Superyacht owner Guy Laliberté has been a real-estate developer, a philanthropist, even a spaceman – but the Cirque du Soleil co-founder is never happier than when on board his 54 metre sailing yacht Tiara, he tells Cecile Gauert...
It’s early afternoon in the Dominican Republic and a big storm approaching from the north has piled kilometre-high clouds on top of the verdant hills of Puerto Plata. Guy Laliberté, his family and friends are waiting for a good weather window to meet up with his sailing yacht, Tiara, which is moored in the Silver Bank, about 80 nautical miles north east of Puerto Plata.
It is the only private boat allowed to moor that winter in this spot of Atlantic where humpback whales find mates and give birth. When conditions are right, the whales sometimes come close enough to make eye contact with snorkellers. That moment is one of his favourite experiences over a lifetime of adventure and he likes nothing more than to share it with others.
Laliberté may be the real “Most Interesting in the World” – a street performer-turned-entertainment mogul, space tourist, diver, poker player, real-estate developer, art collector, philanthropist, father of seven and, yes, yacht owner. His life generates a fair amount of scrutiny, from business school profiles to biographies and television interviews, but who is the real Guy Laliberté?
“People are sometimes confused because I am associated with so many subjects – poker, the Cirque de Soleil, going into space, being an adventurous person, throwing the biggest party in the world – so it triggers people’s curiosity,” he says, “but I am all that. I am all that because I decided to take a bite out of life and explore so many different things and have all types of life experiences.”
His voice is a little hoarse from staying up until 5am the previous night to spin records for friends. A cigarette in one hand and a margarita in the other, stubble on his face and beads around his neck and wrists, he looks like he has just finished a rock show. “I love music, it’s one of my passions,” he says.
The boardroom has been largely left behind. Just a few days prior to this trip, he divested himself of the few remaining shares he had retained in Cirque de Soleil after selling a majority in 2015. “I still have a business relationship but no ownership. The emotion is there. I don’t need to be a stockholder to have an emotional attachment to Cirque,” he says, adding it was a decision that had more to do with managing his investments. “It was better for me to do that to achieve other projects.”
As Laliberté approached 60, his plan was to become a young and energetic retiree, says Anne Dongois, who handles public relations for Lune Rouge, a company he founded in 2017. “That lasted about three weeks,” she says with a laugh. “He is restless.”
Lune Rouge, headquartered in a historic home in the heart of Montreal, started as a family office and has morphed into an incubator for new business ideas with projects in real estate, entertainment and art. One of the latest projects is PY1, an interactive, multimedia, multisensory travelling show inside a 24-metre-high pyramid that pushes the boundaries of technology and art.
“We just broke through a complex technology challenge related to augmented reality integrated in a show environment,” Laliberté says. “Up to last summer, it was almost impossible. This technology was incompatible with all the lasers, the light, the smoke because it relies on a tracking system and basically all this tracking was getting confused by the smoke and light; it was disturbing the entire brain of the system, but we made it happen,” he says. “When I was heading Cirque, I probably received one of the first pitches about integrating augmented reality or virtual reality. I was excited, but every time we went beyond the presentation screen, it didn’t work. Now we have the foundation and we are right at the front end of not only creating volumetric content for augmented reality but making it function in a show environment.”
Concurrently, Lune Rouge is working with the Magic City Innovation District foundation on a project that aims to revitalise the historic Miami neighbourhoods of Little Haiti and Little River. Last year saw the grand opening of Laliberté’s French Polynesia island paradise Nukutepipi, which is, along with Tiara, part of a collection of destination retreats for hire known as Sunset Luxury Villas. “I have not worked like that for a long time,” he admits.
It’s this flurry of activity and creativity that makes family time on Tiara so precious. “We love to live experiences together,” he says. Among the moments he cherishes are an unexpected encounter with a fever of manta rays in Buzios, Brazil, and the first dive of one of his daughters in the Maldives. “She could not go deep yet, and we just took her down so she could learn how to breathe. And for 45 minutes of her initiation, we basically saw everything,” he says. “Whale sharks, rays, you name it. It was as if they had called each other and arranged it. There are people who dive all their lives who don’t see this much. It gave me goosebumps. It is one of my top three dives out of thousands.” Thousands of dives may sound like a lot for a non-professional diver, but it is no figure of speech.
“I have never met a recreational diver who has done so many dives,” says Alexis Vincent, who was there for that epic initiation dive and hundreds more from the Caribbean to Palau. He met Laliberté in the Maldives in the early 2000s when he was a dive instructor at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island hotel and remembers that first encounter well. “One night I get a call from the GM. He says, ‘There is a fellow Canadian at the bar; he is a diver and he is with Cirque de Soleil and he’d like to meet you.’”
Vincent had no idea who Guy Laliberté was. “We weren’t Googling back then,” he says. “So I go to the bar. He is a pretty casual guy. We sit down, have a few beers and chit-chat about the Maldives. We had a lot in common. After a while I looked at him and said, ‘So, what do you do in Cirque du Soleil?’ He looked stunned.” Even when he introduced himself as the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil – by then a global phenomenon with tickets sales reaching a billion dollars, Vincent says he did not realise the scope. “I never had to walk on eggshells. The relationship started on a very even keel,” says Vincent, who Laliberté inspired to start Dive Butler International. Laliberté is a big believer in the importance of the human tribe. “For him, diving and the boat are vehicles to connectivity, love and respect,” Vincent says.
Laliberté learned how to scuba dive when he was 14. “It was also a way for me to see the world,” he says. Travel was an end goal early in his life.
Like most kids, he liked to watch television, especially as it morphed into a more vivid window into the world beyond his native Quebec. “I grew up at the time when we went from black-and-white TV to colour TV,” he says. The first colour documentaries, whether about animals, the sea or faraway civilizations, planted the seed of travel. “It drove the rest of my life,” he says. He daydreamed of travelling by any means possible but especially on sailing boats and spaceships.
When he could no longer ignore the lure of the world, he left home with his father’s accordion as a means to support himself. After an itinerant life through Europe, he came back to Quebec and attempted a mainstream job, but eventually decided to stick with his art. In 1984, at the age of 24, in part thanks to a public grant, he started Cirque de Soleil with a couple of friends. Three years later, he took the show to California to take part in the Los Angeles Arts Festival. “He exuded such confidence, man, woman or mule would fall for Guy Laliberté,” said Thomas Schumacher, the former associate director of the Los Angeles Arts Festival, in a 2011 interview with ABC. Casino owner Steve Wynn was also seduced, and in 1993 Cirque de Soleil became a permanent fixture in Las Vegas.
By the time Laliberté turned 50, he had fulfilled two of his dreams. In 2005, he bought the 54-metre Dubois-designed world cruiser Tiara and, four years later, he spent 11 days on board the International Space Station, a trip he made to help raise awareness for water conservation and his One Drop Foundation. He donned a clown nose to chat live from space with his friend Bono during a U2 concert. He once said, “Water is at the centre of every challenge the planet has to face: biodiversity, pollution, global warming, children education, health – it’s all there, and water is at the centre of it all.”
Vincent describes his friend and sometime client as a visionary. “Everything that is happening today, he forecasted,” he says, speaking of clean water shortages and plastic pollution. “Not having plastic on his boat, he implemented that 15 years ago.” Indeed, guests on Tiara will find nothing but elegant refillable glass bottles on board.
Tiara was not supposed to be Laliberté’s first boat. For three years, he worked with an architect on the plans for a 70-metre catamaran. “It was a huge project to go around the world with all the diving facilities. It was an exploration cat. I like cats because they give you a big surface where you can receive a lot of people. I could get lost in nature and also still be who I am and host a big group of people. I could also build a small theatrical stage on it,” he says.
While developing the project, he found out about Tiara, which came on the market just a year after it was launched in New Zealand. The tent on the aft deck was one of the features that attracted him, he says. “I like sailboats because I think you need to see water at eye level, it is a closer relationship.” And it felt like serendipity.
“It was in Boston, I was in Montreal, so I decided to go see it. When we went out on the sea trial with Pascal [Tiara’s captain], I realised it was 90 per cent what I would have done. I could appreciate the artwork and the intelligence behind it, and out of the 10 per cent left that I would have done differently, I could change five per cent, so I could have a sailboat right there, right now, and it would be 95 per cent of what I wanted. It was a nice compromise to save three years of construction.” He gave up a large deposit on his catamaran and bought Tiara instead. “Sometimes things present themselves to you,” he says. “When that happens you should listen, because it usually is the right thing to do; I have learned to listen in life.”
That ability to listen is why he still has Tiara today. A couple of years ago, he became absorbed in the transformation of the atoll of Nukutepipi in the Tuamotus into a self-sustainable resort and he told his children he was going to sell Tiara.
“They ganged up on me,” he says. “We were all together in Palau on a diving trip and one day they all came after dinner in my room while I was watching a movie. When they arrived all together, I said, ‘Oh, oh, it’s serious.’ Basically, they asked me not to sell it. I asked why and they said, ‘Because this is the house we can bring anywhere in the world and we grew up on it.”
Tiara, back from several years in the Pacific, had a major refit and looks as good if not better than the day she was launched in New Zealand, still under the care of her build captain and his crew. She is currently listed for sale with Y.CO.
Laliberté, meanwhile, has another bucket-list item yet to fulfil: to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda. “Although more people see the gorillas than swim with humpbacks. That is one of the rarest experiences on planet Earth – and one of the top marine encounters I’ve done in my life.”
First published in the July 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get the magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW