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Guy Laliberté: Backpacker Billionaire, Founder Of Cirque du Soleil

The creator of the mega-successful global circus, Guy Laliberté says he's still a hippie at heart. He also explains how he nabbed the exclusive to an extravagant new show devoted to the late Michael Jackson.

Cirque du Soleil (tarotastic)
Cirque du Soleil (tarotastic)
Serge Raffy

PARIS - He's been dubbed the "saltimbanquier." It's a French play on words that loosely translates as "acrobat banker," an epithet Guy Laliberté is not particularly fond of.

Sitting in a penthouse suite at the Meurice Hotel overlooking the rooftops of Paris, the Cirque du Soleil founder swears he's a dreamer, a backpacker, a lover of open spaces and the human race. This master of an all-powerful multinational dream factory claims he has changed little in the 30 years since he began his career in Paris.

What Laliberté cannot deny is that today he's the head of a company which employs 5,000 people, including 700 artists, producing 10 shows a year – five permanent ones in Las Vegas and Orlando, and five road acts – which annually entertain 11 million people, on five continents.

According to Forbes magazine, Laliberté"s personal fortune stands at more than 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion). In spite of this, Laliberté remains a hippie at heart, nostalgic for the 1970's Flower Power. A lean face, a shaved head and clearly in top physical shape, he recalls his Parisian years as an accordionist and fire-eater.

"I arrived from Montreal in 1978 with 50 Canadian dollars in my pocket," he recalls. "I lived in the Marais neighborhood. I begged on the street and sometimes performed with a group of musician friends, influenced by the folk music of a band called Malicorne. I lived on the top floor of an old building with a view of the roofs, like this suite today. I didn't have an elevator, but my sense of pleasure was exactly the same."

Guy Laliberte's biography is the stuff of Hollywood movie scripts. After Paris, this nomadic spirit headed to Berlin, then Marrakesh, a must for any self-respecting beatnik. On his return to Montreal, he couldn't shake off his love of street entertainment. He met a group of stilt-walkers, called The High Heels Club, and launched a show with them. It was an immediate success.

It wasn't long before Laliberté attracted attention from across the border. He was invited to Los Angeles. It was an instant love affair and the beginning of a crazy adventure. "We experienced instant success. Michael Jackson would come every month in disguise," recalls Laliberté. "He never missed a single one of our shows and became a friend of Cirque du Soleil."

Another close friend was George Harrison. The two men, both passionate about Formula One motor racing, bumped into one another at different races, and a strong friendship developed. "In the middle of a party I had invited him to, we started fantasizing about a project revolving around the music of The Beatles," he remembers. "For me, George Harrison was one of the pioneers of world music. George wanted to close the loop with his mythical group. We came up with the idea of a permanent show in Vegas, Love. We went to London to negotiate with Apple."

The rest is history. With a stroke of genius, Laliberté invited the Fab Four's legendary arranger George Martin to supervise the production at Abbey Road studios in London. The 80-some-year-old, credited with creating the distinctive sound of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, agreed to get on the project. His son Giles joined him.

"It was one of the most important moments of my life," says Laliberté. "I am one of those people who still believes in John Lennon's pacifist message. Too many baby boomers abandoned their ideals. This image of father and son working together at Abbey Road really moved me. One of the values that I defend at the Cirque du Soleil is the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and know-how. And there, I saw a father passing the torch on to his son."

This thrill seeker mounted another adrenaline-charged production in September 2009. To mark his 50th birthday, he gave himself a 24-million-euro ($32 million) gift: 12 days on board a Soyuz space rocket. His aim: promoting his One Drop Foundation aimed at raising issues related to water rights across the globe. It was a publicity stunt – the weightless businessman drummed up media coverage worldwide.

Entertainment giants such as Universal and Disney would love to buy into Cirque du Soleil, but Laliberté values his freedom. "I prefer to reinvest my profits into the business rather than see them disappear into pension funds," he says. Despite Cirque du Soleil's global reach (the company is currently performing in Australia) the company remains family-owned. That said, the ex-backpacker and owner of a 54-meter-yacht called Tiara sold a 20 percent stake of Cirque du Soleil to Dubai real estate developer Nakheel. The deal also included an agreement to produce a permanent show in Dubai for 15 years.

Another project on the cards, Laliberté"s most extravagant and costly one yet, is a musical tribute to Michael Jackson which is due to debut in Las Vegas in the spring of 2013. In hard fought negotiations with the executors of Michael Jackson's estate, Laliberté fought off competition from a number of entertainment giants to obtain rights to his work for the show.

"It was Michael's mother who tipped the scales in our favor," he explains. "She knew that he loved our universe. We were sort of the little guys in this story." But little guys with determination and ambition. The show is due to play permanently in Las Vegas as well as an still-to-be-selected Asian location. Perhaps Hong Kong. Maybe Shanghai. This backpacker, who in the past 30 years has gone from hitchhiking to his own private jet, hasn't come to the end of the road yet.

Photo - (tarotastic)

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