Branson with a model of the commercial space shuttle he plans to operate one day
If there’s a scoreboard somewhere keeping tally of points in life, Richard Branson just might be winning. Since dropping out of high school, he’s been knighted, cited by Forbes as the 212th richest person in the world, attempted world records in hot-air balloons, actually set world records for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by hot-air balloon, and run a multitude of vastly successful global corporations, including Virgin Atlantic Airways. Oh, yeah, he’s also out to save the planet. Another feather in his cap: In August, he helped rescue family members from his Necker Island home, which was ablaze after being struck by lightning. We caught up with Sir Richard Branson on his recent trip to our city to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s 25th anniversary of direct service from London to Miami.
Branson poses with Karolina Kurkova during a Virgin Atlantic event at the Mondrian South Beach.
We’ve heard that when you fly Virgin, you go coach. Is this true? SIR RICHARD BRANSON: Well, I book in coach with a standby upgrade—I hope I don’t get upgraded, though, because that means the airline isn’t doing well. I think it’s important for the boss of any company to experience all the products, and it’s good for people in economy to see the boss of the airline flying beside them. I have a notebook with me and I’m always scribbling things, improvements I think we can make.
You also spend a lot of time in Miami, I take it?
We have a flat, as well as good friends, in Miami.
What are some of your favorite spots for food and drink?
Oh God, I need my wife here. Where is Joan? She drags me out to these places.
Regarding Virgin Galactic, what are your thoughts about NASA ending the Space Shuttle program? Are you recruiting on Florida’s Space Coast?
Yes, we certainly will be taking on some NASA astronauts and master engineers. Shutting down the Shuttle program was a necessity. It cost a billion dollars a flight, and I think a private enterprise can do it for maybe a 20th of that price. One day we’ll be able to use our space program to carry people intercontinentally for a fraction of the time it takes now.
So it’s really about getting around the globe quickly?
Yeah, I think it is: pop people out to the atmosphere, pop them straight back down again, maybe Miami to Australia in just a couple of hours, possibly in our lifetime. We’ll see. We have the dream; now we just have to make it a reality.
Branson with Julian McMahon and Marisa Tomei at the Virgin Australia launch party at West Hollywood’s Bar Marmont in 2009
What humanitarian causes are foremost in your mind right now?
Most of my time is spent on not-for-profit ventures. We have a wonderful group of people that we set up called The Elders, headed up by Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. They go into conflict regions and try to resolve those conflicts. We have the Carbon War Room, which is a center in Washington that is trying to get on top of the problem of global warming. We have a center for disease control in Africa, which we’re just setting up, which will help attack that problem. We also have a foundation called Nature Rocks, which is trying to stop certain tiger, lemur, whale and shark species from disappearing.
Sounds like you’re a busy man. Where do you keep your clone?
I’m actually not Richard Branson. We actually Branson with a model of the commercial space shuttle he plans to operate one day have 20 of me. My wife doesn’t know this, so don’t tell her. We have a blast, and the real Richard Branson is lucky enough to do whatever he wants.
You started in the record industry. What music holds your interest today?
The Killers, Stereophonics, and I’ve got some old reggae bands and Peter Tosh. You get to travel more than most people.
Share some ideas on exciting spots to go to next?
Well, I’m a little biased, but if you want to go to Africa, there is a beautiful private game reserve called Ulusaba where you will be guaranteed to see all the best animals in the world. In North Africa, there is a lovely place called the Kasbah Tamadot up in the mountains of Morocco, and it’s to die for.
Any more world-record attempts on the horizon for you?
We’re hoping to go to the bottom of the ocean within a year—farther down than man has ever gone. I’ll be doing the Puerto Rican trench, the deepest trench in the Atlantic, which is about 29,000 feet, in a solo sub.