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Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte, owner of Cirque du Soleil and now Canada's first space tourist. ((Sergei Remezov/Reuters))

Who is he?

Often credited with reinventing the circus for modern audiences, Guy Laliberté was born in Quebec City in 1959. As a young man, he decided to pursue a career as an entertainer. After dropping out of college, he supplemented his skills as an accordionist by studying with street artists and buskers in Quebec and in Europe, picking up such talents as fire-eating, juggling and stilt-walking.

While performing with a troupe of talented but rag-tag street performers in Baie-Saint-Paul in 1984, the confident, entrepreneurial Laliberté convinced the Quebec government to fund a series of shows to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's arrival in Canada. His newly named Cirque du Soleil incorporated the excitement, theatricality and intimacy of busking with the acrobatics, artistry and drama of the circus, doing away with animals and the divided three-ring setting. His musical mélange proved a winning formula.

Building on accolades received across Canada, in 1987, Laliberté gambled on securing the prominent but expensive first-night slot at the Los Angeles Arts Festival. It was a smash and paved the way for a sold-out run in L.A., a movie deal, a special theatrical award and widespread critical praise.

Other sold-out tours followed, and in 1993, Laliberté realized another element of his bold and expansive vision: permanent circus venues. Though most are located in Las Vegas, as of 2009, Cirque du Soleil has 10 "resident" shows in venues around the world, in addition to eight currently touring internationally.

Since its humble beginnings in 1984, close to 90 million people have taken in a Cirque show. Laliberté now employs more than 4,000 people on five continents, and his company has turned its headquarters of Montreal into a circus arts hub.

A well-known poker fan, Laliberté has long been a high-stakes player, from scoring that first $1.5 million contract from the Quebec government to draining the Cirque's savings to secure the 1987 Los Angeles Festival gig to, most recently, spending $35 million to be Canada's first space tourist. 2009 marks Cirque du Soleil's 25th anniversary; it's also the year Laliberté turned 50. A father of five, Laliberté is currently engaged to former model Claudia Barilla.

Honours

Cirque has grown to become one of the world's most successful entertainment empires and one of Canada's best-known exports. In the process, Laliberté has amassed a slew of honours, both cultural and financial.

He has won honorary degrees from schools and prestigious distinctions from the Quebec and Canadian governments, including the Ordre National du Québec and the Order of Canada. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of its 100 most influential people in the world. In 2007, he won all three levels of Ernst & Young's entrepreneur of the year award (for Quebec, Canada and internationally).

Laliberté's personal worth is estimated at more than $2 billion.

Interests outside the big top

Throughout its remarkable existence, the Cirque du Soleil has been involved in philanthropy. It supports the anti-poverty organization Oxfam, as well as charities raising funds to help at-risk youth and the homeless. One per cent of Cirque's box-office earnings goes to social causes.

Laliberté is using his current space trip to promote the One Drop Foundation, the anti-poverty charity he formed in 2007. Its aim is to provide everyone on the planet with sustainable access to safe drinking water. During his extra-terrestrial sojourn, Laliberté will serve as ringmaster for a global appeal for drinking-water awareness. On Oct. 9, the One Drop website will broadcast Moving Stars and Earth for Water, a global charity event featuring David Suzuki, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, musical acts U2, Shakira and Peter Gabriel and a specially commissioned story from Booker Prize-winning Canadian novelist Yann Martel.