Did pop star Elton John get punked?
The singer apparently thought he was chatting about gay rights with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, posting an Instagram photo thanking Putin for the call.
But a Russian TV personality now says it wasn’t the Kremlin on the line.
In an interview with Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian celebrity prankster known as “Vovan” — whose real name is Vladimir Krasnov — described how he and his comedy sidekick made a prank call to the British singer, playing the roles of Putin and a press secretary.
“We thought Putin wouldn’t want to meet him or call him at least in the nearest future, but it turned out Elton John’s been waiting for such a call,” Krasnov told the newspaper. “That’s why he immediately believed we were exactly those whom we introduced ourselves as.”
In a post on his official Instagram account on Monday, John said the Russian President got in touch with him to talk about gay rights.
“Thank-you to President Vladimir Putin for reaching out and speaking via telephone with me today,” John wrote in a post Monday that featured a photo of the Russian leader. “I look forward to meeting with you face-to-face to discuss LGBT equality in Russia.”
In Moscow, Putin’s office was categorical that the singer, who regularly takes up gay rights issues, had it all wrong.
“That is not true. There was no conversation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday, according to the Russian state-run news agency Sputnik.
The contradictory statements left a puzzle about what really went on.
The pop star’s representatives weren’t offering any answers Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Putin post remained on his Instagram account, gathering hundreds of comments ranging from praise to abuse.
‘It was us’
Krasnov told Komsomolskaya Pravda that he and his comedy sidekick, Aleksey Stolyarov, know as “Lexus,” were the ones who phoned the rock star, introducing themselves as Putin and Peskov.
“Yes, it was us,” Krasnov said, according to the newspaper. “Aleksey speaks perfect English, so he introduced himself as Dmitry Peskov on the phone and translated our conversation. And I was Vladimir Putin.”
John, according to Krasnov, was grateful for the call.
“He said, ‘Thank you, you made my day. This conversation’s been the most wonderful in my life!'”
Excerpts from the phone call were broadcast on Russian state television Wednesday night, with a late-night host interviewing the pranksters.
“Hello Sir Elton,” a man claiming to be Putin says in the recording. “I was told that you wanted to discuss important problems of Russian reality.”
John purportedly responds that he’s eager to meet in person.
“That is incredible. I am a musician and a philanthropic person and a humanitarian,” he says. “I’m not a politician, but I would love to sit down with the President and discuss things face to face, because I think we can solve many issues together.”
“I love Russia,” the singer adds later. “It’s been part of my life since 1979, and I just want to make the situation better if I can.”
When asked how they got John’s phone number, the pranksters told Russian TV host Ivan Urgant it was a “professional secret.” During the call, Krasnov said he kept his distance from the phone to mask his voice, just in case the singer knew what the Russian President sounds like.
Krasnov has a history of making prank calls to celebrities and politicians, including former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
‘I’d love to meet him’
John had said in an interview over the weekend with the BBC that he wished to meet with Putin to talk about the treatment of gay people in Russia.
“I’d love to meet him,” the singer said. “I’d love to sit down with him and talk to him. It’s probably pie in the sky — but at least you try.”
Asked what he’d say to Putin, John said: “Be accepting, and let’s all pull together and try to solve the problems of the world. But don’t isolate and be prejudiced against gay people.”
Russia criticized over gay rights
Human rights groups have criticized as highly discriminatory a Russian law passed in 2013 that forbids public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children might hear it.
A report in December by Human Rights Watch said Russian authorities are failing to protect gay people from persecution and are not prosecuting the perpetrators of a growing number of homophobic attacks.
Putin has said that Russia’s priority is “a healthy traditional family and a healthy nation” but that did not mean that it would persecute those “of a nontraditional orientation.”
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Wednesday that the pranksters should apologize to the singer, who he described as “respected and beloved” in Russia.
According to state-run Sputnik News, he said Putin would be open to meeting with John.
“If there really is such a proposal or request from Elton John,” Peskov said, “I have no doubt that the President would be ready to meet with him and clarify any questions that he has.”