The untold truth of Richard Branson

Richard Branson is the coolest billionaire out there. He's also famous for his blond mane and his many business interests, including space travel. He even managed to make a dopey sitcom plotline like Ross's British wedding to the boring Emily on the NBC sitcom Friends amusing. But despite his fame and his Virgin Group having its tentacles in several hundred companies around the world, there's a lot you may not know about the self-made entrepreneur. Read on to learn more about sex, drugs, rock and roll, and Branson's businesses.

How a song used in "The Exorcist" helped make Branson millions

You know that spooky, creepy piano music from the 1973 horror flick The Exorcist? It was Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," and it was Virgin Records' first big hit. In fact, it's what got Branson to go from selling records to making them as well. He had heard a demo tape of it and called it "some of the most beautiful music I'd ever heard." Branson tried to get other record companies to make 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 Exorcist, which brought it acclaim in the US. And with an incredible 286 weeks on the British music charts, it was such a blockbuster that it made Virgin Records a real player in the music business. Branson said he "named one of our Virgin aircraft 'Tubular Belle'," and he didn't think his success "would have happened without 'Tubular Bells'." He said, "I've listened to it so much, my wife won't let me play it anymore."

Strangely, though, it took 10 years after the release of The Exorcist for Oldfield to watch the movie. Maybe he didn't want to ruin his appetite for pea soup.

He had an open marriage with his first wife until she walked out

Branson married American architecture student Kristen Tomassi in 1972. He was 21, and she was 20. Their wedding got an announcement in The New York Times, but the marriage didn't last. He claimed he broke out in a rash whenever having 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. We went to several doctors, but we never resolved the problem. I even had a circumcision to stop the reaction." Too much information, dude.

In keeping with the swinging mores of the time, the couple tried an open marriage. They switched partners with Soft Machine musician Kevin Ayers. Branson didn't do very well with Ayers' wife, Cyrille, but Kristen and Kevin hooked up and had a child together. Branson later said that in retrospect he and his first wife simply had been too young to wed.

In later years, Branson also admitted in an interview with Piers Morgan to being a member of the Mile High Club when in his youth. But when Morgan asked him about tantric sex, he kidded, "Well I would be, but I keep dropping the book." Uh, good one, Richard. We think.

​He has had a lot of business failures

Branson is most famous around the world for Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines. Unfortunately for him, he had to sell the former in 1992 to keep the latter afloat, later saying he cried over doing so. He is also known for Virgin Mobile, Virgin Radio, Virgin Music, and Virgin Rail in the United Kingdom, among other businesses in Virgin Group.

But not all of his businesses have been successful. The Guardian listed some of the many failures he has had. "Virgin Cola, hailed by Branson in 1994 as the inevitable successor to Coca-Cola, has practically disappeared," the article noted. And "Virgin Clothes, launched on the stock exchange in 1996, folded with losses to shareholders." The article notes other failures, including "Virgin Vie, Virgin Vision, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Wine, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cosmetics and Virgin Cars—none fulfilling their creator's inflated dreams." Maybe the Virgin Brides name was a bit much.

Despite this, Branson is undaunted, with "Screw It, Let's Do It" proving to not just be a book title, but a way of life.

​His second wife was married when they met

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 also reportedly married then to Nazareth musician Ronnie Leahy. Despite that, Richard and Joan have been together over 40 years now, and had two kids together before they finally tied the knot in 1989. Branson says his wife is a very private person, but that she is "my rock, my confidant and my guiding light."

Decades after they first fell in love, a tabloid bought nude pictures of Branson's wife from her earlier days and said they were going to publish them. Instead of being ticked off, he reportedly called the publication and asked for his own set of shots, and is said to have uttered, "I'm very proud of these pictures. Joan looks lovely in them and I'll keep a copy beside my bed when she's away from home." Thanks for sharing, Richard.

​Keith Richards taught him how to roll a joint

Since 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 with Piers Morgan that Rolling Stones guitarist (and future Virgin Records labelmate) Keith Richards showed him the finer points of rolling a marijuana joint. Branson says he's also tried cocaine and ecstasy.

The entrepreneur admitted he had even done drugs with his son during his gap year. "We learned to surf and had some nights where we laughed our heads off for eight hours," he recalled. Yikes. Interestingly, he helped his son Sam make a 2012 documentary about drugs called Breaking the Taboo. Richard Branson said about it, "I am hoping … this film will open people's eyes on … the failed war on drugs and make it easier for people who want to be brave and do something about it." In 2015, Branson called for "treating drugs as a health issue and not imprisoning or otherwise criminalizing people for personal use or possession of drugs."

Branson also helped Culture Club lead singer Boy George kick drugs. 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 to his advocacy to treat drug addiction as a medical issue, Branson put his money where his mouth is, at least when it came to aiding one celebrity.

Like another famous billionaire, Branson makes money licensing the business name

Imagine some billionaire stroking his own ego and making money by plastering his name over companies he isn't really that much involved with. Sounds like Donald Trump. It also sounds a lot like Richard Branson.

The Guardian said that "In some cases, [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.

One other thing Branson had in common with Trump was reality TV. But unlike Trump's hit Apprentice franchise, The Rebel BillionaireBranson's Quest for the Best, a 2004 attempt, was 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.

​He faced indecency charges over a Sex Pistols album title

The Sex Pistols kept on getting kicked off record labels during the mid-1970s in the punk rock group's heyday. Finally, Branson signed them to Virgin Records. He was also on that infamous boat trip down the Thames 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, got Branson in a bit of trouble, as "bollocks" is a dirty word in England. When one of his record stores displayed the album title, a policeman went after him for violating indecency laws from the 1800s.

So Branson faced indecency charges. He prevailed in the case when he and his lawyer, John Mortimer, 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" 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 prevail. The judge reportedly said, "Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty.”

Today, Virgin Money makes Sex Pistols credit cards. If punk wasn't dead already, that probably killed it. What bollocks.

​Branson first succeeded in businesses by skipping out on taxes

Richard Branson was born on July 18, 1950, and was a high school dropout before gaining success with a magazine called Student and then by selling records in what was the first company of the Virgin Group. The headmaster at his old school once predicted that Branson would either go to jail or be a millionaire. He did both.

When he started his Virgin company to sell records in stores and via mail order, he had a scheme to avoid paying taxes. Back then, record stores in England had to pay a 33 percent 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 it. His parents had to mortgage their house to get him out of the pokey and 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.

Branson reportedly has had a history of avoiding taxes

Even after Branson ended up with a night in the slammer over taxes, he has never appeared to like paying taxes very much. But he's reportedly found perfectly legal ways to avoid them.

As David Runciman notes, 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 (very much a UK business) happens to be based." In addition, Branson is spending much of his time these days at Necker Island, the British Virgin Islands property he owns, where there are no taxes. 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 the billionaire had in the past criticized other companies for avoiding taxes in the UK. Of course, Branson denied 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 and saying that most of the work he was doing these days was for charity.

In 2016, one British politician even called for Branson to lose his knighthood (which he got in 1999). "It should be a simple choice for the mega-rich," he said. "Run off to tax exile if you want. But you leave your titles and your honors behind you when you go." Ouch.

​He ran the London Marathon dressed as a butterfly

Virgin Money, one of the arms of the Virgin Group, sponsors the London Marathon. In fact, it's now called the Virgin Money London Marathon.

The race is big on costumed characters. (Most races in the US no longer allow such shenanigans.) Branson ran for charity in 2010 and finished in 5:02:24, which is a very respectable time for a 60-year-old, especially one dressed as a butterfly. What's more, he beat his children Sam and Holly by 11 minutes. Pretty impressive. However, he had a bit of an advantage. They were chained with bungee cords to form a human centipede, along with dozens of other people, including Princess Beatrice, who were also running for charity. Fortunately for them, it wasn't exactly the same as that Human Centipede horror movie.

Branson has set several adventure sport world records

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 adventure partner Per Lindstrand. The Telegraph said the "Virgin Atlantic Flyer," a balloon that was "was not only the first hot-air balloon to cross the Atlantic, but was the largest ever flown at 2.3 million cubic feet capacity and reached speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour." Branson said he did it not just for adventure, but to put then-fledgling Virgin Airlines on the map. He also successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean with Lindstrand in 1991 in a hot-air balloon, the first to do that as well. The 6,000-mile trip ended in the Arctic.

He also had a yachting record. His boat Virgin Atlantic Challenger II nabbed the transatlantic speed record in 1986. And he set a kitesurfing record in 2014. Not too shabby, especially if you're only half-certain "kitesurfing" is real a thing.

He survived a nasty high-speed bike crash

In August 2016, Richard Branson was riding around Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands, enjoying one of his favorite activities — bicycling with his two children. Unfortunately, he was enjoying it a little too much. See, when you're biking down a hill in the dark and you're going really fast … well, you want to know what the road is like. But he hadn't prepared properly for a large speed bump that snuck up on him like speed bumps tend to do, and it sent him flying over his handlebars. He thinks his helmet saved his life, and judging from his face (pictured while he was recovering), he's probably right. Of course, just like anyone who becomes a millionaire, he had a little bit of 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. It disappeared over a nearby cliff. Good to have you here, Sir!