Temple House, Miami Beach, June 7, 2021
Christopher LaVoie pushes through a sea of contestants on the set of what he bills “the most important television show ever.” He’s moving fast, a short, compact man wearing dark sunglasses and a black baseball cap pulled low.
“Make way for the producer,” someone yells. Bodyguards clear a path and a camera crew struggles to keep up. Climbing stairs to a balcony in a stately old Miami home, LaVoie delivers an astonishing message to a crowd of socially minded CEOs and entrepreneurs who have each paid $25,000 to $50,000 (U.S.) to be on a reality TV show.
“We’ve got four days to save the world!” LaVoie tells them, leaning over a glass railing. Shouts of “Yay!” and “Whoa!” erupt from the floor below.
Music blasts, the place is humming with the electricity of a shared purpose. Roughly 250 Canadians, Americans and Europeans paid to take part, but not all were selected for Miami. They are a bright, well-intentioned group — CVs brim with professional accreditations and degrees, and they all have a particular interest in social responsibility.
An assistant hands LaVoie a crystal flute glass bubbling with champagne. LaVoie takes a long drink, then speaks.
“You’re all going to be on ‘4 Days to Save the World,’ ” he thunders above the music.
LaVoie explains that contestants will compete, reality TV-style, to create businesses that will help solve the world’s biggest problems. Team Hunger, Team Racism, Team Poverty, Team Cancer, Team Climate Change, Team Suicide and more, a list he says was inspired by goals set forth by the United Nations.
On camera, “high-net-worth” judges will pick the best proposal, and the winners will have an equity stake in a business LaVoie and his assistants say will be funded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon and others. The series will stream on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Hulu and Netflix. Maye Musk (Elon’s mom), NFL hall-of-famer Ray Lewis and actor Elijah Wood (Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings”) are supporters, LaVoie and his assistants have told contestants.
“It was a great vision,” says Shari Jo Watkins, who recruited dozens. Win or lose, they were told they would all grow their social media profile and, by extension, their careers.
“I’m a dude from Indiana,” says Ernie Humphrey, the CEO of a company that provides training to finance leaders across the globe. “I’m human. Who wouldn’t want to do something good and be on Netflix?”
Humphrey and others have been trying for months to get answers from LaVoie and his assistants. The main question they are asking is, will LaVoie provide a refund.
As part of the Toronto Star’s investigation, we provided LaVoie with written allegations. To date he has not answered any of the Star’s questions. Speaking generally, he has said in text messages that he is working hard to “engineer a financially viable business for the greater good” and he encouraged the Star to have a “good look at our accomplishments” over the years.
On this Monday afternoon in Miami, the contestants are bleary-eyed. They were up half the night waiting for a mysterious “Mr. Knight” to knock on their hotel room doors. Still, they are rallying because they’ve invested, financially and morally, in LaVoie’s vision.
Many have been touched deeply by the problems they are being asked to work on — some are cancer survivors, others had a family member who took his own life, many have spoken out against racism, volunteer to help the homeless or consider themselves a “climate change activist.”
Wilting from the Miami heat, they take up LaVoie’s chant. “We’re going to change the world! We’re going to change the world!”
The night before, contestants wheeling their luggage across the cool marbled floor of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach could have been forgiven for thinking the buzz in the air was about them. Boxing great Floyd Mayweather had just fought an entertaining exhibition match with YouTube sensation Logan Paul across town. The afterparty was at the Fontainebleau’s LIV Nightclub, and contestants checking in rubbed shoulders with a crush of well-heeled boxing fans.
As they picked up their room key cards, contestants were handed an envelope with a specific instruction. Go directly to your hotel room. Speak to nobody. Do not leave your room. “Wait for a visit from Mr. Knight.”
This hush-hush protocol was no surprise. In recorded briefings over Zoom, one of LaVoie’s assistants had them swear an oath vowing never to disclose details of their “classified mission.”
To prepare for naysayers among friends, family and colleagues who might think trying to save the world was an impossible task, contestants were encouraged in these briefings to think of themselves as courageous, “unrealistic dreamers” who were committed to an “extraordinary task.”
In their hotel rooms that first night, hours passed. Given what they had paid, contestants were expecting a gala welcome dinner, not a solitary evening. The cost to be on the show was $25,000 (all figures in U.S. dollars), which many had paid in instalments over the previous year. Those who paid up to $25,000 more were appointed “Team Captain” by LaVoie.
Hungry, some called room service, others risked slipping out to pick up a submarine sandwich, rushing to be back so they did not miss Mr. Knight and the instructions for tomorrow. More time passed. Eventually, a knock at a select number of doors. A glamorous, dark-haired woman announced herself as “Agent X.” She spoke in different accents at different doors — Russian and Brazilian.
“Will you accept this mission?” she asked. A camera operator in the hall recorded the moment.
Kevin Dawson, a leadership consultant from Texas, was hungry and tired and wondering what he had got himself into when a knock came on his door. Feeling ridiculous, he nevertheless played along. Dawson said, looking straight into the camera: “I will accept the mission.”
Agent X was, in reality, Isabelle Fontes, a Brazilian model who says she has worked for Lavoie for years. “I had to do that 25 times. And every single time I had to do a different delivery. Sometimes I was funny, sometimes I was like a Russian secret agent, sometimes I was Brazilian. Everyone got a different experience from me,” says Fontes, adding that LaVoie has always paid her for her work. “I have only had good experiences with Chris.”
After Fontes departed, Dawson opened his envelope. A slip of paper fell out, imprinted with the number “345,600” — the number of seconds in four days.
The sky over the Fontainebleau was still dark when Dawson woke from a brief sleep. Staff buffed floors in the grand lobby, cleaning up after the boxing fan party. By 5 a.m., as instructed, the 100 contestants on “4 Days” were up, dressed, and waiting for buses in the stiff heat outside the hotel. By 10:15 a.m. there were still no buses. Someone joked about calling Uber, but to go where?
“People were hungry and mad,” recalls Jared Yellin, CEO of 10X Incubator, a company he founded to fund startups. Yellin had been offered the deal to build two software applications for LaVoie’s show in return for getting 10 contestant spots on “4 Days” for his associates.
Monday morning’s rocky start was annoying, but most contestants figured that’s the way it goes with producing a big, complicated show. After all, this had been described to them as unique — sort of TED Talks meets “Shark Tank” or “Dragons’ Den.” At 10:30 a.m., five and a half hours after they were dressed and downstairs, the buses arrived.
As they settled into their seats in the air-conditioned coach, contestants were told they would soon be meeting “the producers,” and it would be down the road at Temple House, a beautiful art deco mansion built in 1933 and now rented out to film studios and music bands. (Pop group One Direction filmed the video for “Best Song Ever” there.) Once inside, each contestant was hustled into “hair and makeup.” Around noon a production assistant hollered at them to get ready — Chris LaVoie and the other producers were about to arrive.
A black SUV rolled down the palm-lined boulevard and stopped at Temple House. LaVoie, dressed all in black, flanked by assistants and with bodyguards making a path, swept into the hallway. Contestants, encouraged to make noise, reached for him as he passed and LaVoie gave high fives and shook hands. Inside Temple House, LaVoie climbed to the balcony and laid out his plan for the show.
It was now early Monday afternoon. When LaVoie, champagne glass in hand, announced “you have four days to do it,” one of the contestants commented wryly to the woman beside him that “we are down to three and a half.”
Arranged around the big room where contestants gathered were a series of mini photo studios, with lights and screens. Assistants directed the contestants to get their “publicity” photos taken, a process that took most of the afternoon.
LaVoie stayed up in the balcony room, drinking champagne, watching.
Mandy Morris recalls LaVoie’s arrival that day vividly. “It was grandiose,” says Morris, the founder of a life coaching business and one of the few on set in Miami who did not pay. “Chris found me on LinkedIn and asked me if I would pay $25,000 to be a part of the show. I laughed at that.”
LaVoie told her she could come for free if she used her skills to “bring emotion” out of the contestants, something she told him she was uncomfortable doing, but she would attend the show to provide support if people needed help. Then, when things began to unravel, with some contestants reliving emotional turmoil (one revealed a traumatic event he had experienced in sixth grade that prompted him to pursue a career in law), she found herself “putting out fires” day and night.
Andrew Smith, an Australian who lives in Florida and is the co-founder of Sproutly and Think Uncommon, two companies that help retailers innovate their business, was told he was assigned to Team Climate Change. It was a perfect fit, he thought, as helping retailers become green is a big part of his business. By late afternoon he had found his group, and they sat down at a table to spitball ideas. Not a huge watcher of reality TV, something nevertheless struck him as his group began to work.
“This is a television show. Where are the cameras?”
Had any of them spoken to a group of Canadians about their experience in Montreal two years earlier, they could have answered that question.
Next: Part Two — Montreal
Kevin Donovan is the Star’s chief investigative reporter based in Toronto. He can be reached at 416-312-3503 or via email: email@example.com