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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Newest Idol

MONTREAL — Seeing the world was one of Guy Laliberte's dreams. The Cirque du soleil founder probably didn't think he'd be seeing it from outer space.

Laliberte, a Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut blasted off into space early Wednesday aboard a Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station. Laliberte's stint as Canada's first space tourist on the space station will be just the latest milestone in a life where adventure has been anything but alien.

He was known for throwing wild parties over the years, rubbing shoulders with a galaxy of stars, including actor Robert De Niro and director Francis Ford Coppola, and catering to their every need.

He was recognized by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Forbes magazine estimates Laliberte has a net worth of $2.5 billion and he created a cultural icon in spreading the tentacles of the Cirque around the globe like a giant showbiz octopus.

He's wowed everyday people, politicians and pop stars. Elton John was once so impressed with a Cirque show that he flew from Hawaii to San Francisco with 10 friends in tow to see the troupe perform again.

"He's the kind of guy that is never happy with a normal life," says Daniel Lamarre, a longtime friend of Laliberte and the Cirque's president and CEO.

"He is an amazing entrepreneur and he's the one who will always provoke people to go to their limits. I think this trip he's doing is a good illustration of that. Not only is he pushing himself to his limits but he's also pushing his team to do what they're doing right now, which is to try the crazy idea of having a show coming from the space station."

Laliberte, who is the father of five children and is engaged to be married to his current fiancee, was born in Quebec City and started out as a teenage fire-eater. He's also been a stilt walker, a musician and a magician.

But it was the magic he worked with a rag-tag bunch of street performers from the Quebec hamlet of Baie-St-Paul to create the Cirque du soleil in 1984 that got him noticed in a really big way.

"We're trying to reinvent the circus and make people laugh at the same time," he said in a 1990 interview.

The Cirque shunned the traditional use of animals and instead embraced acrobats, high-tech, music and dance when it started. It wowed audiences and its mind-bending performances have even become a sort of shorthand for screenwriters in movies and TV when they want to suggest a character has seen a glitzy, hot-ticket show.

"I'm doing what every kid dreams about: running away and joining the circus," Laliberte said in an earlier interview. "The problem is that it's my circus - and administering it is not quite the same as performing.

"There are days when I wish I could run away to Hawaii - like I once did when I was a teen - and just do my fire-eating act on the beach. Life was really so much simpler then."

Lamarre suggests that attitude hasn't changed much.

"He doesn't like to do the day to day of the business," Lamarre says of the 50-year-old Laliberte. "That's why I'm doing what I'm doing, because he wants to keep his focus on the creative content.

"As much as Guy is an amazing businessman, the one place where he's above everyone else is creative content and international development. Those two things still keep him stimulated."

But Lamarre adds that as much as Laliberte is driven by new Cirque projects, that's not his primary consideration.

"His family is his No. 1 priority. Not only is he taking care of his five kids, but he's also taking care of his mom and his dad, and he's helping his brother. He's really a family man. People don't realize how much travelling he's doing with his dad and mom and his kids."

Not everyone sees the shaven-headed Laliberte in such a flattering light.

He recently got into a legal battle over an unauthorized tell-all book that alleged a wild partying lifestyle and ample supplies of drugs at the Cirque, something Laliberte has denied.

While even Lamarre describes Laliberte's space mission as "surreal," the CEO says the $35-million trip isn't just a billionaire's whim or a new way to torque a Cirque show. Lamarre says it illustrates another side to the high-stakes recreational poker player.

Laliberte will be promoting his One Drop Foundation during a broadcast on Oct. 9, seeking to raise awareness of the threat to global water supplies.

He's no stranger to social causes. The Cirque kicked off its 1988 debut in New York with a benefit for homeless people.

"It's probably one of the best kept secrets," Lamarre said of the Cirque's philanthropy, noting that one per cent of the organization's box-office take goes to social causes.

"As you can imagine, one per cent of our box office represents millions of dollars," Lamarre said. "Guy came to me two years ago and said that's not enough." That conversation led to the creation of the One Drop Foundation.

Lamarre said Laliberte has been driven all his life by two things - creating unique artistic content and helping change the world, even in little ways such as helping villages in Honduras and Nicaragua get clean water.

And he doesn't blink in the face of risk, whether it's negotiating with Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono for a Beatles-themed Cirque show or climbing into a space-bound rocket.

"Guy has always had the same approach to danger," Lamarre said. "Even if it was launching a new show or trying a new project, he always said it's important that we recognize danger but we shouldn't be stopped by fear."


Elaine Newell said...

Life is there to be lived. If you can add to the world and leave a legacy behind of things that are beneficial for others, why not? A ticket deal for a space flight may not be easy to come by but he certainly is a good contender.

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