Before I meet Russell Brand I meet his cat. At least, I’m assuming it’s his cat because: a) I’m sitting in his kitchen in Hampstead, and b) The cat has one of those diamanté-studded collars on it, the sort of thing that Brand himself might wear, only around his wrist, and with metal studs rather than fake diamonds.
It is early evening and he is behind schedule, upstairs somewhere meeting a deadline. When – eventually – he descends the staircase, he is barefoot; tall and lean in black jeans and black jumper; padding as softly as a panther. His left eyebrow forms a permanent arch; his lower lip a puffy curve; his long, black mane is down, rather than back-combed up, which is how he wears it when doing his show on television or when performing comedy on stage – award-winning comedy, quirky, effervescent, stream-of-consciousness comedy.
By his own exuberant standards, he seems subdued, weary and, well, dignified today – more dignified than you would expect. He also seems distracted: he fiddles with the flat-screen Bang and Olufsen TV; he languidly circles the kitchen table; he plays with the dimmer switch before opting for muted lighting, which casts his neatly bearded features into partial shadow. When he settles it is with the side of his head resting on an upturned hand, as if offering it on a plate. He has about him an air of wanton self-possession. This, you sense, is not a man to whom you would lightly entrust a wife or grown daughter.
I am here because Russell Brand is about to publish his life story.
This you might think a little premature, given that he is 32 years old. But the man has lived. With candour bordering on the pathological, he spares his readers little as he turns seedy episodes – the crack dens, the orgies, the brothels – into picaresque anecdotes. Everything is played for laughs – from his teenage bulimia and his expulsions from school and drama college, to his numerous sackings, his 11 arrests for petty crimes, his sexual humiliations, his Olympian promiscuity and drug abuse, and, finally, his treatment in a clinic for heroin addiction, and, after that, for sex addiction (he calls it being sent to winky nick).
His prose is vulgar at times – he would prefer ‘saucy’ – but it is also pleasingly deadpan and, on occasion, lyrical. I tell him so and then add that I sensed he was holding a lot back – my little joke. He looks puzzled. ‘In what?… Why?’ To be fair, if you have to explain something is a joke, it probably isn’t one. ‘Right,’ he says, nodding thoughtfully. ‘Because I’m so open about everything, you mean? Right.’
Open is one way of putting it, I say. Dementedly honest is another. He’s addicted to honesty. Stuff you would hesitate to tell your best friend, he tells the world.
‘Really? What like?’ Like the time he spat in a girlfriend’s face. Or the time he pleasured a man in a public lavatory for a TV show he was doing (it was never aired), despite being, in his own words, ‘hysterically heterosexual’.
‘You’re the first person to read it who isn’t involved in the publishing process. Now you’re making me nervous that I’ve said too much.’
He feels exposed? ‘Not really, no, because although I am the subject, the instrument referred to in the book, I think I can be quite objective in the way I make jokes about all the things that ‘appened to me.’
To rob them of their power to wound, he means? ‘That’s the mentality which has seen me through, Nigel.’
A word about his delivery here. It is quite fey and whispery, then he will get excited – ‘cited’ he would call it – and become shouty and deeper voiced. He hams up his Essex accent, dropping his ‘h’s’, as in ‘appen, and ‘g’s’, as in slumberin’ (take them as read for the rest of this article). He deliberately uses rotten grammar: ‘Them things.’ ‘I weren’t.’ And he would refer to ‘me grammar’ rather than ‘my grammar.’ Yet he also uncoils extravagant sentences, full of quaint old-fashioned vocabulary and Victorian syntax. When he does this on stage he spirals his hand like a hypnotist.
He seems to be on a roll at the moment – he has his own Radio 2 programme as well as a show on Channel 4, and he has a budding acting career (among other films, he is in the soon to be released St Trinians and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, from the team behind Knocked Up). He has even had a fling with Kate Moss. So where did it all go wrong, as the hotel waiter once asked George Best? Brand traces it back to several things: being an only child, having parents who separated when he was six months old, being ‘fingered’ by a tutor when he was seven. ‘A lot of the things, to me, are quite ordinary because they are literally what happened. It couldn’t be more mundane. Having spent time in treatment, around drug users, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had mildly intrusive sexual encounters as a child.’
But most people don’t end up having treatment for sexual addiction as an adult. That, to me, seems unusual. ‘It’s not something I would have done if left to my own devices. I was coerced into it. Like with drug addiction, once a problem is highlighted people become more judgmental. More than if you just kept quiet about your addiction. I haven’t used drink or drugs for five years so I am a much less volatile prospect than once I was.’
His public persona seems egomaniacal, yet in private, judging by his memoirs, he doesn’t seem to like himself that much. Does the bravado hide self-loathing? ‘I imagine really, Nigel, what with the self and the individual being arbitrary constructs rather than objective ideas, that if you are resolutely happy with who you are then you are drunk on an illusion. And I am not. I accept there is a conflict there, though. Because I am, as you have said, egotistical. I am compelled to pursue ambitions and goals whilst at the same time recognising they are futile.’
See what I mean about him being dignified? I mention a childhood incident in which he stamped on flowers because he had been expressly told not to by a park keeper. A cry for attention, surely. One to do with his father being absent. Is it that he would rather have people hate him than ignore him? ‘If the park keeper hadn’t told me not to stamp on the flowers, I wouldn’t have been compelled to do it. The flowers were innocent casualties in all this. I sometimes just think, what will happen? What’s the worst that could happen if I do this?
‘Usually the answer is: not much. Looking back, I wish I had rebelled more. I wish I had gone further. I wish I had been in more trouble at school. I wish I had taken more drugs. I wish I had been rude to more people. I wish I had been sacked from more jobs.’
The most memorable sacking, for the record, was when he wore an Osama bin Laden costume for his MTV show, on the morning after 9/11.
‘Come on guys,’ he said to his viewers. ‘Get over it. It was yesterday. We’ve got to move on.’ Quite funny that, but only in retrospect.
Conformists, I suggest, don’t just conform because they are boring but because they don’t want the stress of non-conformity. They conform because it makes them happy and frees them to think of higher things. As Socrates is said to have said, the greatest form of freedom is slavery.
‘Yes, but conformity was never an option for me. I didn’t feel contentment. The demands to conform are deeply encoded, yet the penalties are so inconsequential when breached. For petty rules, I mean.
‘If a policeman gives me an ultimatum not to drop my trousers of course I am going to drop them. When that happened to me I wasn’t arrested. What will happen if I do take heroin in front of people at work? Nothing. Well, I got sacked, but so what. And what if I do refuse to get off this aeroplane? OK, I got thrown off but I wasn’t charged. Actually, I am less like that now I have stuff to lose. Before it was: what are you gonna take from me? A lump of me nothin?’
His non-conformity, he adds, has another dimension. ‘As Socrates said, the male libido is like being chained to a madman. That was certainly true in my case. I was literally sex mad.’
‘I have not had sex for approaching 14 days. There is someone I might be interested in. I have known her for a while. Not sleeping with her yet. Not sleeping with anyone. But I took the other phone numbers out of my phone – 784, but who’s counting?’
Through my laughter I ask if he does know the actual number. I presume he doesn’t, given his drug-related memory losses. ‘It cannot but sound coarse and bragging to put a number to it. It’s a lot, though, because I have been devoted to it. I’ve worked hard. The figures are a reflection of years of toil and dedication. I would say to any young womaniser out there if you are prepared to commit your life and sanity to the cause you should be able to archive these quite bafflingly high figures.’
And yet there was Amanda, a girlfriend he refers to in his memoirs. She left him because of his infidelities. He seems to have loved her. Did he? ‘Mm. It was certainly a f—ing nuisance. If that’s a synonym. I think that relationship was held together by conflict rather than compatibility. But I loved her, yes.’
How come he can’t show restraint in the way other men can? Are his sexual urges more powerful, does he suppose? ‘I’m not sure. It’s difficult to ascertain. Sex is a biological necessity. It is also good for my self-esteem because it makes me feel powerful. I also have a tendency towards addiction, so those things combined amount to a powerful motivating force. Also when I sit in a park and see beautiful women walking past I see an avenue to an alternative reality: all those possibilities, all those adventures. It’s not just me thinking I want to come, but me thinking what if I fall in love? I wonder what stories she has. I wonder what she will look like cleaning her teeth. I wonder what she will tell me about her father. I wonder how she treats her pets. I wonder what her bedroom will smell like.’
He describes being overweight as a teenager before becoming slim at 16 and losing his virginity. Was his hysterical heterosexuality also about making up for lost years of feeling sexually unattractive? ‘It was astonishing to go from feeling all tubby and unlovely and odd and obscure and bland in Essex to having beautiful girls find me attractive and exotic. It was like some Shakespearean mistaken identity.’
He still associates sex with guilt – ‘afterwards a fog of guilt descends’. When he made that contract with himself did he worry that he was denying himself the prospect of more meaningful encounters – ones combined with feelings of love, ones free of guilt, ones after which he would not feel, as he says he usually does, le petite mort? ‘Sometimes I do feel as if I am in love with the women I am having sex with. I don’t know whether this is a masquerade or a pose but often I feel incredible intimacy and unity, not only with a regular sexual partner, but also in fleeting encounters with strangers, a shared humanity and bond. Why is it, Nigel, that longevity is considered a necessary part of the feeling of love? Why can’t you fall in love for half an hour? Is it less valid? Who cares about the difference between an hour and a decade and a lifetime.’
Besides, heroin was his true love. His descriptions of the drug are disturbingly poetic and tender. ‘Yeah. First time I tried it it was beautiful. It was a relief.’
Doesn’t talking about heroin in such loving terms rather unsettle him, because he knows he can never have it again? ‘Part of the mentality of recovery is one day at a time. I don’t have to not take drugs for the rest of my life. I only have to not take drugs today. Also those feelings of love come at a price because heroin itself is demanding. It won’t let you just have a little bit. If you want heroin you have to give up everything else. First it will take your job, then your girlfriend, then your house, then the clothes you are in, then it will take your skin. And when there is nothing left to take it will take your life.’
He was told he would be dead in six months unless he went into rehab. ‘At the time I felt rather pleased. Really? So long?’ One of the doctors at the Residential Treatment Centre for Sexual Addiction thought he was bipolar (what used to be called manic depressive). Had that diagnosis ever come up before?
‘Three times, at school, at drama school and then ‘im. I’m aware of an oscillation but I’ve spent most of my adult life on drugs. It is hard to diagnose what it is, whether it is an inherent or inveterate chemical imbalance. I don’t know. It wasn’t self-inflicted as a child. I still felt volatile inside then. Anyway, the down times are a necessary correlation of the up times. With friends and people I know well there will be moments where I get uppity and show-offy, but most of the time, I’ll be sitting watching and listening quietly. The performance isn’t all there is – that would be unbearable.’
Now for the cheap psychology. It could be that he behaves badly to others to justify to himself the potential rejection he fears. He will tell you how temperamental he can be – hurling glasses of water during an argument – also how indifferent, cruel and affected. As he found when he got clean, he doesn’t enjoy his own company much. A lot of it seems to be to do with his father: ‘Sometimes he would turn the light of his attention on me and it would be brilliant,’ he writes in his book. ‘He’d tease me and wind me up and be very funny, but he’d get bored really quickly, and then I’d just be there again – all tubby and useless.’
It would make sense of his ‘priapic excesses’, as he calls them, because his promiscuity could be seen as a way of winning his father’s approval (his father was something of a lothario, one who had no moral qualms about sleeping with prostitutes). Not far below the surface bravado, then, is insecurity: fear of being alone, fear of being bored, fear of rejection. Conversely, Brand seems to have had almost too much attention from his mother, in that he was left with a rampaging ego. He’s funny about it, of course. ‘My mum thinks I’m an excellent swimmer, simply because I’ve not yet drowned.’
In the Hampstead kitchen there is, next to a stack of vegetarian cook books, an award for the world’s sexiest vegetarian. And in the hall there is a biography of Peter Cook, next to an antelope skull encrusted with diamanté. It amounts to a shrine. His other heroes are Alan Bennett, Huxley and Camus. And that’s another thing he feels insecure about, or at least frustrated. He has a quick wit, certainly, but he also seems to be highly intelligent. And to compensate for his lack of formal academic training, he has become an autodidact, an obsessive one, inevitably.
‘I get excited by it. But I still feel when talking to friends who have been well educated that I am just skitting on the surface of knowledge, that I have no depth. I know enough about Chomsky or Derrida to have a superficial conservation but I can’t keep it going.’
That said, he does still see himself as a typical Essex man who likes football and ‘birds with big bottoms and big boobs’. And the prostitutes he had ‘joyless sex’ with? ‘I haven’t done it since the sex clinic. I should probably have mentioned that in the book!’ He laughs and pulls a mock worried face.
‘Frankly I’ve had no need or time. I would say, though, I do feel comfortable among vagrants, prostitutes and drug-users. I seek them out. Like homeless people, they are raw and honest because they don’t have the same protective social layers as everyone else. They don’t have the material possessions. Unlike me!’ He raises his arms and looks around. ‘Look at me ensconced in my lovely home.’
He has things to lose now, I tell him. ‘And I’m sure I’ll find a way to lose them.’