MEDIA

HARK-THE KNIGHT IS FALLING!

Sir Richard Branson drops into Toronto to unveil a new music fest

LIANNE GEORGE July 24 2006
MEDIA

HARK-THE KNIGHT IS FALLING!

Sir Richard Branson drops into Toronto to unveil a new music fest

LIANNE GEORGE July 24 2006

HARK-THE KNIGHT IS FALLING!

Sir Richard Branson drops into Toronto to unveil a new music fest

MEDIA

LIANNE GEORGE

There are upsides and downsides to being your own brand mascot. Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire and Virgin Group founder, knows them all. On the one hand, Sir Richard—a dapper corporate action hero with a roguish smile and an implausible mane of feathery, sun-bleached hair—loves adventure. (“Screw it, let’s do it!” is his personal motto.) So wherever a Virgin product or service is being launched, there he is, strapped to a parachute or a jetpack, riding in a monster truck or a tank. On the other hand, as he inches into his late 50s, the stunt work can get tiring. “I used to plan my own stunts,” he said on a recent visit to Toronto. “But now I find I’m sort of like, ‘Where am I going tomorrow?’ And they’ll say, ‘Toronto, Richard. And there’s a waiver here. You’ve got to sign away your life.’ ”

Moments later, in the rear of Virgin Mobile Canada’s red-and-black party bus, Branson, in jeans and a black Virgin T-shirt, signed away his life, claiming full responsibility for the death-defying act he was about to perform. (“I’ll have the airline,” joked one member of his team. “I’ll take the space station!” said another.) Branson was en route to the Docks, an entertainment complex overlooking Lake Ontario, to announce Virgin Festival Canada, a two-day music event to take place at Toronto Island Park in early September.

He had flown in earlier that morning from Washington, where he’d delivered the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer—the first plane to be flown solo, non-stop, around the world—to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. “It was lovely to see it hanging there next to the Concorde,” he said. Before that, he’d set the record for the world’s longest zip-wire slide, starting on the roof of the highest building injohannesburg and landing in the midst of a Virgin press conference in the parking lot below. Prior to that, he was in Cape Town, shooting 30,000 feet straight up into the sky in a Lightning fighter jet in only 100 seconds.

The idea was to illustrate to cellphone users that every second counts. “With other companies,” he says, “if you go two seconds over a minute, you’re charged for a full minute.” Branson has transformed the promotional stunt into an art form. He holds world records for hot-air ballooning and cross-Atlantic powerboat racing. To date he has never been seriously injured. (Once, he did have a close call on a mouth-controlled flying bicycle. A week later, the inventor died testing the contraption.) When Virgin Galactic Airways

launches in 2008, he will be its first astro tourist. Adventure is in his blood, he says. His ancestor, the Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Scott, was the second voyager to get to the South Pole. And Branson notes that his grandmother, at 89, became the oldest woman in Britain to pass the advanced Latin American ballroom dancing exam.

On this morning in Toronto, Branson was to rappel 75 feet from a helicopter into a reception room below, through a narrow opening in the glass ceiling. It was a windy day. Outside, a team of local stunt experts led by Shelley Cook, a petite blond in her early 40s, briefed the billionaire. Cook has choreographed stunts for dozens of movies, including Exit Wo unds and Resident Evil. “You name it,” she said. “I’ve blown it up, turned it over, smashed it, dumped it. I’m one of the female pioneers in this country.” She led the group to a makeshift helipad, a strip of concrete near the water, where she began a quick primer. She strapped Branson into a harness. “Do I look foolish?” he asked no one in particular. Here’s how you’ll slide out onto the skids, she told him. Here’s how you’ll brake. (“Right hand under bum—copy,” he said. “Being dyslexic, I always do the wrong thing.”) And here’s how you’ll avoid smashing your head when you jump. “Lovely. I’m ready. Fun,” he said.

At 10:30 a.m., the stunt was moved up by 15 minutes because of a storm brewing at Pearson Airport. Inside, the journalists, cameramen, and stunt technicians stared at the ceiling in anticipation. Finally, the helicopter loomed overhead, filling the room with noise and gusts of wind. Something fell out of the sky and hit the ground with a loud thud. It was not Branson, but a weight attached to a rope. Then, in a blink, Branson descended the rope, unhooked himself, jumped clear and gave a quick thumbs-up. The journalists applauded half-heartedly, the photographers clicked, and Branson moved to the podium, where the president and CEO of Virgin Mobile Canada thanked him for “dropping in.”

Later, Cook said she was relieved the stunt went so well, given the minimal preparation time she’d been allotted. “My team was great, and Richard did a wonderful job,” she said, “but it was one of the most stressful bloody days. You don’t want to jeopardize a 30-year career because some bigwig wants to come in and slide down a rope out of a helicopter.” M