The world’s most famous dog whisperer, Cesar Millan, walks into a function room in Temasek Club, Singapore, his burnished complexion setting off his pepper-and-salt hair and gleaming white teeth.
Short but sturdily built, Millan is snazzily dressed in a tight olive polo T-shirt, white jeans and metallic silver sneakers.
His swagger is tempered by a charming affability and openness, a quality common in folks who have scaled dizzy heights as well as hit rock bottom.
Born into a poor family in Mexico, the 47-year-old entered the United States illegally when he was 21 and went on to become a dog behaviourist extraordinaire, with his own globally syndicated TV series Dog Whisperer and several books.
But success brought more than just fame and wealth; it also weighed him down with pressures, both internal and external. It came to a head in 2010 when he felt so lost, betrayed and barren that he tried to kill himself by swallowing a cocktail of pills.
He woke up three days later in a hospital’s psychiatric ward.
“If you recover, you become very clear about things. It doesn’t happen to a lot of people but I was glad I could get back my passion, my focus and my leadership skills,” explains Millan who was in Singapore recently.
Until he was five, Millan, the second of five children, lived on a village farm in Sinaloa in north-western Mexico. His father was a farmer turned photographer; his mother, a seamstress.
“When I was small, my family walked cattle for the wealthy landowners in the village. So my grandfather always had a pack of dogs.
“My grandfather, father and I would take the cattle to eat grass and drink water, and then lead them back to the pens.”
From his grandfather, he inherited a unique way with dogs – one which led to him being nicknamed El Perrero or “the dog boy”.
Books did not interest Millan but animals did. “I couldn’t live without them, I had to be around them,” says the amiable man who often brought strays home.
By the time he was 13, he knew he wanted to go to the United States, learn to become a dog trainer and come back to open his own dog-training facility.
After finishing high school, he spent a few years working at different jobs.When he turned 21, Millan’s father gave him his life savings. He tucked the money into his shoes and hightailed it to Tijuana where he tried to find, over two weeks, the best way to cross the border.
“It was dangerous. I was 21, had never been outside my state and there I was in another state about to do something illegal.
“Tijuana was controlled by drug cartels. If you were not careful, you could end up having your organs sold,” he says.
One day, a coyote – or people smuggler – told him he could get him into the United States.
The journey was dangerous.
“We walked, crawled, went into water, hid in tunnels, ran against traffic on the freeway. It took us eight hours,” he says.
Once in the United States, the coyote paid a taxi driver who drove Millan and dropped him off at a bus stop in San Diego.
That night and for the next two months, he slept on a piece of cardboard under a freeway, together with other illegals and homeless Americans.
No job was beneath him: He worked in kitchens, mowed lawns and washed cars.
One day, he entered a pet grooming salon and mouthed the only English sentence he knew to the two Caucasian women inside: “Do you have any application for work?”
Although he did not understand their replies, he soon made out they needed help grooming an aggressive cocker spaniel.
He proved to be so indispensable that the two women even gave him the keys to the premises when they knew he was homeless.
“I took my first proper shower there in a bathtub which I used to shower the dogs,” he recalls with a grin.
Within a few weeks, he had saved enough to buy himself new clothes, new shoes and a Greyhound bus ticket to Los Angeles.
There, he started making cold calls and knocking on doors to offer dog-walking services.
Soon he became known as “the Mexican guy who could walk 30 dogs with no trouble”.
As word of mouth grew, basketball and football players started seeking his services.
So did Hollywood celebrities such as Vin Diesel, Nicolas Cage and Salma Hayek, as well as Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who later hired him an English teacher.
A journalist from Los Angeles Times newspaper trailed him for three days, and wrote a feature on his winning ways with canines.
“She said, ‘Hollywood loves you. You have people coming from England to see you. What would you like to do next?’
“I said, ‘Well, I would like to have a TV show.’”
The day after the article was published, he had a line of TV producers banging down his door.
Millan knew exactly how he wanted Dog Whisperer to be. His key message is: Dogs are pack animals and need a calm assertive leader. To turn them into balanced animals, they need exercise, discipline and affection, in that order.
Dog Whisperer premiered in September 2004 on the National Geographic channel. It was syndicated to more than 80 countries, attracting audiences in the tens of millions.
But fame was disorienting.
“People were suddenly pandering to you, treating you in a way you’ve never been treated before,” he says .
For a while, it got to his head but his dogs brought him back to earth. “In the world of animals, fame and wealth and power do not exist. When your feet are not on the ground, your dogs won’t listen to you. Their reactions told me I was in trouble,” he says.
His career soared. But just when all seemed hunky-dory, things came crashing in 2010. His beloved sidekick Daddy – an American pit bull terrier – died. His wife Ilusion filed for divorce. And although he naively believed that Dog Whisperer was his, he found out that the production company owned all the rights.
“It was shocking, but it happens to a lot of artists. We sign a lot of things but we don’t know what we are signing ... I felt I had no worth.”
“When you feel like a failure, you just go into this spiral,” he says. He reasoned there must be a reason why he was still alive after his suicide attempt.
So he went back to work, and swore to live by a new maxim: ownership, control and leadership.
A new woman, Jahira Dar, came into his life. He developed other TV series including Cesar 911, Leader Of The Pack and Dog Nation, which he co-hosts with his elder son Andre, 22. He has also worked with younger son Calvin, 16, on another series, Mutt & Stuff, for Nickelodeon. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Wong Kim Hoh