Magic’s Moment – Evening Standard Magazine, London, March 2012 by Lucy Hunter Johnston.
At Stella McCartney’s London Fashion Week evening wear presentation, the model, presenter and fashion plate Alexa Chung was hypnotised and levitated until she was hovering three feet above ground on the tip of a scimitar.
She had volunteered to play magician’s assistant to the Dutch illusionist Hans Klok, an Eighties throwback with Boris Johnson hair and the swaggering air of a young David Hasselhoff. Hans stared deep into Alexa’s eyes, clicked his fingers and raised her up, as guests, including Anna Wintour and Rihanna, looked on, agog.
One month on and the evening is being talked about as the fashion event of the decade. Asked what led her to use a magician in her show, Stella explained: ‘This is London, I wanted to do something bold.’ But if it seems too bold, not to mention a little uncool, to include such tricks in a high-profile fashion event, rest assured that good old-fashioned magic has the Kate Moss seal of approval. ‘It was crazy,’ explains Hans, 43, in an almost incomprehensible Dutch accent. ‘Kate Moss saw me performing on The One Show on BBC One, and she called Stella McCartney and told her, “You’ve got to book Hans Klok for your opening.” Kate found my agent in Amsterdam, and I thought, “Well, this has got to be a good thing.”?’
Magic is having a moment now that Kate and Alexa, the women who set the trends for trendsetters, have embraced all things abracadabra. In fact, Moss had originally wanted to play the assistant herself. ‘Unfortunately she had something wrong with her arm so it had to be Alexa. But she came up to me at the end and said, “I liked it a lot tonight but it was missing the wind machine,”?’ says Klok. ‘Well, I haven’t used a wind machine for two years so she must have been following my career. I suggested she should be my manager. She said, “Give me ten per cent and we can talk.”?’
Klok started performing magic in his native city of Purmerend, Holland, when he was just ten, and learned English from the magic books he borrowed from the local library. He is known for spectacularly fast, bombastic illusions; earlier this year he broke his own world record for the most illusions done in five minutes, performing 12 tricks, which involved a lot of vanishing from seemingly impenetrable boxes, on the live BBC One show The Magicians. He opened the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany by making the trophy appear out of thin air, in a trick televised to 500 million viewers worldwide; and in 2007 he booked Pamela Anderson as his assistant for a six-month run in Las Vegas. ‘She was the best-paid assistant in the history of magic,’ he jokes.
Chris Cox, 28, a gangly, geeky-looking ‘mind-reader’ from Bristol, who is Ricky Gervais’ favourite magician, credits the Harry Potter books with propelling magic back to popularity. Although the publication of the first book in 1997 barely caused a ripple, sales of the seven volumes now stand at more than 450 million, and the final film instalment grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. ‘People read the books and think, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do that? Isn’t that a world you’d like to live in?” As a kid you believed anything is possible; Harry Potter reminded people how much they loved that feeling,’ he says. Cox believes that people are particularly drawn to escapism in times of economic gloom. ‘In a recession people want to be amazed, and magic is one of the few art forms where, for a split second, your belief systems collapse. Those moments are a bit like a drug, people crave them. Society is a bit shit at the minute, and people want to be entertained by something that feels different. Plus, magic shows are a lot cheaper than going to see a West End musical.’
But the biggest reason for the sudden change in magic’s popularity has undoubtedly been its move away from provincial theatres and Paul Daniels-style patter – a transition led by the American illusionist David Blaine. His debut television show David Blaine: Street Magic, in 1997, changed the way tricks were performed by placing them in an uncontrolled environment – on any busy street. Audiences were no longer made up of a handful of people who had paid for tickets, but anyone lucky enough to be wandering by. Later, Blaine progressed to large-scale public stunts: in 1999 he was buried alive for a week; in 2000 he was frozen in ice for 63 hours; in 2002 he stood untethered on a 100ft-high, 22in-wide pillar for 35 hours; and, perhaps most memorably, in 2003 he spent 44 days locked in a glass box suspended above the Thames by Tower Bridge. Together these stunts earned him a reputation as a maverick – he once pretended to cut off his own ear during a press conference – as well as a small fortune and A-list celebrity status, not to mention a host of famous fans, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Al Pacino.
It’s a model for street magic that has been adopted by numerous other magicians, most notably in Britain by the television illusionist and hypnotist Derren Brown. ‘I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if Derren hadn’t done what he’d done,’ admits Cox. ‘People have become aware of magic again and think of it as something quite cool. We’re just surfing the zeitgeist.’
With magic now on the streets, its naff conventions and complicated traditions look outdated. Even the Magic Circle, the elite British society for top magicians, which requires would-be candidates to endure an arduous audition or write a thesis before being invited to join, is being sidelined. As Cox explains, ‘If you want to do well in magic, and make it different, entertaining and cool, then you need to avoid that old world completely. I went to the Magic Circle once to talk about joining, but to me it represents everything that’s wrong about magic.’
Although traditional magicians can still make a living (for example, Drummond ‘DMC’ Money-Coutts, 25, who started practising magic at Eton, and now hold residencies at the Mayfair members’ clubs Annabel’s and The George, has performed his close-up routine at private parties for the Queen, Emma Watson, Hugh Grant and Pippa Middleton), the way today’s younger magic acts interact with their audience and construct their performance has been transformed. ‘We are pushing against what is expected of a magician and subverting it,’ says Cox. ‘Successful magicians must credit the audience with enough intelligence to know that magic doesn’t really exist; we all agree it’s just bollocks and work from there to amaze.’
The latest magician to be touted as Britain’s answer to David Blaine is Bradford’s Stephen ‘Dynamo’ Frayne, 29, now at the forefront of the urban magic revival. His website shows him amazing everyone from Tinie Tempah to Rio Ferdinand and James Corden, with trademark tricks including making a mobile phone appear in a beer bottle and passing through a plate-glass shop window. With his baseball cap, wispy facial hair, and tendency to include hip-hop and dance in his performances, he is about as far away from the staid world of the Great Soprendo as it’s possible to be.
Growing up on a rough council estate, Dynamo suffered from Crohn’s disease, and was picked on because of his size. ‘My grandpa was my hero,’ he says. ‘He saw what was going on and taught me a trick to take someone’s strength away. I tried it on these two kids who used to throw me in a wheelie bin and it scared the hell out of them. I realised then how powerful magic is and started to dedicate myself to the art. It literally became my world.’ Like all of this new generation of performers, Dynamo is careful to avoid being trapped in the traditional magic circles. ‘I try to stay out of the magic cliques; instead I’m influenced by everyday life, music, film and art. That’s the best way to stay original and save yourself from being sucked into the industry. I have my own code. I do have friends who are magicians, but in general I tend to stay out of the magic world.’
This may be true, but it’s clear from his love of high-profile tricks that he has been more than a little influenced by the Blaine and Brown model. His most famous feat to date was walking across the Thames in June last year to publicise his TV show Dynamo: Magician Impossible, shown on the UKTV channel Watch. He made it halfway across the river before being picked up by what was apparently a river police boat. ‘I think it’s possibly one of the biggest pieces of magic ever performed in the UK,’ he says. ‘The image of me taking a stroll on the river in front of the Houses of Parliament will live in magic history.’ He now has a number of famous fans: ‘I had Richard Branson bow down to me on the floor of Cipriani in Abu Dhabi after he’d seen me perform,’ he recalls. ‘And Kings of Leon kidnapped me and took me on tour with them after I showed them some magic at their after-party.’
Magic has reinvented itself to such a degree that Dynamo doesn’t even think of his work as ‘tricks’; the intention of his performance isn’t to fool but to astonish. ‘I always aim to amaze people, that’s the difference between a trick and the magic I do. It’s about creating a moment of real astonishment. The ability to change someone’s world and create a moment of wonder is an incredible gift.