Tina Turner's Longtime Designer and Friend Remembers 'Magical' Star and Decorating Her French Villa (Exclusive)
Stephen Sills recalls finding a kindred creative spirit in the late icon — and shares how he ended up photographing her in bed with Martha Stewart
When Tina Turner was struggling to decorate her new home in the South of France, she got a helping hand from designer Stephen Sills — and ended up with a friend for life.
Sills, an AD100 designer who has curated luxurious homes around the world, met the late icon, who died Wednesday at age 83, in the '90s at a home he'd decorated in Aspen, Colorado for a music industry executive and friend of Turner's, James Fifield.
"She was sitting on the sofa and he introduced me," Sills recalls to PEOPLE. "She just stuck her hands out so I needed to come and grab her hands and I did. We sat and just talked forever." Turner told Sills about a new property she'd just built on the French Riviera and asked for his help filling it with treasures.
Sills took on the commission alongside his then-partner James Ford Huniford. He admits he was nervous to work with the superstar at first, but he went to France to see the villa perched on a hilltop above the Mediterranean Sea and come up with a vision for the jumbled mix of pieces that occupied it at the time. He draped wicker furniture in sheets, rearranged things and created a new floor plan. And Turner's reaction proved he had nothing to worry about: After showing her his ideas, "She just said, 'I love it. Let's do it.' She was just magical."
The pair became fast friends, visiting stately homes in the area hunting for inspiration and making shopping trips to the flea market in Paris. "We became very close instantly," he says. In addition to good taste, they shared a common history. "I was from southern Oklahoma. She was from Tennessee. We talked about growing up in the country and how we got out. We'd stay up and drink champagne from 2 o'clock in the morning talking around the fire. Just about decoration and creativity. It was just an enchanted moment."
They gathered pieces inspired by ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt — a fascination of Turner's — as well as French antiques, like the 22-piece set of gilded furniture the singer purchased on a whim, much to Sills' initial dismay.
"I tried to talk her out of it," he says. "I said, 'There's so much of it. You don't need this much furniture.' And it was very large. I said, 'You can't fit all this.' She said, ' Oh, yes I can. We can fit it. We can do it, Stephen. Trust me.' And she got every piece in there."
Sills describes the final look as "a rockstar palace, but with some class." He proposed publishing it in Architectural Digest. "She said, 'Oh, do you think they would?' I said, 'You on the cover? Yeah.'"
"When I met her, she was at the height of her fame and power, but she was so modest," he recalls. "What always struck me, even to the end, [is that] she knew she was a superstar and she saw her success, but it didn't really hinder her. She had to work and she wanted to be a great star."
Even after the project was complete, the friends stayed close. Stills visited Turner in Europe regularly and offered advice on the decoration of an estate she'd bought on the shore of Lake Zurich in Switzerland.
Turner also visited him at home in Bedford, New York. When Tina — The Tina Turner Musical was debuting on Broadway, she and her husband Erwin Bach stayed in his guest house for weeks and Sills threw a party to celebrate for a cast of their international friends.
One of those guests was Sills' neighbor — Martha Stewart.
After a snafu with the catering, Sills says, "I asked Martha to help me, and she got me her chef Pierre and we did it and had a great crowd." But when guests started arriving and Turner had still not appeared, the pair went to retrieve her from the guest house where she was napping.
"She was in bed with the covers up to her head. And I said, 'Hon, this is Martha Stewart. People are coming, darling. Come, let's get ready and go over." But before Turner could get up inspiration struck. "I said, 'Can I take a picture of both of y'all together?' She said, 'Sure, let me get dressed.' I said, 'No, just stay in bed. Martha, go over there.' I pulled back the cover and I said, 'Get in like you're in bed with her. Pull the sheet up so you look like her.' And I took it." Martha posted it that night. She told me, 'I've already got 7,000 likes in the past 20 minutes!'"
Stewart reposted the funny photo in memory of Turner on Wednesday.
Sills also took on a special project for Turner in Tennessee. When he learned that her childhood schoolhouse in Nutbush was going to be torn down, they worked together alongside the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center to relocate it and turn it into a museum about Turner's life and music, the Tina Turner Museum at Flagg Grove School, which is open to visitors.
In Turner's final years, Sills continued to visit her and Erwin in Switzerland through what a representative for the star described as "a long illness."
"I saw her six months ago. I went over there and stayed two days and two nights and we went out to dinner and everything," he recalls. "She seemed great, but I really think it was ... she wanted to go. She told me that two years ago. She said, 'Stephen, I'm ready to go anytime. I'm not scared of death. I've had a wonderful last part of my life and I've enjoyed it, but I'm tired.'"
They had been planning another visit when he learned of her death. "It just shocked me," he tells PEOPLE. "I'm just trying to get a grip on it."
Still, Sills remembers his friend well.
"She was such an amazing friend and she had such a force of creativity. She loved beauty. We had that in common. She was a real lady and she was very refined. The Tina Turner persona of performing, that was a made-up person. She created that and it was a beautiful image, but she was absolutely positive and energetic and interested and curious. She was just an amazing person."
He adds, "I have known so many extraordinary persons, but I'd have to say she was my favorite person I've ever met in my life."
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