Will Magicians Ever Be Seen As Cool?

Magic is amazing. So how come, for all its attempts to throw off the cliché of the bow tie-wearing magician and embrace a new, street-style edginess, it can never, ever be cool?

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In February 2014, to mark the arrival of its new creative director, Alasdhair Willis, and its reboot as a lifestyle brand, 150-year-old wellington boots manufacturer Hunter held its debut show at London Fashion Week. On a black catwalk covered in a slick of water, po-faced models stomped up and down in balaclava bobble hats and plastic capes.

Barely 10 minutes later, they gathered at the far end of the runway and another figure appeared, wearing black jeans and a blue, rubberised bomber jacket – and measuring a good foot shorter than the models clustered around him. To the sounds of the Pilooski remix of “Lucidity” by Tame Impala, the mysteriously dinky man leaned to his left, then leaned a bit more, until his body was at an impossible 45-degree angle to the stage. Then, with some pulling-on-an-invisible-handle gestures worthy of Marcel Marceau, he righted himself, clenched his fists in front of him, lowered his head, and both he and the mackintosh-clad models around him disappeared. The darkened hall erupted in a cacophony of camera flashes.

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The orchestrator of this stunt, the vanishing man, was 32-year-old Steven Frayne, better known by his stage name, Dynamo.

He’s the current kingpin in British magic, a man whose stunts include walking across the Thames and levitating above London’s 310m-tall Shard and in front of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer – all part of his own massively successful TV show, Magician Impossible. “He is the most followed magician in the world, with a reach of six million on his social platforms,” as Alasdhair Willis put it. This autumn, he’ll embark on a live tour, performing to 300,000 fans across 83 dates in the kind of venues that usually host rock bands (some of whom, the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Jay Z, he counts as fans and friends).

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But the biggest trick that Dynamo has ever attempted isn’t hovering over landmarks, wowing celebrities or making models dematerialise. It’s something far more onerous, a task those who’ve gone before him have tried – in some instances getting quite close – but ultimately failed. It’s convincing the world that maybe, just maybe, magic might finally be cool.

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When I was a kid, a magician was a guy in questionable evening wear on a stage sawing a glamorous assistant in half, with a knowing wink to the camera. They were hugely successful and in some cases wealthy, but even amassing an estimated $800m fortune from ticket sales to live performances, and a supermodel girlfriend to match, couldn’t save David Copperfield from being unspeakably naff. Paul Daniels was not someone you turned to for sartorial advice: the only suit he could convince anyone to pick was clubs, hearts, spades or diamonds.

Today, big brands are courting magicians as they would musicians or actors – as well as representing Hunter and the likes of Pepsi, in January this year, Dynamo was hired by Fiat to unveil its new car model, apparently assembled on stage out of thin air.

Others are following hard on his heels: another young British magician, 25-year-old Troy Von Scheibner, who has an eponymous TV show on E4, starred in French Connection’s autumn/winter 2014 campaign (tag line: “Hey FCUKing Presto”). So just how has Dynamo and his acolytes managed to overhaul our perceptions? Or is just a trick of the light?

Certainly in the US, there’s one man who’s credited with changing the image of magic more than any other: David Blaine. He’s the Brooklyn-born entertainer who with his first TV special, David Blaine: Street Magic, which aired in 1997, brought magic out of the studio and onto the urban street. On his show, he performed close-up magic for everyday people; privately, he did the same for the likes of Robert De Niro, Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson. (Over here, he’s perhaps best known as that guy who dangled over the Thames in a Perspex box for 44 days with only water for sustenance while onlookers pelted him with eggs, sausages, bacon, lemons, beer cans, golf balls and balloons filled with paint and taunted him with a burger on a remote-controlled helicopter. You know who you are.)

As well as the stripped-back tricks and setting, Blaine also had a dramatic impact on the way magicians dress. The uniform of the illusionist had evolved little since the 19th century; back then, magic was stuck in a similar funk, with performers decked out as Gandalf-like wizards until a French magician called Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin took to dressing more in keeping with his upmarket audience. Over time, the dress code became locked to the fashions of the well-to-do of that particular era: tails, white gloves and a top hat. Blaine instead opted for jeans and a T-shirt: everyday wear of the late 20th century (coincidentally, maybe, also what you’d expect to find the CEOs of tech companies – the modern equivalent of Robert-Houdin’s audience – wearing today).

“There’s no big, flamboyant, curly moustache and blow-dried hair,” Troy Von Scheibner says, remembering the impact that Blaine had on him. “You could really relate to it. And I’d never seen a black or mixed-race magician. I always thought, ‘He kinda looks like me.’” (Von Scheibner’s father is German and his mother is Jamaican; he describes himself as “Germaican”.)

“For the generation that has grown up AB (After Blaine), the magician is that guy on the street with hoodie and jeans,” says Ben Hanlin, another young British illusionist, who found fame on YouTube and now presents ITV2’s magic prank show Tricked.

But while Blaine had obviously made huge advances in altering how magicians are perceived, he didn’t quite achieve complete “cool”. In fact, if anything, his carefully constructed TV persona came closer to being disconnected and cold. When Carter Beats the Devil author Glen David Gold profiled Blaine for The New York Times in 2002, he described the magician as perhaps “the loneliest man I ever met”. A year prior to this came Blaine’s infamous GMTV interview, wherein the magician uttered barely a word, instead flashing a palm with an eye drawn on it – a rare instance when British viewers might have felt a twinge of sympathy for presenter Eamonn Holmes.

Blaine wanted to be taken seriously, perhaps too much so for UK audiences, where we like to see figures who get above themselves – 30ft above himself, in the case of his Thames endurance test – knocked down a peg or two. Here was a down-with-the-kids entertainer who suddenly started looking like a weirdo with a messiah complex.

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Can Dynamo fare better than Blaine? Hopes are high within The Magic Circle, the magicians’ social club, which was set up in 1905 to give performers a chance to trade tricks and safeguard their intellectual property. Those within the organisation are keenly aware of the buzz that has suddenly bolstered magic. “There was a big gap between Paul Daniels and David Blaine,” says Darren Martin, who looks after The Magic Circle’s public relations. “Then Harry Potter sparked interest. But Dynamo came along at just the right time.”

Dynamo describes the London headquarters of the famously secretive guild as “a private members’ club for the elite magicians of the world”. Von Scheibner, too, likens it to Shoreditch House: “It’s in a secret location – in Euston,” he tells me. (It’s actually listed on Google Maps.)

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The Magic Circle has experienced a recent surge of interest from tech companies hoping to launch products at their building. “The association is always ‘magic’,” says Martin. “‘The magic of… ’ fill in the blank.”

It is also actively recruiting the next generation of members, running a club, competitions and workshops as part of what it calls its Youth Initiative. On the day I visit, however – a Monday night, when the building is open only to the initiated (and, in this instance, me) – the attendees seem mostly old, old boys, with scant representation by the 80-or-so female members the 1,500-strong organisation has acquired since permitting women for the first time in the early Nineties. Clearly, Dynamo represents a welcome injection of young blood. Martin rhapsodised about Dynamo’s recent magically-appearing-Fiat stunt. “Even Paul Daniels was tweeting about it,” he says. “Dynamo is a once-in-a-generation thing. It’s his time and everyone else is enjoying the benefits.”

For the would-be saviour of an entire branch of entertainment, Dynamo in person is self-effacing. Despite his runway turn, he jokes that he’s only just started to fill out clothes that he’s owned since he was 10. He owes his slight 5ft 6in frame to Crohn’s disease, a long-term condition affecting the digestive system. Growing up on Bradford’s Delph Hill estate, his stature made him a target for bullies.

“These kids used to put me inside wheelie bins and push me down a hill,” he says. “At the school I went to, there were two big hills. We called them ‘The Tits’ – because they looked like tits. So they pushed me down The Tits in a wheelie bin. This one time, my grandpa came to pick me up from school. He saw this happening, so he showed me a technique to stop them.”

Dynamo’s great-grandfather, known as “Grandpa”, was the Mr Miyagi to his Daniel-san. “From the age of about seven, he showed me things that he picked up when he was in the army during the Second World War,” Dynamo says. “I don’t think that’s the only thing that he picked up in the army, obviously. But he used to do magic to keep his morale up and his mind active. To stop him thinking about the war that was going on all around him.”

He entrusted Dynamo with a means of using another person’s weight to make himself immobile. “The bullies couldn’t pick me up and put me in the bin anymore. So the next day, they started spreading rumours that I was this demon child. They didn’t want to be seen to be stopped by me – I was tiny compared to these guys.” As Dynamo developed his skills, the playground myth gained momentum. “It gave me an edge,” he says, “and by the time I left school, I was known as ‘The Magic Boy’.”

To Penn Jillette, the talkative half of the hugely successful magician duo Penn and Teller, Dynamo’s trajectory fits with a typical “revenge of the nerds” scenario. “There’s always a sense of ‘I’m going to learn how to be popular by doing something you can’t,’” he says. “‘I’ve sat alone in my room for five years, left out, socially inadequate – and now I’m coming back with ways I’ve figured out how to lie to you. And I’d like acceptance for that.’ When I was young, on the variety shows in the Sixties, you would see a magician followed by The Who. What better comparison can you have? Aged 12, do you want to be Keith Moon – or some dipshit with a table, fucking around with birds?”

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The new wave of young magicians – the likes of Dynamo and Troy – have sorted out their wardrobes and swapped the shiny TV studio for the gritty urban streets or the stadium stage. That much is true. But it remains the case that anyone who’s good at magic undoubtedly became so for a reason. Because he was bullied, or lonely, or just that child at school. And those judgements tend to stick.

“Any good magician was, at some point, a kid who spent way too long in his bedroom practising card tricks,” Tricked’s Ben Hanlin says. “Cool kids don’t get into magic – they’re busy playing football and shagging.”

“There’s something irredeemably geeky about the kind of play magicians are involved in,” says Lev Grossman, author of fantasy novel The Magicians, about a socially awkward high-school graduate who finds a college for magicians, which he hopes will solve all his problems (it doesn’t). “They’re engaged in a kind of public childlike make-believe. I don’t think that could ever be cool – or even that it should be.”

Grossman has a theory: “The thing about magicians, which defines them, is that they know things we don’t,” he says. “Which is also true of cool people – they understand things that the rest of us don’t and never will. A cool magician? It’s a double negative. We can give magicians everything else – money, fame and attention – but they can’t be cool. You can have magic or you can be cool – but you can’t have both.”

Perhaps that’s why magic and cool can never mix. At some base level, we sense that the people who do magic are often seeking something – attention, street cred, power – and there’s no quicker way to derail social acceptance than by appearing to want it, and want it really, really bad. In choosing magic, they’re also picking something juvenile and short-term (no matter how many hours spent in front of the mirror, practising sleight of hand): while playground bullies might think you have magical powers, a grown-up audience is merely suspending its disbelief for the sake of a good night out.

And above all, there’s the elephant in the room that no amount of smoke, mirrors or branded footwear can conceal – when it comes to cool, the currency is authenticity, and nothing magicians do is real.

“‘I’m lying to you’ – that’s the opening sentence every magic act starts with,” Penn Jillette says, bluntly. “It’s not spoken but it’s understood by all parties. Elvis Presley says he’s a singer and he’s absolutely telling the truth. Motherfucker can sing – no doubt about it. Even the Sex Pistols showing up not being able to play their instruments still [sound] just like the record. But when Dynamo says, ‘I’m magic’, whatever that means, fucker ain’t magic.”

This leaves Dynamo with a challenge beyond anything he’s faced before, and in an arena, a space that’s large, yet too small for the elaborate stunts he’s known for.

“Obviously, I can’t put the River Thames on the stage, so how can I do something that epic?” he asks of his own live show. “If it’s going to be done, then I’m the man to do it.”

(He is Magician Impossible after all, he points out.)

But the biggest trick of all will always be transforming the way people think about magicians themselves, making something that is by definition illusionary, credible. And the thing to remember is this: cool is ephemeral — just like that, it’s gone.

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