: Her number one priority was to get equal prize money for women's tennis. Her first priority wasn't necessarily her winning a tournament. And I think in the long run, it probably hurt her career.


AMANPOUR: So I asked Billie Jean King whether she had any regrets as she turned 70.


KING: No regrets. Are you kidding? God gave me -- my brother and I --

JOHN: It would be impossible for her to be a bigger champion.

KING: Sports, my brother and I are -- we're exceptional. We just are. And we're two of the lucky ones. We're lucky that we have that coordination and the desire and the motivation and the energy and the competitive spirit. I mean, we hate to lose. We want to win.

But if you hear Elton and me -- and I, we want to win as far as getting the world a better place. And that's why we're competitive. That's why we're out there every single day with our energy, is 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. It's about human rights.

AMANPOUR: Singing still and music still is your passion?

JOHN: Yes. It never goes away. I mean, music has been with me since 3 years old, 3 years of age. It's got me through terrible times and great times. It's been my friend, my lover, the person that I've turned to in a kind of non-human form.

When I've been on my own, it's been solace. It's been joy. It's been motivational. It's been my life. And you have to raise the bar. And if you don't raise the bar still, then you're coasting. And you might as well be dead.

AMANPOUR: Elton John, Billie Jean King, still raising the bar. Never coast.

Thank you very much indeed.

KING: Thanks, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us as our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.