In Plain Sight: Russell Brand and the problematic power of digital reinventions

Posted by Sara McCorquodale in Comment

2 weeks ago

Russell Brand has been accused of rape, sexual assault and abuse by four women, The Times, Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches revealed on 16 September after a years-long investigation into the comedian turned wellness guru.

The alleged incidents occurred between 2006 and 2013, when his star was in ascent and he had built a significant profile in the US thanks to his Netflix shows and his success as a Hollywood actor.

Brand denied the accusations in a video, claiming all of his relationships had been consensual and he had been open about his promiscuity throughout his time in the public eye. He also suggested he was under attack because he is a threat to mainstream media.

To his followers, who are immersed in his conspiracy theories and fully bought into Brand the guru, this makes the most sense. Thousands have come out in support of him – encouraging him to keep going and not give up – repeating his own narrative back to him that he is the victim. Others are expressing disbelief at those who are backing him, despite such a strong investigation. This is the power of digital reinvention, when someone presents an entirely new version of themselves and is adamant the person you knew before is gone.

The Brand who featured in Dispatches’ documentary was unrecognisable in comparison to Brand now. He was openly predatory and relentlessly positioned women as sex objects. There is so much distance between that caricature and the one he currently inhabits, in which he begs his audience to look after themselves, begs them to listen to the truth. Specifically, his version of it.

Of course, these two personas are the same man but it’s entirely possible his audience will refuse to join the dots. In fact, all of this could make him more popular. On X, his video addressing the allegations has been seen 62.1 million times. The Times’ original post about its investigation has had 14.6 million views.

In my experience, digital reinvention is most successful when enacted by those who have been publishing online for a long time. People have grown accustomed to watching their lives, feel close to them and any key change is regarded as further evidence of their authenticity. Audiences rarely consider that a new persona is simply a different performance.

If the Brand allegations make anything abundantly clear, it’s this: there can be a gulf between who a digital talent is now and their profile in its entirety. For example, when Vivo Barefoot created sponsored content with Brand in August I’m pretty sure it was because the business connected with him as a guru. His “shagger of the year” era probably seemed so long ago, not like it was waiting in the wings to re-emerge in a whole new (well, “new”) light.

For businesses, the Brand allegations should reinforce this point: know who you are working with. Don’t assume you understand someone because you tuned into their channels over the past couple of years. Do background checks and be thorough. As with Brand, problematic behaviour is often in plain sight and unbelievably easy to stumble across, if you are willing to see it.

By Sara McCorquodale, CEO and founder of CORQ.