Russell Brand is evolving his next gig: Cult leader

The comedian speaks to his devoted followers to deny assault allegations using patriarchal misdirection

Published September 23, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Russell Brand speaks onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Aerosmith at West Hall at Los Angeles Convention Center on January 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
Russell Brand speaks onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Aerosmith at West Hall at Los Angeles Convention Center on January 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

In response to allegations of sexual assault, comedian Russell Brand issued an absolutely bonkers denial video last week. Not content with that, in response to YouTube suspending his advertising, he issued on Friday what can only be described as his most extreme call-to-action yet, the old, "I need your support now more than ever."  

As a survivor of sexual abuse who's just written a book about my various brushes with cults, I find the performance reason enough to convict him of, at the very least, trivializing sexual assault. 

Recorded in the style of the anti-establishment guru he's shoehorned his way into being — a dead-eyed stare delivered direct-to-camera, plus excessive hand-gesturing — Brand refers to his past as a problem of promiscuity. It's not the first time he's used patriarchal norms to excuse his behavior and promote his agenda. 

When convenient, Brand has worn his "Shagger of the Year" title (first awarded by The Sun in the U.K. in 2006) as a badge of honor. He told GQ UK in 2006 he could bed three women a day. By 2017, his past helped shore up his creds as a spiritual influencer. "Because I've experienced, forgive me, sort of a promiscuous lifestyle . . . that I thought might resolve the way I feel, I now know that they won't," he told BBC Newsnight at that time.

Over the years, I've had a (one-sided) love/hate relationship with Brand. I had no idea he'd been a drug-fueled comic when I saw him in the comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," where I enjoyed what I thought was his performance as an oblivious cad. He didn't come back on my radar until his marriage to Katy Perry, when I learned both were sober. Then I forgot about him until he wrote a book updating the classic text of "Alcoholics Anonymous," which — as someone who's been continuously clean and sober for 27 years — I applauded for demanding more inclusive definitions of the problems faced by people in recovery.

Promiscuity and sexual assault are unrelated.

More recently, however, I've watched in growing dismay as he's slid down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, much like his recent guest/pal Tucker Carlson. "Thanks for joining us on our voyage for truth and freedom," Brand exhorts viewers of his YouTube channel, which covers everything from COVID to spirituality to racism. His video denying these sexual allegations is a mortifying culmination of his work to date.

First, there's Brand's dismissal of his past. He claims the relationships were consensual, and though he doesn't address the allegations directly, he doesn't deny having relations with these particular women. This implies he's including the 16-year-old he was with for three months when he was 30. Lumped together, the women are simply part of his "promiscuous past." But promiscuity and sexual assault are unrelated. Having multiple partners is a choice, one I've made in the past. Sexual assault is a crime, something that was forced on me against my will.

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While it's worth noting that these assertions haven't been proven in any court of law, claiming that his promiscuity is being mistaken for something it's not is injurious to survivors of sexual assault everywhere in the here and now. Worse, suggesting that the past must be buried — in that same BBC Newsnight interview, Brand waved off the promiscuous label saying he'd "made amends for all that" — is also insulting to people recovering from their addictions. 

We must change in order to stay sober, not to be excused from past misdeeds. 

Having spent years in recovery, I know that putting down substances doesn't equal immediate reform. Many of us barely can acknowledge that our using has anything to do with our problems, let alone see how we're responsible for causing them. This, I eventually discovered, is true of all acting-out behavior. Owning up to our mistakes can take much longer than any reasonable, non-addicted person might suspect. But there's no spiritual bypass. We must change in order to stay sober, not to be excused from past misdeeds. Nobody gets out of a drunk driving charge because they quit drinking.

Perhaps this comes easily to Brand for the same reason it did for one of the founders of 12 Step recovery, Bill Wilson, a notorious womanizer. One of my issues with the seminal text, "Alcoholics Anonymous," is over its dismissal of extramarital affairs. Written in 1939, the book says, "unless some good and useful purpose is to be served, past occurrences should not be discussed."

With Brand, it's worse. He's pretending these allegations are part of a conspiracy against him, and that he and his fans must stand together to speak truth to power. "It feels to me like there's a concerted effort to control these spaces . . . and I mean my voice and your voice." He's saying this in front of a backdrop of wood and greenery that also includes not one but two statues of young Krishna, which symbolize the Hindu gods' power to command attention and attract young women.

His words decry the fact that a media outlet broke this story, instead suggesting this makes the claims suspect. But massive attention is what it takes to get any movement on a sexual assault case. That, and more than a single source. Imagine what he'd say if the accusation came from just one person, and with no media attention. But wait, you don't have to imagine. This did happen, in 2020, when one of these women approached his publisher about her allegations. Brand had his lawyer issue a denial and a claim that she was looking for money.

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Now, in yet another move that will sound familiar to American audiences, Brand is calling on his supporters to move to Rumble, a separate media platform that is to YouTube what Truth Social is to Twitter. Except Rumble hosts Truth Social, and Brand already has 1.49 million (and growing) followers there. This second video doesn't reference the sexual assault allegations — he's also ditched the Hindu gods in the backdrop  — but instead stays squarely in the lane of how he's being persecuted. And it's not just him, but "us" who are in trouble. He runs through all the top hits — the "deep state," "a military industrial complex" and, of course, "Big Pharma."

This is what nefarious cult leaders do, rely on cultural tropes that have become normalized to drum up support among followers they've groomed. I began the week hoping these allegations would mean a #MeToo-style reckoning for influencers across the board, now I can only imagine how far he's willing to go to save his own skin, with a growing group of followers

By L.L. Kirchner

L.L. Kirchner is an award-winning screenwriter and the author of two memoirs, including "Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution" (Motina Books, 9/26/23)

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Addiction Commentary Conspiracy Theories #metoo Russell Brand