Photo: Firooz Zahedi
This particular photo of Elizabeth and Sugar, her dog, was taken in 1993. We all loved Sugar and she would come everywhere with Elizabeth. Once, when we were going to Cannes, we had to hold up the whole plane so Sugar could go and pee on the tarmac—but everyone adored her because she was such a calm little dog. When Sugar passed away, Elizabeth was so broken-hearted that they got her another dog that looked just like Sugar. But its behavior was totally different, so then they got her yet another one that looked like Sugar, too. The second one was a little better, but still not Sugar. There are a lot of photos with Elizabeth and Sugar in the book because you couldn't tear the dog away from her. I shot her for the cover of French Vogue, and she had Sugar in her arms. But Sugar's quite stylish, I think. A little more minimal in her attire.
The first time I met Elizabeth was at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC during the summer of 1976. She was invited by my cousin, who was the Iranian ambassador with the previous government, and he asked me to come help supervise a brunch he was holding for her. Then, at the last minute, he had to go to New York for official business, so he asked me to look after her and show her around the city. I was in my late 20s and shy, thinking, "What am I doing, this tête-à-tête with this movie star?" But she asked me all about myself, so I opened up to her about how I wanted to be an artist, even though my family wanted me to get a real job. She started encouraging me to do what I wanted to do, and she made me feel important and equal. I didn't just feel like I was escorting her around; I felt like I was with a friend. And all of this happened in the space of one day. That evening we had dinner, just her and I, and we just bonded within 24 hours.
That night she also showed me all her jewelry, but unfortunately, I didn't really know much about it at that point. I was like, "Who's Bulgari?" She gave me the whole history of who gave her this piece and who gave her that one, and it was like, "Richard this" and "Francis that." Later I realized she was talking about Frank Sinatra. I was fascinated that this famous woman, a huge celebrity, was telling me all about her life without me asking her any questions. I felt that since she had confided in me, I was going to respect her confidence and not share anything she said with anyone else.
I came from a very conservative Iranian family of politicians and military people, and a guy didn't pursue the arts back then. I used to win awards at school for my drawings and paintings, but I was a closeted artist. Elizabeth brought me out and said, "It's okay. You're good. You should do it." And it really helped to have someone who had an eye, who knew about things, who was respected and knew photography.
My cousin wanted Elizabeth to go to Iran as a special guest on a goodwill tour of the country that same year, and she said, "Well, if you send Firooz along, I'll go." So we went to Iran together. I had just started being a photographer, and I was working with Andy Warhol for his new magazine, Interview. I had one little 35-millimeter camera, and I took snapshots as we walked around the sites. I have some amazing images—one of her wearing a burka outside a mosque, and another of her dressed in a tribal costume and lying on a sofa in the hotel. I never had any intention of publishing them—it was like two friends taking photos as tourists. But she told Andy Warhol about them, and he turned the whole thing into a cover story for Interview. Up until that point, I wasn't 100 percent sure I wanted to be a photographer, but then I said, "You know what? Getting things published, especially photographs of Elizabeth Taylor… I think I'm going to pursue this as a career."
In 1978, she brought me out to Los Angeles because she was doing a movie, and she introduced me to everyone as her photographer, which was quite a big label. She didn't make me feel awkward about it; I just thought, "Well, I must be good if she's calling me that."
We had 35 years of friendship, and a few years before she died, I asked if we could do a book of photographs that we'd taken. I didn't want to do anything without permission, and she said sure. I told her it wasn't for the money, and I would contribute the money to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which she had set up. She was very happy about that, and she wrote a little foreword for the book. I'm very excited that it's coming out now.
Elizabeth was the first main celebrity to come out and speak up about AIDS. This was in the mid-80s, when AIDS was a huge issue that everyone was shunning. If people heard someone had AIDS or was HIV-positive, they'd run to the other side of the street, but Elizabeth would go up and hug them. She stood behind a cause that was not accepted by the average person. Even the government wasn't doing anything about it. So for her to do that took a lot of courage.