Guy Laliberté: The first clown in space?
He's already famous as creator of Cirque du Soleil, a busker turned billionaire who knows how to throw a wild A-list party. But when Guy Laliberté takes a $35m trip into space next week, his reputation could go stratospheric. Ian Halperin tells his story
Tuesday 22 September 2009
Guy Laliberté has always had an unusual thirst for life's pleasures. The former street entertainer has spent 30 years building up a multibillion-dollar fortune from a mixture of circus skills, inspirational management and a knack for high-stakes gambling. His Cirque du Soleil is arguably the world's premier showbusiness enterprise, while the parties with which he celebrates his success are legendary. Some might be content with such good fortune, but Laliberté wants more: which is why, at the end of this month, he will be blasting off on a Russian spacecraft for a 12-day trip whose highlight, on 9 October, will be a broadcast to the world headlining a globally-networked multimedia show whose terrestrial participants will include U2 and Al Gore.
The object of that exercise will be to raise awareness of drinking water rights around the world, something Laliberté has been extremely passionate about – having created the One Drop Foundation to promote the cause. (The show will be called "Moving Stars and Earth for Water".) But a likely side-effect will be that Guy Laliberté, already famous by ordinary standards, will become one of the most high-profile people on the planet.
Yet the odd thing is, for most people, he remains little more than a name – or at best an enigma. The basics of his story have been told before but there remains something baffling about his meteoric upward trajectory. Is it really as simple as that? Or is the rags-to-riches fairy-tale too good to be true?
He was born in Quebec City 50 years ago this month to an ordinary middle-class family. He showed promise at school in the performing arts, left college at 18, and then spent a couple of years hitchhiking around Europe, supporting himself by busking. (He reportedly spent his first night on a bench in London's Hyde Park.) His specialities included accordion and, later, fire-breathing. He then returned to Canada, where, after a very brief attempt at conventional work, he joined a stilt troupe for whom he rapidly became not just a performer but a co-organiser. He showed a talent for putting on festivals and street parties, and in 1984 Laliberté won a good contract from the government of Quebec, organising a festival to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the province's discovery by the French. This generated a modest profit, being one of the first shows to bring the raw excitement of street performance into a circus setting; but more importantly, it generated more contracts for the troupe, which Laliberté soon renamed Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil.
A gambler by nature, Laliberté had few qualms about signing contracts for shows in advance of securing the necessary funding for staging them. His optimism proved justified. He also had a clear and plausible vision: of a thrilling circus with neither ring nor animals. But even he felt doubts when, in 1987, he set his sights on conquering the biggest showbiz ring in the world: Hollywood.
Hitherto, the Cirque had performed only in Canada. Now, aiming for the big time, he invested the troupe's entire savings on taking the show to Los Angeles. This was true high-stakes gambling. The troupe didn't have enough money to pay for petrol to get home. If the LA trip had flopped, they would have had to walk back to Montreal. As Laliberté later put it: "I bet everything on that one night." But the opening night received rave reviews, and the following day the entire city was in a frenzy to buy tickets.
The rest is showbusiness history. Other triumphs followed, and Laliberté, intent on maximising revenue streams, began to dream of running multiple shows simultaneously. By the end of 1991, when Cirque was dazzling the world with its highly-acclaimed Nouvelle Experience show, Laliberté had hired another cast and had one for North America and another for Europe.
Now 25 years old, Cirque du Soleil is one of the most consistently-successful entertainment brands, and Laliberté is admired as a mogul with a Midas touch. Even the global downturn has not dented his success. In April, Laliberté told The New York Times that although attendance at his six full-time Vegas shows was down 7 per cent, Cirque's touring shows were up 7 per cent. "We've gone through three recessions in Cirque history," Laliberté said. "And they were all growth periods for us." During the height of this recession, his wealth rose from $1.7bn to $2.5bn. (He has reached number 261 on Forbes magazine's list of the richest people in the world.)
Perhaps it is this sense of a charmed life that has made people wonder if there is more to his story than meets the eye. Can one of the world's richest men really have achieved such success with nothing more than a gift for circus tricks, a passion for success, a gambler's nerve and a few lucky breaks?
As Laliberté's (unauthorised) biographer – and, as a result, by no means his favourite person – I can state with some confidence that, remarkably, the answer appears to be "yes".
Laliberté has built his success on the understanding of human nature that he cultivated 30 years ago busking on the streets of Europe – breathing fire or playing his accordion. His business schooling was nonexistent, but street entertainment helped him understand that resilience would help him through any potholes, wrong turns and detours he encountered on the road to success. It was on the streets, wowing people with impressive performance skills, that Laliberté developed the business skills and confidence on which Cirque du Soleil's success depended.
"What differentiates Guy Laliberté from everyone else in the entertainment business is that he understands more than anyone how important it is to treat people with respect," a long-time employee of Cirque du Soleil said. "His attitude is that every person is equal. And he believes hard work is the key to success. He has never tried to take any short cuts in life." This last point is true – up to a point. Laliberté is also a gambler. A keen poker player, he has competed on the World Poker Tour and is something of a fixture on the professional circuit. He once won $696,220 in a single game. It is unlikely that he always wins – few gamblers do. But the understanding of risk that the game has given him must have helped him develop the career-defining gift of putting his money where his mouth is.
His defining characteristic is self-belief – indispensable for a street performer or a gambler but also pretty crucial for a budding billionaire. Even in his early days, this was in evidence. "Failure never seemed an option to him," said Esmond Choueke, one of the first journalists to interview Laliberté. "He is a man of vision who never sways. When I interviewed him he told me how successful in Europe circuses were without animals. He kept saying how intent he was on bringing that concept to North America. I had little doubt he would succeed because he was so passionate."
Others were more sceptical, as they have been at most stages in Laliberté's career. Again and again, however, he has proved the sceptics wrong. In 1991, when Cirque's dazzling Nouvelle Experience show was making it a household name, Laliberté set his heart on the unprecedented dream of making Cirque a permanent fixture on Las Vegas's hotel strip. He believed that Cirque could become as big as such legendary Vegas marquee acts as the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley.
Powerful entertainment moguls expressed an interest in meeting this new, confident Canadian kid. But not all of them believed in him. Years later, Laliberté was still sharing his anger at J Terrence Lanni, then president and CEO of Caesar's World, Inc, who refused outright Laliberté's proposal to present the Cirque's new show, Mystère, at Caesar's Palace. Laliberté tried to persuade Lanni, but the CEO's mind seemed elsewhere. He had already decided that Cirque was too dark and esoteric to be a match for Caesar's, and he reportedly listened with an opaque look on his face.
It didn't take long for Laliberté to make Lanni regret his decision. But it was passion and force of character, not luck, that enabled him to do so – and it is interesting that Laliberté and Lanni subsequently worked very fruitfully together when Lanni was at MGM Mirage.
The fact that I am not one of Laliberté's favourite people relates not to my judgements of his achievements but to certain claims made in my biography about his personal life and some of the parties he has held. I will not repeat these claims in detail, but would assert without fear of contradiction that this is a man who knows how to party. Any international jet-setter worthy of the description recognises that one of the most momentous dates in the social calendar is that day in early June when party-goers from around the world descend on Laliberté's Grand Prix party. For many years, Laliberté would host this bash at his sprawling mansion on the south shore of Montreal; after a while, however, he had to move the party to an airport base because of recurring complaints by neighbours about the incredible noise level. Everyone I have met who has attended one of these events has said they had never seen wild partying like it. "I've travelled to parties in Ibiza, Hollywood and New York," said one jet-set fashion model. "But I have never seen anything with such detail and class as Guy's parties. He has the best DJs in the world, and the energy level is unbelievable. He's an incredible host."
"I never met Guy personally but what I know from people who know him is that he's the most down-to-earth person you can meet," one neighbour told me. "I never minded his parties. I thought they were cool, and I looked forward to them because of all the celebrities who came through. It was always exciting."
On one occasion, the U2 singer, Bono, showed up at the wrong address. The neighbours didn't recognise him but told him to get his car out of their drive. "Anyone who lives near Guy has a funny story," another neighbour said. "There's always something going on there."
With so many A-list friends, Laliberté is well positioned to keep making showbusiness breakthroughs. His biggest coup was reuniting the surviving Beatles for the 2006 Vegas show, Love. No one else had managed to get Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono in the same room to consider a reunion, let alone persuading them to sign for a show. The idea had been conceived six years earlier at one of Laliberté's parties, when, around a campfire, he and George Harrison developed what would be a lasting friendship. "I never saw Guy look so happy as that night," said one acquaintance.
The success of Love has led Laliberté to create another show based about a major pop icon – Elvis Presley. It opens at the Aria Resort & Casino in December. With Laliberté's track record, few people imagine it will be anything but a smash hit.
It saddens me that Laliberté has taken issue with my biography of him, because the book was intended – like this article – as a tribute to a man I admire enormously. Like him, I began my career as a street performer. I have vivid memories of living in London in the late 1980s, playing saxophone in various Tube stations. It was Laliberté who helped me, and others like me, to realise that street performers had a chance to rise further in life. For thousands of people, Laliberté has become a symbol of sheer hope and strength. At the same time, he has never lost his emotional connection to ordinary people – the kind of people who paid to watch him on the streets. Even recently, spending many months immersed in his biographical details, I feel privileged and empowered from my contact with his life story.
In the past few weeks, there has been no shortage of media critics of Laliberté's space mission; they suggest that, instead of spending $35m on his 12-day space trip, Laliberté would have been more effective donating the money to provide fresh water those with no access to it. I believe he will prove such critics wrong, just as he as always confounded predictions of his failure. This is a man with a knack of accomplishing the impossible.
"He is living proof that we can make a difference," said Sam Hill, a street musician and admirer. "Every street performer should familiarise with his incredible story. We've never had anyone who has offered us so much hope. It pains me when people criticise his space mission. The man is trying to raise money and access to water for everyone. How dare anyone criticise him for doing this while they're not doing a thing? I think he deserves a medal. He's risking his life to provide the unfortunate with a better life." Laliberté has pledged a total of $100m (spread over 25 years) to One Drop, which he set up in 2007. So it's likely that he is pursuing a strategy that he believes will maximise the charity's chance of making a difference. The Moving Stars and Earth for Water event on 9 October – which also features Tatuya Ishii, Peter Gabriel, Salma Hayek, Patrick Bruel, Shakira, A R Rahman, Yann Martel and Julie Payette – will only last two hours, but it has the potential to change the way tens of millions of people think about one of the world's most precious resources. It's a gamble; but Laliberté's gambles have a habit of coming off. And if he gets a once-in-a-lifetime 12-day space adventure in the process – most of it on the International Space Station – good luck to him. No one could say he has not earned the money he is spending, and the cause of space research benefits as well.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Laliberté's entertainment empire continues to defy convention by combining business success with human decency. In several of the locations where Cirque is performing and where the downturn has hit hardest, Laliberté has lowered ticket prices by 20 per cent, giving a break to those who couldn't normally afford to see a Cirque show. Earlier this year, Cirque offered Florida residents a discount for its category two seats at its La Nouba show – $64 per person instead of $84. Unlike most other large companies, which have been laying off staff, Laliberté's Cirque du Soleil has been intent on protecting its 4,200 employees worldwide.
"We are not dupes, naïve, or innocents," Daniel Lamarre, Laliberté's COO at Cirque, said. "Protecting the livelihood of the thousands of families that contribute ceaselessly to our success is one of our surest values."
"Guy has had no shortage of critics," said another acquaintance. "But time and again he proves them wrong. People have always tried to bring him down, just like some are during his space mission. I guarantee you Guy will make history in space and only positive things will come out of it. That's how he operates, always defying the odds."
Guy Laliberté: the Fabulous Story of the Creator of the Cirque du Soleil, by Ian Halperin, is published by Transit. To order a copy for the special price of £18.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
Top draws: Cirque du Soleil made simple
Vibrant, bizarre, sublime, bathetic: there are many adjectives to describe Cirque du Soleil – and many titles too. Here is an at-a-glance guide to some of theircurrent circus-based shows.
(1994 to 2009 world tour and 2009 to 2012 US tour)
Characters including minstrels, beggars and clowns, discuss the somewhat abstract nature of the changing forms of power – from monarchy to democracy.
(November 2009 to January 2010; Chicago)
A classic love story injected with "intense choreography and crazy humour" (according to its organisers) it blends comedy with tap, hip hop and slapstick.
(2005 onwards; various locations across the US)
About a clown who watches his own funeral, in a carnival-like atmosphere.
CRISS ANGEL: Believe
(October 2008 onwards; Luxor hotel, Las Vegas)
A "highly theatrical tableau of mood, reverie and emotion", featuring the eponymous illusionist, acrobatics, dance, puppetry, music and poetry. Dark.
(1998 onwards; currently touring in Mexico)
The circus's token attempt at summarising Eastern culture, this show takes an elemental approach to performance. (Air, water, fire and earth are all represented by actors.) Features ballet, trampolining and ballet on lightbulbs.
(December 2009 onwards; resident show at ARIA Resort & Casino at the CityCenter complex in Las Vegas)
Kitsch homage to the life and work of Elvis Presley.
(November 2004 onwards; resident show at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas)
Tells a story of conflict and love, through imperial twins separated in their youth who have to undertake a voyage of discovery.
(November 2007 onwards; touring in the US)
Looks at the relationship between strength and fragility, laughter and smiles through basic clowning and acrobatics.
(1993 onwards; resident show at Disney World, Orlando, Florida)
The show's title originates from the French phrase of " faire la nouba ", which means to party. A journey through our universe, in which colourful circus people clash with boring, monochromatic city dwellers.
(1993 onwards; resident show at Treasure Island, Las Vegas)
Fuses mythologies from many cultures, incorporating ethnic music from Spanish, African and European sources.
(October 1998 onwards; resident show at Bellagio, Las Vegas)
Inspired by the concepts of infinity and the "elegance of water", this show takes a turn through all forms of theatre, from the simplest – street performance – to the most lavish of operas. Features world class acrobats alongside synchronised swimmers.
(1999 onwards; currently touring in the US)
Brazilian music and dance mixed with traditional circus acts – and themes of insects and biodiversity.
(Premièred in 1996; currently touring in Brazil)
Follows a young jaded girl called Zoe, with surrealistic artworks that are the manifestations of her own magical daydreams.
The Beatles LOVE
(2006; resident show at the Mirage, Las Vegas)
Taking their work to new levels of cheesiness, this reimagines The Beatles through the power of interpretive dance.
(2002 onwards; currently touring Europe)
Based on the Greek myth of Icarus, picking up where the myth leaves off.
(scheduled to run for 10 weeks each winter from 2007-2011 at the WaMu Theater in New York City's Madison Square Gardens)
Family-based entertainment in which four companions journey to an imaginary Scandinavian country where a boy is waiting for snowfall that never arrives.
(August 2008 onwards; Venetian Macao, Las Vegas)
Featuring 75 dancers, this looks at a young girl's perceptions of the cosmos (space and planets).
(October 2008 onwards; at the Tokyo Disney resort)
The mysterious titular character draws on the themes of Tarot and its arcana and throws up a mirror to the human condition.
(September 2003 onwards; resident at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas)
Explores "adult themes" of erotica, as well as adult dance and acrobatics. A bit like a Carry On film, but with more somersaults.
Out of this world: The first space tourists
Dennis Tito, 69
An engineer from LA, he reportedly paid $20m to Space Adventures to be the first space tourist in 2001
Mark Shuttleworth, 26
The South African entrepreneur spent eight days on the International Space Station in 2002
Gregory Olsen, 64
An American electronics entrepreneur, he spent 12 days in space in 2005. He also paid $20m
Anousheh Ansari, 42
The Iranian-American telecommunications magnate was the first female Muslim in space, in 2006
Richard Garriott, 48
The games developer paid $30m to travel with Space Adventures aboard the ISS in last October
Charles Simonyi, 61
A Hungarian-American executive at Microsoft, he spent 15 days in space earlier this year
Richard Branson, 59
Due to be one of the first on one of his own Virgin Galactic flights at 360,000 feet, in 2011
Stephen Hawking, 67
He has paid a reported £24m to travel aboard one of the first Virgin Galactic flights in 2011
Bryan Singer, 44
The American director of "Superman Returns" will also be on one of Branson's first planes
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