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Russell Brand: a life of extremes, an obsession with sex and a very distressing childhood

Russell Brand: a life of extremes, an obsession with sex and a very distressing childhood

It’s difficult to remember Russell Brand pre-YT. Before the one-time hugely bankable entertainment all-rounder – stand-up comic, Hollywood actor, TV host, radio DJ, best-selling memoirist, newspaper columnist, husband of Katy Perry – was a YouTube megastar. Before this fiercely intelligent provocateur was a social media warrior who uses the platform to share with 6.61 million subscribers some 2400 videos in which he champions truth (or, at least, his version thereof), freedom and the Brandian way.

“Everybody knows that the old ideas won’t help us,” bugles Brand on the self-titled and far and away the most popular of his four YT channels (the others are Awakening With Russell, Stay Free with Russell Brand, and this ardent West Ham fan’s Football Is Nice). “On this channel my videos explore new ways to connect with ourselves and one another and how to elevate our consciousness.”

What does that mean? Where once this serial controversy-magnet would invite Jonathan Ross onto his Radio 2 show, call Andrew Sachs and leave a message about having sex with the elderly actor’s granddaughter – the cruel 2008 prank that resulted in another of the anarchic Brand’s career-long sackings – now he welcomes contrarians and media outcasts such as Fox News’s ousted ranter-in-chief, Tucker Carlson.

Russell Brand leaves the Troubabour Wembley Park theatre in north-west London (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Russell Brand leaves the Troubabour Wembley Park theatre in north-west London (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

The Essex machine’s most recent guest interviewee appeared under the headline “Stop Lying!!”, both exclamation marks deemed necessary to amplify the urgency, or the shrillness, of the conspiracy theorists’ messaging. At time of writing, 2,423,522 people have watched that video.

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The 48-year-old is, then, still very much a popular figure. Over on Spotify this truth-seeking missile has north of 73,000 monthly listeners, his fans tuning in for a podcast also titled Stay Free With Russell Brand. “Russell goes under the skin of guests from the world [sic] of academia, popular culture and the arts, to help us to understand and see the ulterior truth behind our constructed reality,” runs the description.

“And have a laugh,” goes the addendum. But the theme, already, is clear. Last week alone the man with a messiah complex (the name of his 2013 tour) and the hair to match posted four videos from his leafy shed on, presumably, the Henley-on-Thames property he shares with pregnant second wife Laura Gallacher and their two young children.

 (Instagram/Laura Brand)
(Instagram/Laura Brand)

You can divine a sense of the content, and of the questing, agitated tone, from the descriptions that lie beneath the clips (and above the instruction to “Shop the Russell Brand store” for Brand-ed merchandise). They variously invoke Donald Trump, “Covid hysteria”, Elon Musk, casting doubt on “a convicted fraudster… claim[ing] he had sex with Barack Obama”, Bill Gates, “food fascism” and the “lies” of Joe Biden as to his whereabouts on 9/11.

Yes, Brand is still a stand-up comedian, albeit no longer performing at the scale of selling out London’s O2, as he did during 2009’s Scandalous tour. On Saturday his 12-date, six-week English run, Bipolarisation, took him to London, where he performed at the Wembley Park Theatre (capacity: 2000). On Tuesday, he’s at Windsor’s Theatre Royal – news cycle permitting.

That’s because, in the wee hours of Friday night/Saturday morning, the King of Commentary posted a fifth video in five days. “So, This Is Happening” was the title. In the 165-second clip Brand alerted his followers to a looming firestorm. In a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, to be broadcast on Saturday evening, and in an accompanying Sunday Times article, he would be subject to what he characterised as “very, very serious criminal allegations”.

He didn’t go into specifics, but also said: “These allegations pertain to the time when I was working in the mainstream, when I was in the newspapers all the time, when I was in the movies… As I’ve written about extensively in my books, I was very, very promiscuous. Now, during that time of promiscuity, the relationships I had were absolutely always consensual.”

As we now know, those assertations by Brand are now being challenged in the most serious manner.

But in one regard, he certainly wasn’t lying: Russell Brand has long been upfront about his sexual appetite.

“I have always accrued status and validation through my indiscretions (even before I attained the unique accolade of ‘Shagger of the Year’ from The Sun…), but sex is also recreational for me,” he wrote in the first chapter of his first autobiography, 2007’s My Booky Wook. It opened with Brand “incarcerated” in the suburbs of Philadelphia, being treated for sex addiction in the Keystone clinic –  “winky-nick”, in his pithy phrase.

“I just like girls,” he continued, “all different ones, in an unsophisticated, unevolved way, like a Sun reader or a yobbo at a bus stop in Basildon, perhaps because, at my core, that’s what I am. I’m a bloke from Grays with a good job and a terrific haircut who’s been given a Wonka ticket to a lovely sex factory ’cos of the old fame, and while Augustus Gloop drowns and Veruca Salt goes blue, I’m cleanin’ up, I’m rinsin’ it baby!”

That “old fame” had been hard-won and, indubitably, well-earned. The only offspring of a beloved single mother, Brand was a successful child actor (he was in The Bill and, with fellow Essex lad Russell Tovey, CBBC series Mud). But his childhood was also dogged by his mum’s repeated battles with cancer – she was diagnosed with uterus cancer when he was eight, battled breast cancer a year later, and then again when Brand was sixteen - his own struggles with an eating disorder, his early adoption of recreational drugs and his turbulent relationship with his dad, Ron. One time, Ron took his son to Thailand, whereupon he hired three prostitutes – a couple for him, and one for 16-year-old Russell.

That chaos continued into adulthood, and into his career. He began making a name for himself as a stand-up in 2000, the same year he landed his first presenting gig, as a VJ at North London-based MTV Europe. But by September the following year, the 26-year-old was already out on his ear, fired after turning up to work the day after 9/11 dressed as Obama bin Laden.

Russell Brand (PA) (PA Wire)
Russell Brand (PA) (PA Wire)

But Brand was too clever, funny and talented to be unemployed for long. The following year he was appearing in his own comedy documentary series, RE:Brand. In 2004 he began a (for him) relatively lengthy stint hosting the reality TV companion show that came to be called Big Brother’s Big Mouth. Other telly gigs followed, including an MTV comeback as a chatshow host and, in 2007, the plum job of hosting the BRIT Awards in the year it returned to a live broadcast. Show producer Helen Terry later told me that she fully understood the risk involved.

“Russell Brand is a very bright man,” she said. “He was told very clearly what could and couldn’t be said and that lawyers would go through his script – we took out some stuff that was deemed to be too offensive. I think he seized that moment and made it his own.” Indeed he did: his quip about Amy Winehouse –“a woman whose surname sounds increasingly like the state of her liver” – is often cited as the funniest one-liner in the show’s history.

The following year brought “Sachsgate” and more controversy when he hosted the MTV Video Music Awards in America. His calling then-President George W. Bush the “retarded, cowboy fella” resulted in death threats. But, again, Brand bounced back.

By the time I interviewed him in 2011 ­– I was in the studio audience in New York when he hosted Saturday Night Live, a bucket-list presenting gig for actors and comedians – he had won three British Comedy Awards (Best Newcomer, Best Live Stand-Up, Outstanding Contribution to Comedy) and made a splash in Hollywood. After landing his first major film role in the St Trinian’s reboot (2007), he was now booking key roles in big American comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Get Him To The Greek (2010) and the 2011 remake of Arthur.

He was also by now eight years sober, a yoga-loving transcendental meditator, married to Katy Perry and living in a Los Angeles house he’d bought for $3.25 million. Describing the manner of meeting Perry as “phenomenal”, he brushed off reports that their five-month marriage was already in crisis and thanked her for turning off his oversexualised tap.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“The night before I went on my first date with her I was living my old life! Close one door because new people were coming in,” he told me, referring to the whirring carousel of his sexual relations. And he was as surprised as anyone at this turn of events

“Ten years ago, my life was so far away from this, people just wouldn’t have said this would happen to me. Except for me – I was the only person who thought it was possible. And much as I wanted to be successful, I wanted to have a partner and a family. There were long periods amid my single life where I’d think: ‘It’d be good to have a mate.’” Eight months after our meeting, Perry filed for divorce.

Within two years Brand was pivoting to overt anti-establishment activism. Speaking to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, he called on the British electorate not to vote, attacked capitalism and preached “revolution”. The following year, 2014, he published a book with that title. He was now on the road to something like full-time activism – and, certainly compared to his previous status in the entertainment world, a whole new kind of fame. Or, if you like, infamy. Talk about a reBrand.

But as evidenced by this weekend’s allegations, his pre-YT past is now catching up with him. Reading the shocking accounts of his alleged victims, I remembered something else he told me 12 years ago.

“I was flattered when Helen Mirren said I was ‘genuinely interested’ in women,” he said of his Arthur co-star, who made the comments in a Guardian interview shortly before I met Brand. “Even when I was single and marauding, although there was obviously a predatory nature due to the numbers, it was always very sweet and respectful and kind of adoring, never sly or sleazy or manipulative. I was an enthusiast!”

In the light of these graphic new reports, those comments now read very differently..