Steve had it all – success, celebrity and a multi-million-dollar empire built on the strength of his talent as a television personality.
Some have said that he took silly risks, while others have said that it was only a matter of time.
We could of course be talking about Steve Irwin or Steve Vizard. Both men pushed things to the limit, and both ultimately paid the price for doing so. Yet this is where the similarities end.
Proud and passionate
I’d long had my doubts about whether Irwin was the real deal. He seemed to be so manic. Running around chasing deadly wild animals with blinding enthusiasm always struck me as a little strange.
Then there was the classic khaki uniform that became his trademark as much as his catchphrase, Crikey!
Perhaps Steve Irwin was playing the role of the crocodile hunter for commercial reasons?
After all it had transformed him into a global superstar.
Yet as I dug deeper, I realised that Irwin was a passionate person who defied the temptation of spending his money on Mercedes and mansions, instead throwing the bulk of his fortune behind what he believed in.
Being a fanatical conservationist, he ploughed many millions into his beloved family business, Australia Zoo, and also bought up large tracts of land for conservation.
I’m sure Irwin wasn’t always as crazy as he came over on camera, but he was a skilled showman who knew exactly what his audience wanted – and delivered it in spades.
His most impressive skill wasn’t his ability to wrestle with huge crocodiles, but in remaining true to himself and his goals despite reaching a level of fame and fortune that few of us will ever experience.
Next week we will bid farewell to the Crocodile Hunter in a public memorial and Irwin is sure to be remembered as a much-loved larrikin.
Moreover he will be remembered for his passion, which was evident simply by looking into his eyes – he had something he wanted to achieve and he wanted to share it with the world.
Dishonest and deceitful
Contrast this with Steve Vizard, who has learnt to greet the waiting media scrum with a plastered-on fake smile. Being the consummate showman, Vizard understands that a picture paints a thousand words.
While most newspaper readers look at the pictures, not everyone will read the text, which is fortunate for Steve – unlike Irwin, the further you dig the seedier things seem to get for Vizard.
The web started to untangle for Vizard some six years ago, when his financial advisers claimed that his bookkeeper Ray Hilliard had siphoned off close to $3 million from Vizard’s Westpac accounts by drawing unauthorised cheques to fund an extravagant lifestyle.
Westpac agreed to reimburse Vizard the money so long as he fully co-operated while they tried to recover the money.
Now if you’re going to rip off your employer for a few million, chances are someone will notice at some stage – if for no other reason than that someone who was earning between $45,000 and $60,000 now seems to be living a millionaire playboy lifestyle flying around the world first-class.
Hilliard, however, was more than willing to shed some light on Steve’s fancy financial footwork, which played a contributing factor in Vizard being fined $390,000 and banned from being a company director for 10 years for illegal share trading last year.
Now Westpac Bank’s case against Hilliard is playing out in court and Steve has to come good on his promise to fully co-operate with proceedings.
Hilliard is still paying out on his former boss, alleging he investigated offshore trusts, shredded sensitive documents, used secret money stashes to avoid tax, and had pieces of art that were registered as gallery items (and claimed as charity) that were in fact hung on his home walls.
Vizard has previously denied insider trading under oath, and is now in the sticky predicament of avoiding answering questions on his financial dealings for fear of self-incrimination – yet the court of public opinion may have already passed down its judgment.
The sad part of both of these situations is that neither man needed to take extreme risks.
While it’s clear that Irwin was motivated by a love of what he did, the same can’t be said for Vizard.
Having sold his company, Artist Services, for a reported $25 million, there was no reason to cut corners.
Both men worked hard at creating a public persona that best served their interests.
Irwin was half nutty professor and half Crocodile Dundee.
Vizard played the role of savvy businessman turned social benefactor, actively sitting on high-profile public boards, setting up charities, and displaying his generosity (and wealth) through his art dealings.
The difference between the two was that Irwin actually believed in what he was doing – and to some degree we all felt it.
That’s why Steve Irwin will be remembered as a genuine character and Vizard probably won’t.
Tread your own path!