Book Review: Good Gossip Makes for Bad Book in the Case of Laliberté

I’m at a bit of a loss in terms of reviewing the recent book by Ian Halperin, Guy Laliberté: The Fabulous Story of the Creator of Cirque du Soleil (2009, Transit Publishing, 230 pages). When the book was released in June, Laliberté, Halperin’s main subject, was so furious he demanded the publishers pull all stock from shelves within 24 hours lest he slap with them a lawsuit. Shortly thereafter, Halperin himself sued Laliberté and the Cirque du Soleil for slander, claiming offense when Laliberté called him a “crook” and a “liar.”

Having now read the book, which eventually became a bestseller in Laliberté’s native Quebec, I can’t understand the fuss.

Yes, there are quite a few scandalous revelations about Laliberté’s alleged lifestyle and the behind-the-scenes activities at Cirque du Soleil, the globally popular circus-based show he founded in Montreal in 1984, but the tone of the writing is so sensationalist and the editorial style so poorly moderated, the book felt more like an extended article on a gossip site than anything else. Halperin is a Canadian investigative journalist and author of the bestselling book The Final Years of Michael Jackson. He is perhaps best known for having predicted the exact timeframe of Jackson’s demise. Here, he sets his sights on Guy Laliberté, with whom he claims a sort of karmic connection. Like Laliberté, Halperin began his “professional” life as a busker on the streets of Quebec. It is perhaps for that reason (and the fact that Halperin eventually developed a “friendship” with one of Laliberté’s former lovers) that the author deemed the entrepreneur worthy of exposé.

In terms of relevance to most VideoAge readers, it was disappointing to find no mention of Cirque du Soleil Images — the entertainment conglomerate’s television production and distribution arm. Images was an important extension of Laliberté’s business expansion plan, and yet Halperin is clearly more interested in kicking up dirt than going into detail on the development of the Cirque du Soleil brand.

Halperin sets up the Laliberté story with some anecdotal information about his childhood (though who knows how valid it is, coming from “friends” who probably shouldn’t have been so eager to offer it up). “[Guy would] disappear for hours on end, and his parents would have trouble finding him. He once rode his tricycle to the other part of town, and his parents had to look for him for hours. He was much smarter than your average kid. At age four he was already organizing lemonade sales outside his family’s home,” one friend reveals. What this information is meant to suggest remains to be seen.

The next pivotal moment highlighted by Halperin? “In 1978, [Laliberte] flew to London’s Heathrow airport with less than C$1,000 in his pocket, along with an accordion, a harmonica, a Jew’s harp, and a set of musical spoons. Determined to conserve his savings until he discovered whether he could actually make money busking, his [sic] spent his first night sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park.” Halperin makes a point of saying that this story had particular resonance for him because he too had once flown to London to busk and spent his first night sleeping in the park. This is all well and good, but to the average reader I imagine this comes off as more insane than brave. I assume the hope was to paint Laliberté as a gutsy risk-taker from the start.

Guy Laliberté first decided to put together what later became Cirque du Soleil in honor of the celebrations of the 450th anniversary of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Canada. Millions of people from all over the world were expected to descend on the province. Cirque du Soleil made its Quebec debut in June of 1984, and then set out as a road show, hitting 11 cities over the course of three months and attracting more than 30,000 spectators overall. The success of the circus was garnering significant attention for the Canadian province, and thus earned the respect and backing of the government.

As the show’s popularity grew, so did demand for grueling and ever-changing performances. Halperin suggests that this was one of the roots of the widespread drug abuse behind the scenes. “The drugs of choice were not just pot and alcohol; the abuse of substances like cocaine, LSD, and heroin became prevalent. Laliberté was all too aware but turned a blind eye,” he writes. Further detail comes from “a former Cirque clown who asks to be identified as Jacques”: “It’s amazing that some of the performers didn’t pass out or die during a performance.

There was plenty of white powder and brown powder around the circus. I saw people injecting, smoking, and snorting right on site. I was no angel either; I used to snort lines of coke each day in the bathroom before rehearsal would begin. It’s amazing I’m still alive. It’s amazing any of us are. We partied just as hard as we practiced. We needed it to get by. Life in Cirque du Soleil was not glamorous at all; it was very difficult work. Drugs gave us the relief we needed.”

Now, if it weren’t so easy to believe that performers in an artistic field enjoy dabbling in mind-altering substances, I’d have a hard time taking anonymous information as truth. That’s one of the main problems with this book as a whole. So many of the juiciest tidbits come from people with fake names or tenuous ties to Laliberté. (Not to mention the stylistic discrepancies — in some places, the anonymous sources are designated in italics, in other places, quotation marks. It’s all fairly amateurish.) As stated earlier, the overall feel is that of trashy tabloid journalism, as opposed to in-depth, well-researched expose. And this is not to say that Halperin didn’t try. But as is to be expected, stories of backstage antics and improper behavior are not usually the first things people in a true inner circle would be willing to divulge.

The next example of Laliberté’s risk taking that Halperin highlights occurred in 1987. “After re-privatizing Cirque and establishing [financial adviser, Daniel] Gauthier and himself as principal owners, he set his sights on the biggest circus ring in showbiz: Hollywood. Robert Fitzpatrick, president and founder of the Los Angeles Arts Festival, invited Cirque to be a featured act…. Laliberté took the gamble and booked the entire production a one-way trip. Had the show been a flop, Cirque would have had to walk back to Montreal.”

This is some seriously melodramatic writing. Sure, booking one-way tickets for his players was a confident move, but it was hardly momentous. What makes Halperin’s declaration even shakier is the talking point that follows. The author offers up the following quote: “The greatest business people in the world are giant risk takers. Every person I studied who has been successful has taken giant risks — people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and even politicians like President Barack Obama. Laliberté, back then, put his money where his mouth is. He put it all on the line. Those are the kind of people I consider to be real players and leaders. They’re the type of people who will rewrite history.”

And to whom do we owe these words of wisdom? Dan Weisman, “a California based financial analyst.” As in, someone who has absolutely no direct knowledge of Laliberté and his dealings and is simply making sweeping statements about characters in the annals of financial history. Now, again, my comments are not meant to discredit Halperin’s research. Certainly, some sort of credit is due for tapping such an eclectic array of sources. I just mean to point out that the opinions given should be taken with a grain of salt.

The bottom line is, Laliberté shouldn’t be concerned with the existence of this book. In this day and age of popularized and published scandal, very little is shocking. Which is to say, reading that a billionaire throws lavish parties rife with sexual and chemical experimentation is hardly new or news. And Halperin is pretty consistent in pointing out the positive traits of Laliberté’s character — whether by highlighting his charity work or desire to please or by discrediting his accusatory ex-girlfriends. The Fabulous Story of the Creator of Cirque du Soleil is quick, throwaway reading and if nothing else, gives an amusing new angle to the recent news story about Laliberté becoming a space tourist. KR