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Richard Branson

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Richard Branson has sold $300m worth of shares in his space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. The money is being ploughed into the 71-year-old’s myriad other ventures, particularly his airline, Virgin Atlantic, which made a pre-tax loss of £659m last year thanks to the pandemic.

Ouch – but it sounds as if space is shaping up to be quite lucrative
Indeed. Branson is worth a measly $4.5bn – far less than his interstellar rivals Elon Musk ($179.1bn) and Jeff Bezos ($186.4bn), and languishes in 45th place on The Sunday Times Rich List. Yet he holds the dubious distinction of being the first billionaire in space. Branson soared 53 miles above Earth in one of his rockets on 11 July, beating Bezos by nine days. He’d started working on commercial space flights in 2004, though it wasn’t all smooth orbiting: one prototype crashed in the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing its co-pilot. Rides for paying customers are finally scheduled to begin next year, with tickets now starting at $450,000.

Makes those holiday PCR tests seem a bargain. Did Branson always have his head in the clouds?
He was born in London to a barrister father and a flight-attendant mother, and went to various schools in the home counties. He was dyslexic, so his academic performance wasn’t great – one headmaster told him he would end up in prison or become a millionaire. After school Branson started a record shop, Virgin – so named because he and his employees were new to the business. Boy, was that true. In 1971 they were caught selling albums in the UK that were marked for export to get around taxes. Branson spent a night in jail and his parents remortgaged the family home to help pay the fine.

How did things go after that?
The Virgin shop became Virgin Records, and its first release, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, was a chart-topping bestseller. The “Virgin” prefix soon wormed its way into all sorts of sectors: Virgin Active gyms, Virgin Atlantic planes, Virgin Books, Holidays, Hotels, Racing, Radio and Rail. The flashy branding often didn’t stick: failures include Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cola and Virgin Brides, which saw Branson shave his beard and wear a wedding dress for the launch. No matter – in many cases, Branson simply licenses the name without sinking in any cash.

Where does his money go, then?
Most famously on 74-acre Necker, in the British Virgin Islands. He bought it from a hard-up peer for $180,000 in 1979, then spent $10m building a holiday resort with flamingos and giant tortoises. It now rents for $105,000 a night (sleeps 40, if you’re interested) and is worth about $150m. In 2011 a lightning strike started a fire, during which Kate Winslet rescued Branson’s mother. In 2017 Branson rode out Hurricane Irma in the wine cellar, playing dice with staff. It’s the balmy weather that makes Branson live there full-time, he insists – nothing to do with the 0% income tax.

Naturally. What else does he get up to?
All kinds of headline-grabbing stunts. In 1985 he had to be rescued from the sea after a failed attempt to beat the speed record for crossing the Atlantic by boat. A year later he tried again and succeeded, and the year after that he became the first person to make the same crossing by hot-air balloon – albeit by jumping into the Irish Sea rather than reaching the planned finish line. Less arduous records include kitesurfing with three bikini-clad women wrapped around him.

So he’s a bit of a player?
His description of joining the mile-high club aged 19 is rather prosaic. “What I remember vividly is seeing four handprints on the mirror as we finished, and thinking I’d better wipe them off,” he told GQ. He married his second wife – Glaswegian carpenter’s daughter Joan Templeman, 73 – in 1989. They have a daughter, who is Virgin’s “chief purpose and vision officer”, and a son, who produces films and accompanies his dad on hare-brained expeditions. Branson once boasted that Keith Richards was the “first person to teach me how to roll a joint”, but these days he tries to maintain a physique he once described, with typical optimism, as “like a 30-year-old’s body”. It involves a daily hour in the gym, a swim around Necker or “good, hard, singles tennis”. He’ll invite John McEnroe or Novak Djokovic over if he fancies a real challenge.

And his other celebrity pals?
Barack Obama, for one, who wound down after his presidency by joining Branson for a spot of kiteboarding. The Virgin supremo enjoys flaunting his star-studded personal life – Tony Blair, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kate Moss are only a few of the names in Necker’s visitor log. Few get off the island without a photo of them with their host going on display. One anonymous celeb, says Tom Bower in The Times, accepted an invite, only to discover Branson was really “a monosyllabic mumbler terrified of being alone”. Maybe Donald Trump was – whisper it – right when he pegged him as “a lot of hot air, like his balloons”.

Presumably the Donald won’t be after a Virgin Galactic ticket