Was Celine Taking Chances?

Celine Dion couldn’t have known she really was "Taking Chances" when she agreed to do a nine-date South African tour that has since turned chaotic and looks likely to leave a big financial mess.

At press time the record-breaking run that’s believed to be worth US$11.2 million to the artist and has the potential to sell more than 325,000 tickets across Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth – where it was due on February 27 – looked to be limping toward its final shows at Johannesburg Monte Casino on February 29 and March 1.

It was in trouble long before the Canadian singing star arrived in Johannesburg for the opening show at the Coca-Cola Dome February 12.

Promoter Duncan Heafield of Kusasa was already being chased by fellow South African promoter Hazel Feldman for a debt believed to be in the region of US$2 million. And she was by no means the only creditor.

"He’s bringing the whole South African live music business into disrepute. Who is going to want to come here when they see a mess like this?" she told Pollstar February 26, hours after the High Court in Pretoria had given Heafield until 4 p.m. local time to come up with the money in full.

By deadline time Feldman had received three-fourths of the outstanding sum but was reluctant to enforce judicial management for the remainder, preferring to wait and see if the balance would be forthcoming. She was relieved to see it show up the next morning.

She’s been chasing her money for months, having originally agreed to work on the production and invest in the Dion shows. She pulled out of the deal over a contractual dispute. Heafield acknowledged that he was legally obliged to refund her investment but failed to make the payments that he’d agreed.

"All I can say is that he and I don’t work the same way," Feldman explained, although others in the country’s live music business look to have experienced similar problems.

Gerry Hayes from Computicket, the country’s major ticket-seller, said his company has outstanding legal action against Heafield because he reneged on an exclusive ticketing deal for his shows by setting up a company [Ticket Connection] and using it to sell his tickets.

Two years ago, Attie van Wyk of Big Concerts used his lawyers to get US$250,000 out of Heafield and a company he had called 3CAfrica. He approached van Wyk and offered his services as a sponsorship broker. He arranged some commercial funding for a couple of Big Concerts’ dance events, principally through telecom provider Vodacom, but then passed on only half of the sponsorship money.

Van Wyk said he’s pleased he won the day, although the pleasure is somewhat diluted by the legal costs.

Steve Haag from Durban, who has a limousine company called Entertainment UK and runs the hospitality suite at Durban ABSA, refused Heafield’s invitation to work on the Dion tour because it took him so long to get his money for last year’s Westlife dates.

"Where it goes wrong is that he has to use different inexperienced people in each town because he hasn’t paid the people he used last time. I run the Coyote Super Suite at ABSA Stadium and had to let him use my liquor license [for the February 20 show] because he hadn’t applied for one.

"They should license South African promoters and make sure he doesn’t get one," he added.

"Mr. Heafield and I don’t sit around the same campfire," said Dian Bekker of MainEvent Catering, who said his company has brought a successful action against the promoter for unpaid fees on an Altech Grandprix Masters at Johannesburg’s Kyalami Racetrack and another against Kusasa for money owed from last year’s Westlife tour.

"We had to bring the Altech action against Heafield because he hired us and paid with a personal check, but it either bounced or he canceled it," Bekker said. The two actions are for fees amounting to about Rand 1.6 million (US$213,518).

Ivan Gray from Executive Bodyguards told Pollstar that he’s just secured a Rand 150,000 judgment against the promoter for unpaid fees. His son, South African singer Warren Gray, has secured a similar judgment because he hasn’t been paid for support slots he did on Heafield shows.

Heafield is hailing the tour as a box-office success, claiming sales have topped 250,000, and says he’s "not aware of what went on in [the Pretoria] court as it has absolutely nothing to do with me."

He says the issue was between Feldman and a third party. Feldman says the third party is Ticket Connection, which paid Heafield’s debts from box office money it was holding on his behalf.

Before Dion arrived in the country she told the South African Sunday Times she would be "honoured to meet Mr. Nelson Mandela" and that she’d heard "so much about Table Mountain, that it’s probably the most beautiful mountain in the world."

The dream might have seemed more like a nightmare by the time the tour reached the Vergelegen Estate in Cape Town (February 23-24), two shows that caused an avalanche of complaints to the hellopeter.com online customer service site.

Some fans took hours to get to the vineyard site and into the show and complained about "traffic congestion," the "shocking prices of everything on sale" and toilet facilities that were "literally in the dark."

The Vergelegen Estate was so appalled by the shambles at the first show that it posted a note on celinedion.co.za Web site saying, "Vergelegen provided the venue, but did not organise the concert" and that "concert organiser Kusasa has taken full responsibility for the problems."

Cape Town regional papers carried reports saying "total chaos reigned" and quoted Searle Johannes of Cape Town Traffic Management saying the traffic jam was because of poor planning by the organisers.

The Cape Argus ran a story saying its offices had been "inundated with SMSes, e-mails and telephone calls from fans complaining about the event."

It reported how Gary Christy of Standard Bank felt he’d wasted more than Rand 55,000 (US$7,330) – for R868 tickets and R330 picnic hampers – by inviting 30 businessmen to the concert. He said he’s asked Kusasa for a full refund and was waiting to hear back.

The News 24 Web site listed 10 problems with the show, including no signage, no info centre, no lighting in the parking areas, limited security, hay bales used to mark the line between the cheap and expensive seats, no toilets outside – although some people waited for hours because the gates were late opening – and taking products that suppliers had sold them and marking them up by 200 percent before re-selling them to the public.

Barry Garber from Montreal-based International Management Consultants, who was once Dion’s agent and arranged the South African dates with Heafield, told Pollstar the media is being unfair to judge the whole tour on one show.

"They’re all referring to the Saturday night show in the vineyards. I was there and the problem was due to lack of police and traffic control," he explained.

After South Africa, Dion’s world tour was due to move on to Dubai Rugby Club, United Arab Emirates (March 5), followed by shows in Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, Europe and the U.S.