All I will say is this. You can’t prank Elton John and get away with it. Elton John has turned a viral prank phone call into a plea to improve LGBT rights in Russia. “Pranks are funny. Homophobia, however, is never funny,” John posted on Instagram alongside a photo of two men, one with their face bloodied. “I love Russia and my offer to talk to President Putin about LGBT rights still stands. I will always stand up for those that are being degraded and discriminated against. If this unfortunate incident has helped push this vital issue back into the spotlight, then I am happy to be pranked on this occasion.”
While touring Russia and Ukraine, the singer received a phone call from someone John believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interpreter, who told John that Putin wanted to discuss gay rights in Russia. John and “Putin” spoke for a while and made arrangements to meet when the singer arrived in Moscow. “Thank you to President Vladimir Putin for reaching out and speaking via telephone with me today,” John wrote on Instagram Tuesday. “I look forward to meeting with you face-to-face to discuss LGBT equality in Russia.”
Putin’s conversation with John on gay rights instantly became major news, as Russia’s harsh treatment of the LGBT community is routinely criticized. Last weekend, John called Putin’s stance toward gay rights “ridiculous” during an LGBT rights protest in Kiev.
John had frequently asked to meet with Putin during his trips to Russia in recent years, which made the news of their phone call even more surprising. However, the Kremlin quickly denied that the conversation between Putin and John had taken place. It was soon revealed that John was the victim of a hoax perpetrated by Vladimir “Vovan” Krasnov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, two noted pranksters that often take aim at celebrities.
“We thought it wasn’t likely that Putin would want to meet with him and call, at least not so quickly,” Krasnov said after audio of the prank was released (via The Guardian). “But it turned out that Elton John was really waiting for this call, and so he immediately believed it really was a conversation with the people who we said we were. He said: ‘Thank you, you’ve made my day. This day and this conversation has been the most wonderful and lovely in my life.'”
In November 2014, John railed against Russia’s homophobia during a concert in St. Petersburg after the country took down a statue dedicated to Steve Jobs because Apple’s current CEO Tim Cook is gay. Officials claimed this made the Jobs memorial “homosexual propaganda.”
“As a gay man, I’ve always felt so welcome here in Russia,” John told the crowd at that concert. “Stories of Russian fans – men and women who fell in love dancing to ‘Nikita’ or their kids who sing along to ‘Circle of Life’ – mean the world to me. If I’m not honest about who I am, I couldn’t write this music. It’s not gay propaganda. It’s how I express life. If we start punishing people for that, the world will lose its humanity.”
As John noted on his Instagram Thursday, although he was a victim of a massively viral prank, the incident has shined a light on the need to improve Russia’s stance on the LGBT community.