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Film, Motor Sports & Philanthropy  |  Paris


Jean Todt and Michelle Yeoh ARE one of the most inspiring couples that we've ever met. While they both are extremely successful in their respective careers, we also discovered a warm and caring couple who is dedicated to lending their vast range of talents to positively impact the world. 


He is one of the most respected figures in the international world of motor sports and she is a world-renowned actress and Malaysian icon. Together, Jean Todt and Michelle Yeoh are a seriously high achieving couple who traverse the globe in support of a wide range of social, health and conservation-related causes. Meet the warm, loving and refreshingly humble global couple who is changing the world one step at a time.

RV: Mr. Todt, in the 1980s, you were the Director of Peugeot Talbot Sport, and from 1993 to 2007, the GM of the legendary Scuderia Ferrari. You have a long list of achievements in the motor sports arena, including fourteen Formula One World Championships with Ferrari alone. Can you tell us more about these years?
JT: When I joined Peugeot in 1981, nothing really existed at that time in terms of motor racing. In a way, I created it from scratch. I was the founder of motor sport activities for Peugeot and then for Citroen. When I joined Ferrari, it was different, because it was already an iconic brand that was like an old castle which was in need of renovation. Given that I was French and without Formula One experience at the time, to become head of Scuderia Ferrari was a huge deal. Ferrari and Formula One in Italy is something very special because it's part of the culture of any Italian.

MY: I think Jean is one of the most hard-working people I've ever met in my entire life. He will never leave anything unfinished. He will relentlessly do every single thing, talk to every single person; he will cross off everything on his list before he goes to sleep. That means he doesn't sleep very much. He's very devoted and so dedicated.

RV: Ms. Yeoh, you are the most emblematic Malaysian actress in the world. As a young girl, you initially wanted to be a ballerina, but then went on to become a famous actress, starring in legendary movies such as James Bond and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. How did you first come to be involved in the film world?
MY: I think it's all fate and destiny, isn't it? As a child, I always wanted to be a ballerina and have my own ballet school in Malaysia, but then I was presented with other opportunities. I was given the chance to go to Hong Kong and be involved in the film world, which was something that I hadn’t planned. I've always been very adventurous though, and when you're presented with a good opportunity, I've always said, "Why not?" You can try it, and if you don't like it, you can do something else. Obviously, I really enjoyed being in the film world; I stayed on, and here I am today. I've had the privilege of working with some of the most incredible artists. I've had the honour of working both behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera. I’ve had the privilege of stepping into the shoes of some of the most incredible characters, whether it was in James Bond, Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Lady, and being an astronaut in Sunshine. I hope that the list will continue to go on and that I'll have the opportunity to do even more. I think Jean and I will always work until we come to a point where we decide that it's not that much fun anymore. Then we'll see.

JT: A few years ago, Michelle was passionate about a new film project called, The Lady, which was about Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous Burmese politician who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. She was thinking about who could be a director for the project and I thought about Luc Besson. I remember waking up one morning – it was in mid-2009 – and I called Luc. Half an hour later, he came with his scooter and made the project happen with Michelle. I saw Michelle preparing herself for the role of Aung San Suu Kyi for about two years. She read so much about the character and she started to learn Burmese, to play the piano, and to lose weight for the role. It's one of Michelle's movies that I'm the most proud of.

RV: Mr. Todt, since becoming the President of the FIA, you have been promoting the importance of road safety internationally. Why is this cause so important to you?
JT: Formula One is now only around 10 percent of my overall focus, although I still follow the Grand Prix of course. As one of our main priorities, we are focusing on the development of motor sports as a whole and on social matters such as improving overall road safety. Road accidents are one of the worst scourges of society and we want to create a great deal of awareness about it. In fact, Michelle is also very supportive of the cause as she is one of FIA's Global Ambassadors. Only recently, we were in Washington to create awareness for this issue in association with Safe Kids Life, the World Bank, IDB, Red Cross and the UN. We want to bring road safety to the highest level of awareness, to a similar level as causes such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Did you know that every year, there are 1.3 million deaths on the roads and 50 million people who are injured? On average, 500 children die every day on roads, which means that one child dies every three minutes. We need to shout to address this problem. We are also involved with other causes too, which makes our lives quite busy.

RV: What was the initial idea behind the ICM initiative and how did it come to fruition?
JT: The ICM (Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière) is the Brain and Spinal Cord Institute in Paris. My father was a doctor so I've been educated in this environment. Since I've been involved in motor racing, I've unfortunately witnessed many accidents. I’ve been fortunate to know Doctor Gérard Saillant who is a famous orthopedic surgeon, for over 35 years. We became very close friends and he’s one of the most reliable and dedicated people I know. When you've had some success in your life, you wonder how can you give something back. After speaking with him, I initially thought that we could initiate an orthopedic center together. He introduced me to two of his colleagues, Professor Yves Agid and Professor Olivier Lyon-Caen, who were the heads of the neurological department at La Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, and that’s how it started. I then built a dream team of people I knew who were very successful in their fields. Then we were supported by amazing people who believed in the project, such as Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, who gave us a substantial amount of money to start the project at the beginning. It's very unique, as it receives half-private and half-public funding. Located in the heart of the biggest hospital in Paris, La Pitié-Salpêtrière, there are 600 researchers based in a 25,000m2 facility who are working together on brain and spinal cord research. Hopefully the institute will contribute to understanding much more about the brain. 

MY: The ICM is truly a remarkable place where an incredible team of people got together and decided to make it a reality, instead of just a dream. With regard to Jean and I, we find causes that we support as a couple so that we can work together. When we are out there promoting or shining a spotlight on the problems that are being faced, we hope that people will sit up and listen. What we do for a living is completely different. Whereas Jean has always been in the motor sports arena, I have been in the world of fantasy – it's very different. But when we are together, we find things that we both enjoy so that while we are separate, we are also “one” at the same time, which is very important to us. 

RV: Ms. Yeoh, you also support many conservation, social, health and other charitable causes. Can you tell us more about this?
MY: I actually choose my topics very carefully. When I assist with the Action for Road Safety initiative, I do it very closely with the FIA Foundation. With regard to my work with the amfAR organisation and Cinema Against AIDS, we have a group of very good friends who work tirelessly for the cause. When I do conservation work – whether in support of orangutans in East Malaysia, the rhinoceros, or the tigers – I work with very specific NGOs who are on the ground and working 24-7. I step in when they have very specific projects where I can help by creating awareness so that people understand what we are trying to do and how to address the problem. For example, Jean and I were just in Cambodia to support road safety, where we launched the “Safe Head, Helmet On” campaign for motorcyclists. We lobbied for many years about this, and they finally passed a law in support of this. It's now mandatory for passengers to wear helmets too.

RV: As global nomads, it sounds like you both travelling very often for your work and philanthropy projects ...
MY: Since Jean's schedule is very fixed, we tend to know exactly what his plans are at the beginning of the year. My schedule is a bit more up in the air, depending upon what my film schedule looks like. 2014 was a particularly hectic year for me as I filmed a TV series and a movie in Europe, Asia and New Zealand. Jean will always drop by or make a detour to come and see me though whenever he is travelling.

JT: When I met Michelle almost 11 years ago, I didn’t even know how to send an SMS. I'm not a technology expert at all. However, thanks to Michael Schumacher, who taught me how to send an SMS, I can now communicate with Michelle when we’re apart. We speak every day – multiple times a day actually – so we never lose track of each other for more than a couple of hours at a time if we're apart.

MY: We always know that we're in each other's thoughts and we want to share what we're doing each day. Even if it's just sending a few words or just a quick phone call. But we always speak on average five or six times a day!

RV: I'd like to ask to both of you, who are some of the people whom you've met throughout your life who really made a major impact upon you?
JT: We are very lucky because we have very close friends in different parts of the world who we can rely on, and they can rely on us. We are very blessed to have met fantastic people, from well-known people, to not-so-well-known artists, doctors, etc. If you ask me who are the most important people in my life, I would answer Michelle and my son Nicolas. There is no doubt about that. Obviously, another very special person is Michael Schumacher, as he is a fantastic person, an amazing champion and we all know that he's been fighting now for almost one year. He's been so close to Michelle and I since we first met: he loves us, and we love him and his family. We also spoke of Doctor Gérard Saillant before, who is also a wonderful person...

MY: Jean, there is one person I'd really love you to meet very soon is Aung San Suu Kyi. Also, every time you walk into a movie set, you learn from not just the director but also from your cast, the people who are involved in the movie – whether it's the writer or a young novice actor. I think that's the beauty of my job, that it's not a job anymore. It's just like going to school and having a lot of fun all the time! In terms of directors and actors, I've had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing people. In what we do, it's not just the one person who makes the difference, it's the whole team of people working together.

RV: Based on your life and career experiences so far, what would be the main advice that you would impart to the next generation?
JT: If you build something, you must be ambitious. Be committed. Bring on board the best people you can find. Be a good leader. In any case, this is what I'm trying to achieve now in my position as President of the FIA. I would also say that it's important to be humble, even if you are, or have been, successful. Also, always give consideration and compassion to any human being, whoever they are.

MY: I would also add that in regards to success, it's always hard work. I don't think it's just luck on its own. I think that if you want to be lucky, then you have to work harder. Have drive, have ambition, but like Jean said, always have humility and compassion. It's about being a good person. It's not just about winning; it's about learning the lesson. It's about the journey rather than just the result. I think that at the end of the day, it's really about loving what you do because if you don't, then it won't become a passion; it will just become a chore. 

Interview: Enrique Nalda & Kimberley McLoughlin
Photography: R. Mahaux

Interview first published in RedVisitor Magazine: Issue Two - Purchase Now

M O R E   I N T E R V I E W S  . . .