Interview: Derren Brown on coming out, Russia, and his pet parrot
In an exclusive interview with PinkNews.co.uk, Derren Brown talks coming out, keeping his personal life private, and the pressure that gay celebs face to speak out.
Derren Brown is, as he once joked, a borderline national treasure. The hypnotist, illusionist and magician has dominated both stage and screen for over a decade. I caught up with him, still in his slippers, just before he heads out on his latest tour.
You don’t speak out on gay issues as much as some celebs. Do you find it difficult?
“Well I’m quite quiet anyway, and also I’m so hopeless with topical events. I’m terrified of going on panel shows and things like that because I feel like I don’t know anything!
“Unlike someone like Stephen [Fry], I don’t feel best placed. I tend not to want to upset people, so I end up keeping quiet on a lot of things. So a combination of general shyness and a feeling of ignorance.”
Equal marriage is coming in next month in England and Wales. Do you and your partner have any plans?
“No, no plans at the moment! I’ve never really made plans for the future, but who knows? Nothing on the horizon. One of the nice things about being gay is there’s a bit less pressure to do those things, where for a straight couple there’s a little bit of ‘so, getting married? Having a baby yet?’, and then it happens and you don’t see them for sixteen years!
“Clearly this is something we will look back on and go ‘when grandpa was little gay people couldn’t get married?’, in the same way we’ll probably look back one day and go ‘we used to keep animals in zoos and look at them in cages?'”
Have you paid much attention to the stuff happening in Russia?
“I tweeted a video about Russia this morning, and someone replied ‘Britain’s its own worst enemy, just let people get on with their own values system, we shouldn’t tell other people what to believe’, and part of me almost believes that. Are we just marching in not knowing what we’re talking about? But I think sometimes you have to take a less relativist approach, and a slightly more value-laden approach.
“One of the things for me about coming out in our culture, is you realise to your slight surprise and disappointment that people just don’t care, and it’s very easy to believe that really nobody cares at all and that all the anxiety you create is just in your own head.
“But seeing how it is in Russia, realising how different and horrendous it is, is a good wake up call. You end up becoming a little bit complacent.
“It’s awful, and it affects people’s lives in a really horrendous way. I know there are other places around the world that are probably worse than Russia, and you just hope that this is just a period of change.”
“I’ve got zero interest in sport, sadly, and zero interest in the Olympics generally!”
Would you hypnotise Vladimir Putin to be less of a homophobe?
“[Laughs] I can see the headlines now! I’m not going to even answer that, because if I say yes it’ll be a big tabloidy thing! …but of course, who wouldn’t?”
You got into a bit of trouble last year for saying you could ‘turn a gay person straight’…
“I can’t even remember what the quote was! I never said it at all! The interviewer made a jokey comment about that being one of my shows, and I said no! He continued running with the idea, and I said ‘oh, well’ maybe one day’, and the next thing I know it’s in the Sun! Ludicrous.”
How important is being a gay role model to you?
“I’ve never really seen the question of sexuality as part of what I do. It’s not central to it, it’s just me. But it’s nice for people to know you can be a famous gay person and not be camp as well.
“It’s so important to come out, because for those of us lucky to be in this part of the world it is usually such a non-event, but feels such a disproportionately huge event when you’re not out.
“I came out really late, and it’s just not worth doing it that late, you miss a lot of time. So if you’re not, just do! It’s fine, it’s quite easy, once you start you can’t stop.”
You don’t talk about your personal life or your partner much. Do you try to keep that separate from your work?
“I don’t ‘not talk about it’, I don’t want to be too precious about it! But I was snapped walking down the road with my partner, and the headline was ‘the look of love: Brown clearly adores his partner’… it’s nothing negative, it just leaves a bit of a nasty taste in your mouth, and feels a bit intrusive.
“I understand you have to put up with a certain amount of it. I have my own feelings about things being exaggerated, but when it’s about your relationship, or judgements being made about what you do and what your tastes are, you have to draw a line.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m going off on tour on Tuesday for six months. It’s the second leg of Infamous, and six months is the longest tour is done. It’s quite a long time on the road, which I do enjoy. It’s my favourite thing, I enjoy it more than TV!
“I’m writing a book on happiness, but I don’t imagine it’ll be out until the end of next year. I really enjoy writing, so I’m just letting it happen while I’m on tour, and then second half of the year when I’m back in London.”
Is it difficult to keep the tour fresh?
“This is the sixth show I’ve toured in 11 years! With the TV show, it’s easy to come up with just one idea, but for the stage show you have to come up with a lot of things, and make sure it’s all different enough from previous shows. It can be a challenge, but I love it so much! I get to go around the country with a bunch of friends, it’s a lovely time.”
Who looks after your parrot while you’re on tour?
“Awww! Well, my partner looks after my parrot, and if we both go away somewhere, then Coops, my PA looks after the parrot, and I look after his parrot when he goes away. He’s got my parrot’s brother, so we parrot-share. I used to really miss my first parrot when I went away, because it was just me and him, but when you’re in a relationship you don’t have that same need for pets, they’re not so much of a surrogate relationship. But he’s so adorable, he’s really clever and he does tricks, and he shits on you a lot – that’s less funny, but between the shitting and the biting I love him. I’m patron of the national parrot zoo!”
We only got one TV special last year, why the shortage?
“I’ve wanted to just concentrate on one special for a while, but it does vary from year to year. At one point there was talk of two, then we decided we’d rather do one. No particular reason behind it, it’s just how these things turn out. The worse thing is when it ends up having to be more, and somebody decides ‘no, you need to do more than you’re ready for!'”
How difficult is it when people get critical? You got a lot of criticism after your special ‘Apocalypse’, because people thought it was fake.
“What it was with Apocalypse, was that Steve looked like a guy that was in a noodle advert, and a guy with a blog who had it in for the programme tweeted about it. Something like that, some guy just has a thing, and then people start talking about it on Twitter because it feels like a story, and then the tabloids pick it up, and it feels like it must be real!
“It doesn’t relate to any calm consideration of the show. If he was fake, we had his family in it, so they’d all have to be actors as well, and at the end there was a hundred people at a big party, so they’d have to be actors, and you’d have to kill all of those people’s friends and family so none of them went “that’s not really that guy’s mum, she’s a local actress!” I don’t even know how that would work!
“Ultimately, what other people choose to think in their heads is fine. We have no control over that. It’s a little bit frustrating when you put months and months into huge labour-intensive work, the most ambitious thing I’d ever done, creating this whole thing for one person, but someone goes ‘oh, it’s all fake!’ because that’s what they want to believe.
“It’s more important to just get yourself into a position where you’re not really aware of those things, because it doesn’t matter.”
Any parting advice?
“Be nice! Be nice is important!”