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High-wire Artist Philippe Petit Elevates Celebrity Branding to a New Level

“It was a moment of elation. I’d been waiting for six and a half years. I’d worked hard, waited so long and rehearsed it in my head, so I was impatient.” That’s how tightrope performer Philippe Petit described his experience when he first ventured out onto the wire that extended between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC) in August 1974. He traversed the span between the towers for 45 minutes, making spellbinding history that’s never been repeated.

Petit was speaking outside at the Bryant Park Reading Series in New York on Wednesday about his latest book, Why Knot?: How to Make More Than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Lifesaving and Secure Knots. True to form, he turned the session into a lively performance, complete with magic tricks. He imparted his knotting knowledge to audience members and enlisted their help with demonstrations.

Petit has personified his brand since the age of five when he taught himself the art of tightrope walking. He said it was “a way to escape authority”. Starting in the 1970s, the Frenchman set his sights on world renowned landmarks, including the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, and the pylons of Australia’s Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Petit’s gravity-defying promenade across the World Trade Center towers was his biggest “coup”. In order to gain access to the site, he pretended to be a journalist at an architectural magazine. After his widely publicized risky stunt and subsequent arrest, (charges were later dropped), he gained worldwide fame. He was even feted at WTC’s Windows on the World restaurant, (on the same evening as this PRNewser contributor was celebrating a birthday!)

Since then, Petit has completed several other high-wire performance walks and climbs. Not only have local authorities excused his disruptive acts, but the same places he’s targeted now roll out the red carpet. Recently he said the Statue of Liberty “granted him special permission to climb, and then rappel down afterwards.”

In the process, Petit has become a renaissance man, one who’s adept at storytelling, charming and entertaining his audiences. Many musicians have paid tribute to his WTC feat in their songs. As a longtime artist-in-residence of NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, he gives lectures on creativity and motivation. The cathedral provided the perfect setting for a screening of the Academy Award-winning 2008 documentary film, Man on Wire. Ironically, the movie, based on his book, also showed his difficulty navigating long-term personal relationships.

Petit has written several books about his high-wire adventures that embody his unique craft. He even illustrated his latest, Why Knot?, with his own sketches and drawings, and a thin red rope appears in the cover for readers to practice. As he noted, “there is a surprise in every chapter”, as well as simple advice: “One knot is better if it’s the right knot”. Naturally, the book arrived at the right time for Father’s Day, graduations and sailing season, but then again, why not?

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