One of the most entertaining, if absurd, UK television highlights of recent weeks was the stalwart BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman getting a dressing down from Russell Brand on Newsnight. Brand was booked on to the current-affairs programme in his capacity as guest editor of The New Statesman magazine, for its ‘revolution’ issue. The interview-turned-sparring match proved a much-needed moment of glory for the once disgraced comedian and actor who, during his first few years in the public eye, has gained more notoriety for his plentiful bedpost notches than his politics.
Brand’s big break was as the presenter of UK TV show Big Brother’s Big Mouth in 2004, but the past year has seen him emerge as the unlikely voice of a generation described by The Independent newspaper as “disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.”
Brand, with his skinny physique, well-kempt beard and dark curly locks, is as distinctive for his androgynous, dandy-rock look – guyliner, cowboy boots, spray-on black jeans with slinky-hipped leather belts, waistcoats and dress shirts worn unbuttoned to display crucifixes and wooden prayer beads tangled in his chest hair – as his atypical outlook. Yet the openly libidinous comedian – who, in a statement about The Revolution Issue said his “first act” as editor would be to rename the magazine The Nude Statesman, seems increasingly keen to distance himself from the fickle, superficial fashion world.
“What are politicians doing at Glastonbury and the GQ awards? I feel guilty going, and I’m a comedian,” he wrote in The Guardian, following the GQ Awardsin September, where he was ejected for mentioning sponsor Hugo Boss’s ties to the Nazi regime during an acceptance speech for. (British tabloid The Sun was swift to point out that he’d worn the same label to an Oscars event just six months earlier.) “Why are public officials, paid by us, turning up at events for fashion magazines? Well, the reason I was there was because I have a tour on and I was advised it would be good publicity,” he continued. “How are they managing our perception of them with their attendance of these sequin-encrusted corporate balls?”
Despite his increasingly celebrated status as a thoughtful and incisive author, essayist and commentator, Brand continues to play with his carefully cultivated image. Armed with candid, unconventional opinions as sharp as his yoga-honed body, edgy rags and photogenic looks, his presence seems to unnerve even the most seasoned interviewer, evoking as he does the love child of Oscar Wilde, the Three Musketeers and Jim Morrison. Always a wild card, Brand is unpredictable and unshockable, his lunatic grin and flashing brown eyes serving to further accentuate his untamed nature.
A fan of Transcendental Meditation and a yoga fanatic, Brand has embraced a more spiritual look of late, downsizing his brutally backcombed mullet to hippy hair, but he still gets a kick out of hobbling hosts with his sexually confident body language. Take his groin-splayed appearance on The Late Show with Dave Letterman in July, in black leather trousers, or a similar studio spot in June, on MSNBC Morning Joe. “This is my first [Brand] experience. It’s not just listening to him, it’s just sort of taking it all in...I’m transfixed,” stammered presenter Mika Brzezinski during an interview with the comedian. She looked like her eyes were about to pop out of her head when Brand – egged on by panellists Katty Kay and Brian Shactman – heaved his legs onto the table to display his silver cowboy boots.
An exotic creature in a conservative world of suits and ties, Brand embodies a mix of signifiers, his flowery philosophical monologues delivered in an exaggerated Essex-boy accent from within inappropriate outfits. Take the tuxedo jacket and unbuttoned orange shirt he wore on UK discussion show Question Time. Or his appearance before a British parliamentary committee in 2012: the hearing related to a review of Britain’s drug laws, and Brand – a former heroin addict – came clad in a black vest top that showcased his tattooed arms, with chains layered at his neck like the frontman of a heavy metal band. Interestingly, in his drug-addict phase, he would routinely present on MTV dressed in sportswear with prominent logos – a picture of corporate conformity. Perhaps, paradoxically, his Byronic re-style was part of his sobriety makeover.
“For me it’s a representation of certain spiritual principals, it’s not a grand subject, really, it’s just a little bit of a laugh. I’ve got some beautiful things scribbled all over my body,” Brand said of his tottoos in an interview with Jon Snow on the UK’s Channel 4 News. After hearing Brand talk about his role as the patron of a drive to help addicts abstain via the spiritual benefits of yoga, the presenter said he sounded like “a New Age prophet”. “Any particular one? Look at the beard, look at the hair,” retorted a delighted Brand, to which Snow responded dryly, “Well, a spot of the Jesus Christ.”
Many would argue Brand’s self-confessed messiah complex drives the navel-gazing comedian’s new political career. Take Paxman’s ironic introduction on Newsnight; “Guess who wrote this”, deadpanned the journalist. “‘When people talk about politics within the existing Westminster framework, I feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntarily glaze like when I’m conversing and the subject changes from me and moves on to another topic.’ The combination of distaste for mainstream politics and overwhelming vanity identifies it immediately as the work of Russell Brand, comedian, actor and now, it seems, political theorist...”
However, just like Dolly Parton – who reportedly modelled her blonde-bombshell look on her home-town’s prostitute, and quipped “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” – Brand (who describes his Black Sparrow-image as “S&M Willy Wonka”, and is depicted Che Guevara-style on his current tour posters) seems to be having the last laugh. His mix of cheek and working-class heroism has seen his popularity soar. In both form and content, the ambitious, audacious, peacock comedian has come to embody the message that it is possible to remain outside of the norm and have a voice.