Sex, drugs & acrobats

On the eve of Cirque du Soleil’s 25th anniversary, a new book exposes the stunning rise and wild times of its billionaire founder

Sex, drugs & acrobatsAs it approaches its 25th anniversary on June 16, Cirque du Soleil is solidly entrenched as one of Canada’s greatest entertainment and business success stories. From its almost mythic origin as the creation of a group of young Québécois idealists, hard-working, hard-living, utopian-minded street performers led by a (literal) fire-breather named Guy Laliberté, the Cirque and its postmodern, animal-free productions now span the globe. Laliberté, who used to sleep in parks while performing for spare change, parlayed his extraordinary drive and ambition—and rode the wave of Quebec nationalism unleashed by the Parti Québécois election victory of 1976 (premier René Lévesque was a crucial early Cirque supporter)—into becoming one of Quebec’s six billionaires. On the eve of his 50th birthday, Laliberté’s $2.5-billion personal fortune now puts him at number 261 in Forbes’ ranking of the world’s richest people.

As for the Cirque’s other founding mythology—that its long, strange trip has always been a sex- and drug-fuelled odyssey, according to Guy Laliberté: The Fabulous Story of the Creator of Cirque du Soleil (Transit)—rumour hardly exceeds reality. Author Ian Halperin, a journalist and gossip writer whose previous unauthorized biographies include Céline Dion: Behind the Fairytale and Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, argues that a heady ’60s mix of hedonism and social consciousness has always marked the Cirque. Halperin, a Montrealer, is from that world—he had an uneasy platonic relationship with Laliberté’s embittered ex-common-law wife, described at length in the book, even as he eventually sided with Laliberté in their split—and he approves of his subjects’ zest for life. Especially Laliberté’s, of whom Halperin writes that he shares the author’s own “unquenchable thirst for life’s pleasures balanced with a passion for social justice, traits we know are not incompatible.”

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA Dishing the dirt on Cirque: Unauthorized biographer Ian Halperin on how he discovered the seedier side of the biggest show on earth & Exclusive excerpt: How to party like a cirque star: ‘Everything you wanted was available at Guy’s parties— drugs, the best music, the wildest sex’

Still, even Halperin was bowled over by the “Fellini-esque” account provided by one veteran of the Cirque’s early days. “Annie,” who worked there for years as an acrobat and part-time choreographer, describes a sex-obsessed world, where the Cirque’s upper echelon, a decent enough lot ordinarily, became, when stoned or drunk, “the animals absent from their circus.” In its early days, says Annie, working for the Cirque was an unglamorous, dangerous and stressful job. “That’s why we were all f–king each other’s brains out at night. We needed a release.”

As for drugs, Annie claims there were so many around the Cirque that it could have been called the biggest pharmaceutical operation in Quebec. “Whatever your drug of choice was, there would be a clown, a technician, or a performer to supply it.” She’s amazed that so many performers were able to carry out their audacious circus acts stoned. Annie explains that backstage before a show, while the audience was piling into the tent, people were running around like crazy, half-naked, excited, and stoned out of their minds or, like her, having last-minute sex. “We’d barely have time to catch our breath,” she says. “You disengage and then head right on stage. I liked to live on the edge. But I think everyone in Cirque lived that way.”

If they did, some were working flat out at the same time, and one in particular showed a hard-edged practical side. In the summer of 1981, Guy Laliberté was a slim, good-looking 22-year-old fire-breather with long blond hair. He took part in an artistically impressive but commercially ruinous free circus festival in Baie-St-Paul, a resort town about 100 km east of his Quebec City home. According to Halperin, Laliberté took the lead in digging the festival out of its $10,000 hole, as “the only person involved capable of doing the math.” He convinced organizers to market better in the future, to replace ungifted amateurs with more seasoned acts, and—scandalously to his idealistic companions—proposed the novel idea of charging for admission. In 1982, the festival was an artistic and financial success, and Laliberté was looking for new ground to conquer.

The 1984 celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in New France provided the means. Although Quebec’s PQ government was on the whole lukewarm to the very idea of providing funding for an old-fashioned-sounding enterprise like a circus, René Lévesque felt differently—possibly, Halperin says, because the premier’s mistress was also intimately involved with several Cirque members. His government provided a $1.4-million grant, Laliberté’s group formally adopted the name Cirque du Soleil—because, one associate told Halperin, “Guy worships the sun as if it’s his god”—and the first production opened on June 16, 1984, in the Gaspé.

Laliberté made sure his circus was a success during its 11-city provincial run that year by throwing himself into what would become his signature networking ways. He gave grand parties, and provided Cirque tickets (and party invitations) to anyone he thought might be of use in the future. He also drove his acts hard. Low pay, long work hours and consequent unhappy, mediocre performances almost scuttled the Cirque on an unsuccessful cross-Canada tour in 1985. Even an emergency $250,000 bailout from Lévesque wasn’t enough, and Laliberté had to go cap in hand to all the business contacts he had so assiduously built up. Impressed by his artistic vision and, even more so, by his unshakable self-confidence and charisma, they came through for him.

By 1986 and the Cirque’s invitation to Vancouver’s Expo 86, Laliberté had already brought on board cutting-edge costume designers and musicians, and moved from traditional circus fare to single-concept, postmodern productions. La Magie Continue featured 35 performers from not only Quebec but Cambodia, Mexico, Holland and elsewhere. It hit an upscale demographic, with most spectators between the ages of 21 and 45, and was successful enough to spark an invitation from the Los Angeles Arts Festival. It was an offer rife with chances of both reward and risk.

The LAFT promised to hand out a million flyers in advertising, but couldn’t afford to finance the Cirque—it would have to perform for a percentage of gate receipts. In short, success would literally open a world of opportunities, while failure would mean, in Halperin’s words, that “the Cirque would have to walk back to Montreal.” Laliberté, as always, took the chance, being sure to maximize his marketing opportunities by sending the cast out to roam L.A.’s streets in costume. On opening night it all worked out, when the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Jane Fonda came. Johnny Carson brought several Cirque performers onto his show, and scalpers started charging $200 for $19 tickets.

In the next few years, Laliberté successfully resisted the siren call of Columbia Pictures (after he realized he would lose control of the Cirque), conquered New York, fought off both an inter-management takeover threat and performer discontent (a 25 per cent raise worked wonders there), and became very rich. But Cirque watchers hadn’t seen anything yet, for Laliberté had developed a Vegas obsession. “He loved everything about Las Vegas,” recalls a former Cirque executive, “from the hot weather to the casinos to the atmosphere on the strip. He knew that everyone who came to Vegas came for one thing: to spend money. Guy smelled success there.” What he needed was the right person to offer the right opportunity.

Rejection by Caesar’s CEO J. Terrence Lanni depressed and angered Laliberté, but he soon found the right match—a fellow Vegas newcomer and gambler much like himself, casino developer Steve Wynn. In 1993 Wynn was about to open the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino. He was looking for a show to generate buzz for his $450-million development; Laliberté told Wynn he had the answer, Cirque’s new production, Mystère. The two men got along famously, and soon signed a 10-year contract. Laliberté now had a permanent home, in the endless sunshine he worshipped, for his circus. Or so it seemed, until, with just weeks to go, Wynn started to get cold feet. Was the show too risqué? Too dark? Too much of a departure from Vegas normality? After watching numerous rehearsals, a nervous Wynn blurted out to Laliberté and Cirque artistic director Franco Dragone, “You guys have made a German opera here.”

Dragone said later he took the comment as a compliment on his artistic vision, but Laliberté knew better. Wynn was threatening to postpone indefinitely the grand opening unless changes were made, a public relations disaster Laliberté refused to countenance. The final weeks turned into a blur for Laliberté, as he desperately raced to make just enough changes to keep both Wynn and his cast and crew onside. On Christmas Day 1993, Mystère opened to glowing reviews. Dragone’s concept, featuring 72 performers exploring the origins of life in the universe and set to a spectacular soundtrack of Spanish, African and east European music, was a hit with fans and critics. The Cirque was now 10 years old, and while it would go from strength to strength over the next 15 years—Laliberté is one of the minority of world billionaires to have increased his wealth over the past, recession-wracked year—he had already made it to the top of the A-list heap.

True to his hard-partying instincts—and his hard-won marketing insights—Laliberté threw what Halperin calls “the mother of all Vegas parties, one he will be remembered forever for.” A long-time friend confided to the author that it had “everything you could think of, including the best alcohol, drugs and hottest women in Vegas. Even if I lived in Alaska and had no money I’d walk all the way to Vegas to be at his party. People would do anything for Guy, so long as he promised them an invitation to his parties.”

The Las Vegas gala set the tone for his future parties even as they grew ever more lavish and elaborate (or, as a friend put it, “better and crazier each time”). Eventually they culminated with Laliberté’s Grand Prix bashes in Montreal, in productions as dazzling, in their own way, as a Cirque show.

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