Guy Laliberté: The space cadet with a nose for business

The Cirque du Soleil founder tells Alice Jones about his new Michael Jackson show – and going into orbit
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The Independent Culture

If you're eagle-eyed, you might spot some of Guy Laliberté's holiday snaps in Totem, Cirque du Soleil's latest show at the Royal Albert Hall. These are no ordinary projections of beach sunsets or mountain vistas, though. Instead, the CEO of the biggest circus on Earth provided set designers with his own photographs of Planet Earth, taken during his $35m space flight in 2009.

It gives a whole new meaning to going the extra mile for one's art, but then Cirque du Soleil have rarely done things by halves. In the 26 years since their first performance in a borrowed tent in Quebec, their shows have been seen by more than 100 million people in 300 cities. Today, the 5,000-strong company has 20 shows running worldwide, many of which cost more than a Hollywood blockbuster to produce – KÀ came in at a staggering $220m. Last year, the company sold 11 million tickets; revenue was $850m. "This year we could ring the bell of a billion dollars," says Laliberté.

If they do, it will be thanks, partly, to the King of Pop. Having already made shows out of the songs of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, Cirque are now working on Michael Jackson's back catalogue. It's a marriage made in entertainment heaven. "Out of the three, he's probably the closest to the Cirque way of thinking," says Laliberté. "Michael was an adult who kept his childhood with him in his adult life. He was living in a fantasy world – the same field that we live in." First up, this autumn, is The Immortal Tour, directed by Jamie King, the man behind the stadium excesses of Rihanna and Britney Spears. Then, in 2013, Cirque will unveil a permanent Jackson show in Las Vegas alongside a Michael Jackson experience and "the greatest nightclub ever built" at the city's Mandalay Bay Hotel and a further permanent show in Asia. So who else is on the checklist? The Queen of Pop? "Madonna? I don't think she qualifies on the same level," sniffs Laliberté. It's official. Cirque du Soleil is, if not bigger than Jesus, then certainly bigger than Madonna.

And in Guy Laliberté, they have an impresario to match. In 2004, he was named by Time as one of the most influential people in the world – surely the first clown to make the list. Valued at $2.5bn, he lives a fantasy playboy life of Formula 1 parties and poker tournaments, Hawaiian beach houses and supermodel girlfriends, 180ft super-yachts and, of course, intergalactic travel. Today, we're sitting in his £3,000-a-night penthouse in London's Metropolitan hotel, a vast sprawl with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Hyde Park. Laliberté always stays here when he's in town – it reminds him of how far he has come. On his first visit, as an impoverished 18-year-old accordionist, he slept on a bench in the park below. Does he still play the accordion? "Sometimes. For the kids. Not much anymore."

Now aged 51, there are still traces of the rebellious Seventies child who ran away with the circus. If he had his way, the next Cirque shows would be devoted to Bob Marley – "But he's too close to a god! I don't want to touch any religion!" – and Pink Floyd. Bald, tanned and puckish, his wrists are wound with leather bracelets and he's wearing an unseasonal short-sleeved linen shirt and moulded black trainers. The airy apartment is wreathed in a fug of Gauloises, which he chain smokes, flamboyantly flouting hotel rules. "I don't have a regular way of doing things," he says, unnecessarily. "My balances are my extremes. I have absolutely no routine." After London, he'll jet off to check on Zarkana in New York and Iris, a "tribute to cinema", in LA, both opening later this year.

Laliberté never set out to be the world's biggest ringmaster: he just wanted to travel. "The fastest way I could get on the road was to pick up my father's accordion, learn some tunes, and get on the street and ask for money." He soon became a stilt-walking, fire-breathing staple on the streets of Baie Saint Paul in Quebec and, in 1982, set up La Fete Foraine, a festival of circus acts, free love and, apparently, the best acid-dealing clowns you'll ever meet. That hazy summer, the idea of a new kind of global circus – without animals, without language barriers – was born.

Cirque's big break came in 1984 when Laliberté won a grant of $1m from the government to stage a tour for Canada's 450th anniversary. He then staked all the company had on a trip to LA in 1987. If they'd flopped, they would have had to hitchhike home. They didn't. Their next step up came in the 90s when Laliberté met Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas hotel mogul. So far they have opened seven shows in the city, each one raising the stakes with floating stages, high divers and juggling chainsaws. "We're trying to push the boundaries," says Laliberté. "This is Cirque's DNA. We're like scientists trying to come up with a new formula."

Laliberté has been involved in every show since 1984, hovering over each detail from initial business deal to final dress rehearsal. Is he a control freak? "No. I'm just protecting the brand. I like perfection," he says. "I'm meticulous, rigorous. But I don't have my nose in everything."

Either way, he makes for a rather hippyish head honcho. When he has a big decision to make, he bolts for Hawaii, his "healing island". "I go there, watch a couple of sunsets and I feel better." When he has a deal to cut, he'll do it at a party. "Or at a poker table, or at a dinner. I don't like the traditional way of doing deals. I was not raised by the business community. I do my business in the environment where I'm best." The Beatles collaboration came about when Laliberté met George Harrison at an F1 race and invited him to his Montreal mansion for one of his Grand Prix parties – decadent weekenders filled with A-listers and acrobats (B-list guests reportedly have to sign a confidentiality agreement) over which Laliberté presides, bare-chested and spitting flames.

Though the romantic version runs that Laliberté went from fire-breather to billionaire businessman, he's always had a head for figures. "I think I was more of a businessman first", he admits. He set up his own lemonade stall aged six and as a teenager, devoured biographies of Howard Hughes and P T Barnum. "In the end, you could be the greatest creative person, but our type of show is for the masses. We need to reach between 500,000 to a million spectators a year with a show."

Numbers like this have seen Cirque branded a corporate circus, but Laliberté prides himself on not selling out, refusing to produce more than three shows a year. In their earliest days, he turned down Columbia Pictures. "Actually, it was the best non-deal I ever did," he boasts. "They were just trying to lock on to the brand." Now, having played the long game, Cirque are working with James Cameron and Andrew Adamson (of Narnia fame) on a 3D movie, to be released this year. "We could probably have been three times bigger as a company than we are. We are where we want to be, in the comfort zone of our management and creativity."

That said, the company's 25th anniversary in 2009 was a moment to take stock. Their collaboration with the magician Criss Angel, Believe, had been a flop and the company had been sued by an acrobat, Olga Vershinina, who shattered her back, pelvis and feet while performing. Then the credit crunch hit – and thanks to Cirque's links with Las Vegas and the Middle East, it hit hard. In 2008, Laliberté sold 20 per cent to two Dubai-based investors and was planning a show in the desert which has now been put on ice indefinitely. To top it off, a lurid biography exposed a culture of junkie clowns, backstage bunk-ups and litigious acrobats at Cirque. It also spilled the beans on Laliberté's private life, from his hard partying and affair with Naomi Campbell to the breakdown of his 10-year relationship with Rizia Moreira, whom he met on a beach in Brazil when she was 17 (he was 32) and with whom he has three children.

Laliberté's reaction was characteristic. He raided his bank account and launched himself into space. "It arrived at a great moment, after 25 years. Coming from the street and having all the freedom you want, once you're organising a business, it comes with certain restrictions on your liberty. For once I was not the one telling people what to do. When they lit that fuel under my ass, nobody could stop me, I was totally free of the world!" Was he scared? "No. 'Scared' is not a word I use very much."

Wearing a red nose for take-off, Laliberté billed his trip a "poetic social mission" to raise awareness of One Drop, his drinking water foundation to which he has pledged $100m of his own money over 25 years. "I've always believed that if life feeds you, you feed it back," he says.

"My life has been a mix of many things. I promised myself when I started Cirque that I wouldn't work more than 50 per cent of my time." The other 50 per cent is spent playing poker (he came fourth in the World Poker Tour in 2007, winning $700,000), or on his boat with his partner, Claudia Barilla, and his five children. "I don't understand working all your life and dying with tons of money in the bank." So is retirement on the cards? "No! I think I'll die with Cirque," he says. "Unless Cirque kicks me out first."

Totem, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 ( tonight