11/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
When Steve Fossett crashed his hot-air balloon near Australia last August in his most recent round-the-world attempt, he hardly expected to hear from rival balloonist Richard Branson. But minutes after a passing ship fished the Chicago commodities trader from the Coral Sea, he received an onboard phone call from the offbeat British billionaire. "Richard told me he wanted me to be involved in a successful attempt and invited me to join his team," recalls Fossett, who later accepted the offer. "It was a nice gesture."
At 48, Richard Branson, a man of many, and seemingly contradictory, parts, is as renowned for his sportsman's panache as he is for his $2.5 billion, 200-company empire, which includes Virgin Atlantic Airways, a clothing line, a soft-drink manufacturer and his chain of music and video stores. In the '90s he won the average bloke's heart during a triumphant David-and-Goliath match with giant British Airways and befriended Princess Diana, who christened one of his planes. Though he sold Virgin Music in 1992 for $1 billion, Branson has achieved near-rock-star status in Britain due to his death-defying exploits, both in the air and at sea, and bizarre publicity stunts, which include donning a bridal gown to promote his new line of wedding apparel. "I like to live life to its full," says Branson, who demonstrates in his new autobiography, Losing My Virginity, that such antics are all in character. "I love to test myself and learn."
Lately, Branson has been tested by British tabloids after he mentioned in Virginity that he lost first wife Kristen Tomassi in the '70s following an impromptu mate-swapping session with a friend. Though Branson doesn't dispute the basic story, he questions its current relevance. He and his second wife, Joan, 53, have been together for 20 years and have two children, Holly, 16, and Sam, 13. "My wife and kids have read the book," he says. "I think things get blown out of proportion."
Public battles are nothing new to Branson. In 1990 before the Gulf War he wrote to Saddam Hussein and asked him to release any foreign visitors caught in Baghdad. Saddam complied, and Lord King, head of British Airways, reportedly complained, "Who does Branson think he is...the bloody Foreign Office?" Branson later learned British Airways had set up a whole department with the purpose of publicly discrediting him; he sued his competitor for libel and won a settlement of about $945,000 as well as an unusual public apology from King.
A high school dropout, Branson grew up in southeast London, the oldest of three children born to Edward Branson, a lawyer, and his wife, Eve, a former dancer and flight attendant. At 16, Richard and a friend moved to London to start a youth-culture magazine and a mailorder record business named Virgin, for their lack of experience. In 1971 he spent a night in jail for his involvement in a sales-tax scam. From then on, he writes, "I vowed to myself that I would never again...do any kind of business deal that would embarrass me." By the mid-'80s, he wouldn't have to, thanks to the success of Virgin Music, which made British rock acts including the Sex Pistols and Culture Club into international superstars. "He has what I describe as the common touch," says Culture Club's Boy George, who hid out at Branson's Oxfordshire home after a headline-grabbing bout with heroin in 1986. "He's kind of posh, but he's also an old hippie."
Even today, the boyish exec shuns suits and operates Virgin out of a cluttered seven-bedroom house in London's Holland Park neighborhood. Branson's irreverent persona fits his business philosophy. "We love to challenge markets where the customer has been consistently ripped off or underserved," he says.
Though he takes scant interest in fancy cars and jewelry, he entertains lavishly on his own Caribbean island, Necker—purchased in 1979 for $3 million—where Diana once stayed. "The biggest luxury I have," he says, "is taking friends and family away for holiday."
And taking on new risks. A go-for-broke speedboat racer, sky diver and balloonist, Branson has come close to death on some dozen occasions. No big deal. He is currently planning another round-the-world balloon excursion, with Steve Fossett, for this winter, while gleefully hawking his book. "I thought I would write it while it's fresh in my memory—and," he adds only half-jokingly, "while I'm still alive."
Nina Biddle and Joanna Blonska in London and John Slania in Chicago