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sarah hampson: the interview

Emanuel Sandhu will be touring as one of the top 10 performers from So You Think You Can Dance Canada.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

"Why do I wear this heart?"

Emanuel Sandhu repeats the question as a smile plays across his mouth. The tips of his fingers flutter over a sequined red patch, cut into the shape of a heart that he has fixed to the front of his black leather jacket with double-sided tape.

He always wears a heart on the left side of his chest, he explains, and has several others, all hand-cut from different fabric swatches, which he interchanges depending on his mood.

He giggles as he leaps into a stream-of-consciousness explanation about the meaning of the heart and his artistic vision, an unchoreographed verbal spin of showy self-regard and surprising self-pity.

Mr. Sandhu, 28, is a former Olympic skater who caught the country's attention with his flamboyant presence on So You Think You Can Dance Canada , where he made it to No. 6 before being eliminated. He'll be among the top 10 dancers as they go on tour across Canada at the end of November.

On the show, it was clear he was attempting to reinvent himself after his skating career came to a jagged halt in 2007.

Mr. Sandhu also sings, acts, writes songs and models. Which one is he?

With a personality that's as loud and cheesy as a skating costume, he unabashedly documents his life of hard knocks and is quick to spout aphorisms as though convinced they hold the secret to his ascendancy. He wants the global one-name-only fame of someone like Madonna. "I would just like to have my own show and I'd like to have a world tour," he proclaims without a hint of humility.

But even when he struts his colourful persona for all to see, he is a cipher. Wherever his centre may be, it doesn't hold.

"I'm a Scorpio, so I say what I think, but at the same time I'm very shy socially," he blurts at one point, apropos of nothing. He laughs again. "It's ironic," he says, apparently pleased with his complexity.

From a young age, his career was a roller coaster ride, from promise to disappointment. He started dance lessons at the age of 3 and later entered the National Ballet School in Toronto. He loved skating, too, but the school discouraged him from doing both, he says. After graduation, he turned his attention to the rink.

He qualified for the 1998 Olympics, but the committee refused to send him to the Games because he was considered too inexperienced. He went on to the 2002 Games, only to withdraw after a knee injury. A multiple Canadian champion, he skated his best season in 2004 when he won the Grand Prix Final, upsetting reigning World Champion Evgeni Plushenko. But in 2006, on the edge of anticipated Olympic glory, he floundered, placing 13th. The next year, after more disappointing competitions, he quit.

"There was an emotional reason. There was a spiritual reason. There was a mental reason. And there was a pragmatic reason," he says. " My coach always says, 'If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.' I didn't want to seem like the kind of person that was skating with a gun in their back, simply to compete at the Olympic Games."

In the spring of 2008, during his first attempt at making it on So You Think You Can Dance Canada , he failed to get into the top 20. "I almost feel that you have to suffer as an artist to do anything, you know?" he says, leaning forward in his chair, his lean face a mask of perplexed yearning.

Last summer, "I was feeling my most tortured and my most creative," he says, picking up the story about why he wears the sparkly heart. "I was thinking, 'What am I going to do with my life?'"

As he was cutting up a pair of jeans into shorts - because he had no money to buy clothes, he explains - a piece of fabric fell from his scissors that was in the rough shape of a heart.

"It was a bit of a sign to me," he says with a shrug. "Since I was young, when I doodle, like unconsciously, I draw, like, hearts. Maybe it was because I always felt that I needed to be loved." He wanted to get a tattoo on his chest of a zipper partially undone to show a red heart, but he couldn't afford it. The heart reminds him that "when you are on stage, if you can really be honest with yourself and honest with your performance, that's the most powerful thing."

He then launches into a tale about his unhappy childhood in the Toronto area as the eldest of three boys, whose Sikh father and Italian mother fought until they divorced just before he turned 14. The children slept on the floor, he volunteers. The first time he had his own bed was when he moved to Vancouver at 18 to work with skating coach Joanne McLeod.

He is philosophical about the disappointments of his skating career. "I think life has its ups and downs, and whether you're a figure skater or an accountant or a dancer, there are going to be disappointments. It's not about how you handle your successes - that's part of it - but it's how you handle your disappointments or low points that's really important.

"I kind of look at it as a positive thing. If people really weren't that interested in me as a skater then why would they care so much?"

Now, as he attempts a personal reinvention, he prefers to define himself as a "performance artist" because it can include all his various interests. He loved participating on So You Think You Can Dance Canada and feels that it will help launch his dancing career even though he didn't make it to the top. "My goals and dreams grew as each week came," he says of the contest. "Each time I had a new dance or a new partner, it was like a new life for me. I lived 20 lives."

Still, Mr. Sandhu struggles with his artistic identity. He has not given up on skating and doesn't rule out a return to competition.

Why is it so hard to know where to focus his creative talents? "Because sometimes the answers don't come right away. They say everything happens for a reason but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll know what the reason is.

"I'd like to conquer the world," he says suddenly, unleashing a peel of laughter. "But first you have to conquer yourself, right?"

He nailed that one.