British entrepreneur Richard Branson is famous for his blonde mane and his many business interests, including space travel. However, despite his fame and his Virgin Group having its tentacles in several hundred companies around the world, there’s still a lot that most people don’t know about this self-made entrepreneur, including about sex, drugs, rock and roll, and Branson’s businesses.
Born on 18th July 1950, he dropped out of secondary school before recording his first successes with a magazine called Student and then by selling records in what was the first company of the Virgin Group. His school headmaster once predicted that he would either go to jail or become a millionaire. He did both.
It was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and it was Virgin Records’ first big hit. In fact, it was this that prompted Branson to go from just selling records to also making them. He had heard a demo tape of the album and called it “some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard”. Branson tried to get other record companies to release it, but they wanted to make changes to the sound and even add vocals, so Branson released it himself.
The music was then featured in the film The Exorcist, which brought it acclaim in the U.S., while the incredible 286 weeks it spent on the British music charts meant that it was such a blockbuster that it turned Virgin Records into a real player in the music business. It was a full 10 years after the release of The Exorcist that Oldfield actually watched the film – perhaps he hadn’t wanted to ruin his appetite for pea soup.
Branson married American architecture student Kristen Tomassi in 1972. He was 21, while she was 20. Their wedding was announced in The New York Times, but the marriage didn’t last. He claimed that he broke out in a rash whenever he had sex with his wife. “Kristen and I had a bizarre sexual allergy to each other,” he wrote in his book Losing My Virginity. “Whenever we made love, a painful rash spread across me that would take about three weeks to heal.”
In keeping with the swinging mores of the time, the couple tried an open marriage. Branson later said that, in retrospect, he and his first wife simply had been too young to wed.
Branson is most famous worldwide for his companies Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines. Unfortunately for him, he had to sell the former in 1992 to keep the latter afloat, later admitting that he’d cried over having to do so. He is also known for Virgin Mobile, Virgin Radio, Virgin Music, and Virgin Rail in the United Kingdom, among other businesses in the Virgin Group.
But not all of his businesses have been successful. Virgin Cola, hailed by Branson in 1994 as the inevitable successor to Coca-Cola, has practically disappeared, and Virgin Clothes, launched on the stock exchange in 1996, folded with losses to shareholders. There were other failures, including Virgin Vie, Virgin Vision, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Wine, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cosmetics and Virgin Cars—none of which fulfilled their creator’s inflated dreams.
When Branson’s business came of age in England in the 1970s, he was known for partying, and he learned from a rock star known for his love of drugs
Branson met the former Joan Templeman in 1976. A native of Scotland, she ran a London store and also worked as a nude model. She was married to Nazareth musician Ronnie Leahy at the time, but Richard and Joan have since been together for over 40 years, having two kids together before they finally tied the knot in 1989.
When Branson’s business came of age in England in the 1970s, he was known for partying, and he learned from a rock star known for his love of drugs. Branson claimed in an interview that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards showed him the finer points of rolling a marijuana joint, while he also admits to having tried cocaine and ecstasy.
The entrepreneur admitted that he had even done drugs with his son during his gap year. He even helped his son Sam make a 2012 documentary about drugs called Breaking the Taboo. In 2015, Branson called for “treating drugs as a health issue and not imprisoning or otherwise criminalising people for personal use or possession of drugs”.
Branson also helped Culture Club lead singer Boy George kick the habit. The band was once a big seller for Virgin Records, and the singer told Piers Morgan in 2017 that, at his lowest point, Branson “took me away from the glare of publicity … [and] gave me a safe haven at his house, and that enabled me to try and get better”. So, in addition, advocating for drug addiction to be treated as a medical issue, Branson also put his money where his mouth is, at least when it came to aiding one celebrity.
Imagine some billionaire stroking his own ego and making money by plastering his name over companies he isn’t really that much involved in. That may sound like Donald Trump, but it also sounds a lot like Richard Branson.
According to The Guardian, “in some cases, he [Branson] simply licenses the brand to a company that has purchased a subsidiary from him, and these include Virgin Mobile USA, Virgin Mobile Australia, Virgin Radio and Virgin Music (now part of EMI).” Branson rakes in licensing fees but is never on the hook for investment. It’s kind of like when Jay-Z got a gazillion dollars in publicity for his tiny portion of ownership in the Brooklyn Nets.
Another thing that Branson has in common with Trump is reality TV. But unlike Trump’s hit Apprentice franchise, the 2004 attempt ‘The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best’, proved to be a huge flop. “Branson’s ratings were terrible, down the tubes,” the future president roared in 2004. “The Apprentice is the hottest show there is! Richard Branson, your ratings speak very loudly and you just got fired!” Unlike Trump, Branson has no plans to run for office, but he has funded efforts to repeal Brexit – a measure Trump supported.
Punk rock group The Sex Pistols was continuously being kicked off record labels during its heyday in the mid-1970s until Branson finally signed them to Virgin Records. He was also on that infamous boat trip down the Thames that the band took in the summer of 1977, during Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee year. And it wasn’t just the song “God Save the Queen” that caused outrage. The album title, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” also got Branson into a bit of trouble, as “bollocks” is profanity in the UK. One of his record shops displayed the album title, prompting a policeman to go after him for violating indecency laws dating back to the 1800s.
This led to Branson facing indecency charges, but he prevailed in the case when he and his lawyer found a cunning linguist who argued that the word had a long history. Branson said the linguistics professor, who was also a priest, told him that “bollocks has nothing to do with balls [testicles]” but that “it was a nickname given to priests in the 18th century”. This expert testified in court wearing his religious garb and helped Branson beat the charge. Virgin Money today produces Sex Pistols branded credit cards. If punk wasn’t dead already, that probably killed it. Such bollocks!
When he started his Virgin company in order to sell records in shops and via mail order, he had a scheme to avoid paying taxes. Music shops in England then had to pay a 33 per cent tax on records sold domestically, but this didn’t apply to overseas sales. As he admitted in his 2011 book Losing My Virginity, he’d go to Dover, England, get the paperwork stamped as if he were going to ship the records overseas, then sell them in the country and save on the taxes. “It seemed like the perfect way out,” he wrote.
But he was a little too slick for his own good. Customs officials caught up with him. Branson spent a night in jail over the practice. His parents had to mortgage their house to get him released and help keep his record business afloat. He also owed £70,000 in customs fines, which is as good an incentive as any to quickly learn how to really run a business.
As David Runciman notes, “his [Branson’s] businesses are registered under complex schemes across a range of different jurisdictions, including the Virgin Islands, where the holding company for Virgin Trains happens to be based.” Moreover, Branson spends much of his time these days on Necker Island, the tax-free British Virgin Islands property he owns. And he can only “spend a maximum of between 46 and 183 days a year in the UK”, according to The Guardian – otherwise, his tax bill goes up. Yet this billionaire has previously criticised other companies for avoiding UK taxes – of course denying that his move to Necker Island had anything to do with taxes, claiming in his blog that he was living in Necker Island for health and lifestyle reasons.
A lot of Branson’s global appeal comes from his feats of daring. He was the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, doing so in 1987 with fellow adventurer Per Lindstrand
In 2016, one British politician even called for Branson’s knighthood title (which he received in 1999) to be revoked. “It should be a simple choice for the mega-rich,” he said. “Runoff to tax exile if you want. But you leave your titles and your honours behind you when you go.”
A lot of Branson’s global appeal comes from his feats of daring. He was the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, doing so in 1987 with fellow adventure Per Lindstrand. According to The Telegraph, the “Virgin Atlantic Flyer” was a balloon that was “not only the first hot-air balloon to cross the Atlantic, but the largest ever flown, at a capacity of 2.3 million cubic feet, and reached speeds in excess of around 200 kilometres per hour”. Branson said that he did it not just for the sake of adventure, but in order to put the then-fledgeling Virgin Airlines on the map. He also successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon with Lindstrand in 1991, with the pair also being the first to achieve that feat. The 9,700-kilometre trip ended in the Arctic.
He has also held a yachting record – with his boat, Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, snatching the transatlantic speed record in 1986, while he set a kitesurfing record in 2014. Not too shabby, especially if you’re only half-certain “kitesurfing” is a real thing.
Richard Branson was riding around Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands, enjoying one of his favourite activities — cycling with his two children – in August 2016. Unfortunately, he was enjoying it a little too much and hadn’t prepared properly for a large speed bump that crept upon him, as speed bumps tend to do, and sent him flying over his handlebars.
He thinks his helmet saved his life and, judging by the state of his face, he’s probably right. Of course, like anyone who becomes a millionaire, he had a little luck to help him along the way. While he just face-planted all over the concrete road, at least he didn’t go the way of his bicycle, which disappeared over a nearby cliff.