Will magicians ever be cool? Sadly, probably not
At a fashion show a few years ago, to mark the arrival of a new creative director, 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.
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 Hunter's then creative director Alasdhair Willis put it.
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.
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 US$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 magician, 25-year-old Troy Von Scheibner, who had 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?
Indeed, 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.
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 illusionist, who found fame on YouTube.
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”.
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,” Ben Hanlin says. “Cool kids don’t get into magic – they’re busy playing football.”
“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.
Article was originally published in July 2015. This is A Look Through our Archives, a regularly content series that sees us publish the best features and articles from the past 100 issues of Esquire Middle East.