Ex-rabble rouser and provocateur Russell Brand believes the teaching of only one man can save us from a vacuous existence.
Russell brand has gone through many incarnations during the 18 years of his unpredictable and often controversial career. Television presenter, comedian, writer, actor and activist are all words which have preceded his name, along with other titles which have been insinuated but not necessarily verbalised, such as drug addict, sex pest and bigmouth. Of all his manifestations, though, his latest is possibly the most surprising, as he becomes ever more articulate about his religious beliefs, his deeply personal feelings about Christianity, and the big guy himself. So insightful are his views, and more importantly, so accessible, one has to wonder if the 42-year-old Essex intellectual could one day become the mouthpiece Christianity needs to push it into the 21st century.
“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been,” declared Brand in a recent interview, adding: “When stripped of the cultural inflection of the time when it was first written and is variously being translated, there is an undeniable truth.”
Having overcome his own personal demons, it is understandable that Brand finds himself reflecting on the world at large, and questioning society’s attitude towards consumption, happiness, desire and all those other curious longings which are so distinctly human. And perhaps these are questions we ought to ask ourselves: why do we care so much about how many ‘likes’ my posts receive on Instagram? Why do I need so much stuff? Why am I constantly looking outwards for approval?
Brand understands that far from uniting us, the rise of the internet, social media, instant gratification, pop culture, our obsession with fame and constant need for material wealth is actually creating a gulf, not just between us and our peers, but us and our true path to a higher calling. Have you ever received a package from Amazon, or had a particularly popular Facebook status and ever felt truly satisfied? Or does it just fuel your hunger and leave you craving more?
“There’s a famous quote: ‘Every man who knocks at the door of a brothel is looking for God’,” said Brand.
“Crack houses and these dens of suffering and elicit activity, they’re all people trying to feel good, trying to feel connected. People are trying to escape. People are trying to get out of their own heads. To me, this is a spiritual impetus.”
Considering Brand has likely frequented several dens of inequity throughout his colourful past, one can only assume he knows what he’s talking about. Born in Grays, Essex, he is the only child of Barbara Elizabeth and Ronald Henry Brand, who separated when Brand was just six months old, a bump in the road which would be the first of many for the infant. Aged seven he was sexually abused by his tutor; aged eight his beloved mum contracted cancer (the first of three episodes); aged 14 he suffered from bulimia nervosa; aged 16 he left home after a disagreement with his mum’s ‘macho’ partner, an incident which led to his first taste of narcotics. Around this time, Brand’s biological father took him to Thailand where he ordered three prostitutes: two for himself, one for his teenage son… and the list goes on.
Wearing his heartache on his sleeve, Brand has no problem regaling us with his difficult and intriguing past – which he has also recounted to many a therapist – with the kind of gusto and vigour of his stand-up comedy shows. But while it is common for those who have had a troubled upbringing to create a distance between them and their pain, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Brand who appears, in fact, to have finally removed himself from its stifling grasp. Nor does he use his hardships as an excuse for his behaviours as an adult, despite the fact that even someone with minimal empathy could understand how his brushes with loss, sexual abuse, rejection and early exposure to drugs could lead to his problems with crack, heroin, food, sex and self-harming. In short, the notorious dandy and lothario has finally found peace, and is now pursuing the path to helping others.
So devoted is the star that his latest book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions (Bluebird), delves not just into his own struggles with self-control, but also strives to help readers overcome their own addictions, some of which they may not even be aware they have, such as possessiveness, co-dependency in relationships and relentless email-checking. Easy and entertaining to read, Recovery has 12 chapters, one for each of the traditional 12 Steps. Maintaining the underlying message within the respective phases, Brand has essentially reworked the language, delivery and tone, while adding in his own juicy anecdotes and life lessons for good measure.
For those wondering if this is merely another exercise for Brand’s well-fed ego, or at least an opportunity to flog some more wares, consider why such a book could be valuable, not just to addicts, but to society. The 12 Steps form the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and of all other associated groups (Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). To embark on the path one must surrender and submit to a higher power, with participates required to go cold turkey from the very first meeting (attendees of Narcotics Anonymous for example, must be willing to abstain from all substance including alcohol). Meetings are, as the title would suggest, anonymous, and while the 12 Steps themselves can be easily accessed, much of the other literature is passed between the 12-Steppers, helping to maintain the programme’s clandestine nature.
Having been following the programme since 2002, the charismatic bohemian ought to know it off by heart, but it wasn’t until four years ago that it occurred to him that it might be useful to apply the Steps to other areas of his life. Addiction, after all, is an illness that is admirably indiscriminate, paying no heed to race, age, wealth or social standing, and infiltrates everything from one’s attitude to money, to sex, and even exercise.
This epiphany is what Brand believes has truly transformed him, leading him to the conclusion that many of us could benefit from similar wisdom, telling The Guardian: “I think that this ideology needs to be proliferated … I think the more access people have to it, the more people could use it – I’m fascinated by its potential.”
The original programme is hugely effective, but arguably, there are still many people who may be intimidated by the process, and as Brand points out, alienated by the somewhat archaic language. “For people who have drug and alcohol or sex or food issues, [they may] find some of the literature too clinical, or Christian,” he added. “But also, I think it could be applied as a sort of model, because now my lens for living is this. I think it’s universal.”
Brand admits that he himself was put off by the religious language when he first embarked on the 12 Steps; his reputation as a brash, potty-mouthed free spirit seeming incongruous with faith and all its holy connotations. Having said that, his curiosity with spirituality has been ever-present. In the 2015 documentary Brand: A Second Coming, his mother, Barbara, recalls how as a child, “Russell came in to my bedroom and he said that he was the second Jesus. He was very upset that I didn’t believe him. But that’s not a normal thing for a son to say, is it?”
For his critically acclaimed 2013 stand-up show Messiah Complex, the spiky comedian set out to explore humankind’s relationship with heroes and idols including the virtues and weaknesses of historical figures such as Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus, claiming that celebrity has become the new religion.
Around this same period, Brand was interviewed on Huffington Post Live where, when asked about his faith, he responded: “I think that there is an infinite creative force that generates all consciousness and all matter, and we are all connected. And if you align yourself with this infinite creative force then you can be positive, and you can be beautiful.
“I don’t think it’s a person or God, I don’t believe in any particular doctrine or dogma, only that humanity is connected.”
With Brand, beneath all that bravado there has always been an inherently curious mind; a spiritual seeker just waiting to find the faith that fitted best. And surprisingly, it turned out to be the one that was always on his doorstep. “Because I come from a Christian culture, a lot of the language of prayer that I use is Christian,” he told Relevant magazine. “I say the Lord’s Prayer every day. I try to connect to what those words mean. I connect to what the Father means. I connect to what wholeness means to me. I think about the relationship between forgiveness and being forgiven and the impossibility of redemption until you are willing to forgive and let go.”
Delving into scriptures, the once “dyed-in-the-wool heroin addict” has given great thought to the teaching of Christ. And while, respectfully so, his conclusions include less profanities than his interpretation of the 12 Steps, they are deeply insightful and are arguably easier to digest. The bottom line, says Brand, is that all the time we are drawn to the material and have attachments to physical things, behaviours and people, we will never truly be happy, for peace only comes from selflessness and living entirely for the good of others.
Living proof that such reclamation can be transformative, Brand is undoubtedly a different animal from even a few years ago. Following his very public and grandiose marriage to American pop star Katy Perry – which ended in divorce in 2012 – Brand is now happily wed to lifestyle blogger and clothing designer Laura Gallacher, with whom he has a daughter, one-year-old Mabel. Their romance has been low key, unfurled largely out of the limelight, and while Brand will say little of his wife, he has opened up about the wonder of fatherhood, calling it “profound”.
“There’s a moment when I meditate and just as my eyes open, before I name the creatures, there’s a blissful moment where you don’t categorise or distinguish. Like most of us, I get caught up in thoughts and sensations but that moment of becoming a father brought me into the present.”
In his career too, he is quieter and more contemplative. Having stepped back from Hollywood, he has refocused much of his energy into activism. Currently studying for an MA in Religion in Global Politics at SOAS University of London, Brand has maintained his political YouTube show The Trews since 2014, and also hosts Under The Skin, a thought-provoking podcast in which he interviews leading academics and politicians about contemporary ideas. One particularly enlightening episode last July featured Alister McGrath, a professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and leading Christian debater.
But however much he turns his back on fame and seeks redemption and truth, Brand is still loyal to his original calling as a stand-up comedian, and will spend much of 2018 on his sell-out tour, which begs the question, given a new-found take on the world, where does his believe his innate sense of humour was gifted from?
“I think the original sense is inherent, but you have to cultivate it and educate it. Like some people would be good at football or basketball or something, but then they require the training, don’t they? So what I think it comes from – and I think this must be true, because every time I think about it, it’s a pang for me that nearly makes me cry – is, it’s a response to pain and fear. Humour is a response to the knowledge of death. It’s a response to the certainty that there’s something else, that humour provides us a moment of respite, relief,” he says, with a flash of that charming smile.
“An explosion away from the conformity as we’re stripped of our dignity, robbed of our spirituality. Everything we ever were repackaged back to us at
“I think humour temporarily alleviates that burden; it shows us that our spirit lives on, that we can change things, that we can triumph against all adversity.”