BOOK REVIEW: Laliberté’s ‘Fabulous’ Story

While there has been much written about Cirque du Soleil the company, not much has been written about the people who helped make the company. With his ascension into the ranks of billionaires and higher profile as a space tourist, it was only a matter of time before a biography, authorized or not, would attempt to illuminate the life of its founder, Guy Laliberté. The book is:

Guy Laliberté: The Fabulous Story of the Creator of Cirque du SoleilBy Ian Halperin // Transit Publishing, 2009, 226 pages (ISBN: 978-1-926745-15-2) $25.00 //

Halperin has written several pop culture books, including two on Kurt Cobain (“Who Killed” and “The Murder of”) and three on supermodels (talking about their “dark side” and “deadly world”). In the latter, as he comments in these pages, he slept with several supermodels while gathering research undercover. His most popular book was “Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson” (published BEFORE the singers death it should be noted). He also has a celebrity gossip website, and if pictures on the site are to be believed is never without sunglasses.

The book dedication reads: “To anyone who has ever performed on the street and thought it wasn’t possible to go further in life.” Part I discusses Laliberté’s and Cirque’s history up to Dralion. Part II involves Laliberté’s (and Halperin’s) relationship with Rizea Moriera (more on her later). Part III deals with his parties, development of the show with The Beatles that became LOVE, and later shows. There are five pages of generic pictures.

Halperin writes from a personal angle, often injecting himself into the storyline (Halperin and Laliberté’s children played together for years). Halperin also identifies with Laliberté in that both were roving buskers in their youth. Overall, the book does present a balanced view of its subject, listing positive attributes and accomplishments while also documenting the “other side.”

Trying to tell the Laliberté’s story invariably involves telling Cirque’s story. Some time in the book is given to drug use and sexual exploits in Cirque’s early years. This Halperin has gleaned from talking with former employees and friends of the circus in numerous interviews scattered throughout the book. There are also vivid descriptions of some of the more lavish parties Laliberté has been known to throw, in a chapter previously excerpted in Maclean’s Magazine.

Long work hours and low pay for performers are also discussed. The book makes mention that this was eventually rectified when Gilles Ste-Croix became director of Human Services. Around the same time Normand Latourelle tried to take Cirque over, which resulted in him being bought out for $75,000 and $200,000 for the Admission ticket network. (We’ve known this happened, but the amount has not been previously public.)

Much coverage in the book (and perhaps the reason the book was written in the first place) is given to Rizia Moreira, mother to three of Laliberté’s five children. The book documents her story thoroughly, though she doesn’t come off well in the telling. Halperin speculates that by wooing her when she was very young and spending freely on her, Laliberté created a “monster” that demanded only the finest and most expensive things and threw fits when she didn’t get her way. She comes off as spoiled and needy, however justified she might feel in her anger over how she was treated.

Also a factor in Moreira’s behavior was Laliberté’s insistence on not marrying. Quebec’s civil code states a common-law union does not confer the same rights as legal marriage. Even though they may be together for years, non-married couples have no claim on the assets of the other person. This could be a large part of the motivation for Moriera’s actions and feelings.

Nevertheless, Laliberté comes across as a very caring person, reaching out to Moriera repeatedly. Many others talk about his kindness and compassion. This point is made later in the book, where after taking up poker he was involved in a game with poker player David Benyamine in December 2007. Realizing he had the upper hand with a $1.2 million dollar pot at stake, Laliberté tried to talk Benyamine into backing out. “I can afford to lose this. You can’t.” It was only when player Doyle Brunson remarked to Benyamine, “One day in his life represents your whole life,” that Benyamine relented, taking Laliberté’s bailout offer and losing only $47,000.

In the second printing reviewed here, an additional post-scriptum has been added including a sordid tale sent to Halperin after publishing of the first edition mentioning Laliberté’s bedroom prowess. Halperin also documents Laliberté’s efforts to stop the book prior to and after publishing.

While fun to read on a superficial level, the book is not well documented. It includes no bibliography, research notes or index, just a listing of names cited. Neither is it well proofread, as editing and typesetting errors appear throughout the book.

Some parts of Cirque’s (and thereby Laliberté’s) story are glossed over or omitted entirely. It skims over the beginnings of Cirque. For example, it talks about the conscious decision to exclude animals but doesn’t mention Laliberté’s duck Foin-Foin who appeared with him in early performances. Halperin documents the troupes’ early journey to Niagara Falls but doesn’t discuss the business failure that resulted. There is no mention of Nouvelle Experience’s taking up residence in The Mirage parking lot in Las Vegas in 1993. (This early success, it has been suggested, would convince Laliberté that Vegas could be a goldmine for Cirque.)

Some mention is made of “O” but no mention of the delays in opening the resort and the show. It mentions ZAIA only in passing and has no mention of ZED. On the other hand, it talks at length about LOVE, crediting Laliberté as the moving force behind it (which seems likely). Mention is made of the firing and lawsuit of Matthew Cusick, but no mention is made of the trademark infringement lawsuit Cirque du Soleil brought against Neil Goldberg and his Cirque Productions, which Goldberg won.

With books of this type, there is often an aura of “Can I believe this?” Since it contains no documentation of its claims, it’s left up to the reader to believe the words within.

This isn’t a business book concentrating on the company, but at the same time isn’t a tell-all-expose book. One comes away feeling the book treats the man in a balanced and fair way, showing his drive and compassion while also exploring his need for control and power. The overall impression of Laliberté one comes away with is very positive.

If you want to know more about the MAN, this book is occasionally interesting. There are several bits of I-didn’t-know-that knowledge spread through its pages. (For example, Laliberté’s will stipulates one third of his assets will be distributed to his children, one third to Cirque, one third to a charity of his choice, with nothing for his female companions.) Much of it comes off as quickly written and not thoroughly researched as shown by its lack of documentation. It’s for the truly interested only, or else the US$25.00 will seem like a waste.

It still would be very interesting for someone to take an academic look at the BUSINESS of Cirque du Soleil, with a thorough analysis of the way it runs a creative-product organization and remains highly profitable. (The book “The Spark” had none of the financial data or behind-the-scenes stories one would find in such a book.) But with Cirque’s press shyness and zealous desire for control of its image that book might be some time in coming. (And why should it need to – as Halperin’s book often points out Cirque is a private company, unbeholden to stockholders and by extension the public at large.)

Halperin’s propensity to write multiple books on the same subject (Cobain, models) prompts us to wonder if there will be another Cirque do Soleil book from Halperin. Of course, if Mr. Laliberté wants to call and set the record straight on anything contained in the book, we’d be happy to give him all the space he wants right here in Fascination!. He has our email.