March 12, 2017

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

Like pop stars, the world’s top magicians are now playing to huge, packed arenas. John Lewis peeps behind the curtain to discover the ultimate tricks and the intriguing stars who perform them.

Grand illusionists, conjurors, mentalists, tricksters – magic is big business and, at its top end, is filling huge arenas the world over. It’s an art form that appeals to all demographics, with big-name performers thrilling audiences of all types and ages. That explains how David Copperfield earned himself more than US$60 million in the last tax year, performing a staggering 638 shows in a single 12-month period. Las Vegas, a city keen to move away from a purely casino-based economy, is very much the centre of the world magic scene, dominated by residencies from the likes of Copperfield, Criss Angel, and Penn & Teller. The big-screen technology that has assisted stand-up comedy has also ensured that, within a cavernous arena, close-up magic and sleight-of-hand conjuring is as feasible as any grand routine. Prepare to be wowed as the world’s most eminent magicians pull more than mere rabbits from their hats.


Yorkshireman Steven ‘Dynamo’ Frayne (below and previous page) is often described as Britain’s answer to David Blaine. His street magic shows, broadcast on TV before going viral on YouTube, have seen him performing Blaine-style grand stunts such as walking on water across the River Thames, strolling down the side of a skyscraper, transforming snow into diamonds, bench pressing two and a half times his body weight, and causing celebrities to levitate. But his slight frame (he’s a thin 5ft 6ins), soft Yorkshire accent and low-key manner make him a very English kind of performer. His arena shows, which have sold out huge venues such as London’s O2, often have him concentrating on close-up tricks with lots of audience interaction: card tricks, coin traps, mesmerism and mindreading. One particularly staggering stunt is where he appears to swallow jewellery – rings, necklaces, earrings – and then pulls each piece from his stomach.

David Copperfield earned himself more than US$60 million in the last tax year, performing a staggering 638 shows in a single 12-month period.


One of the most celebrated figures in magic since Harry Houdini, Blaine is best known for his elaborate street magic films and TV specials. You’ll have seen him levitating and trying out close-up magic tricks on crowds around the world. Even when walking around in day-today life, he carries a pack of cards with him, ready to stun unsuspecting passers-by with sleight of hand. You’ll also have seen his ridiculous feats of endurance. He was once entombed in ice for 63 hours; he spent 44 days in a transparent box above the River Thames without any food; he hanged upside down from a crane for 60 hours; he endured a million volts of electrical energy for 72 hours. Some of these ideas have been transformed into arena shows: one July 2015 show in Las Vegas culminated in him catching a bullet in his teeth, a trick that has prematurely ended the career of more than one unwary magician.


Born Mariko Itakura in 1959, Princess Tenko is a former pop singer who turned herself into Japan’s superstar illusionist. The seemingly ageless performer has become renowned for a series of flamboyant, rather formal staged tricks – disappearing and reappearing in different boxes and pyramids, appearing to levitate, and turning masks and sticks into monsters. It made her a favourite of North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, for whom she controversially performed on several occasions. Her last show in Pyongyang saw her executing a Houdini-style escape act from a tank of water. The president demanded the tank be filled with two tons of bottled Evian water, after admitting that North Korean tap water might not reach Japanese hygiene standards. Tenko’s appearances have become rarer since a 2007 arena show in Sabae, Japan, when she was badly injured while performing her trademark sword trick. A mechanical failure in the coffin in which she was encased meant that, when her assistants inserted the swords into the box, they ended up crushing several of her ribs and breaking her right cheekbone.

  • Dynamo and David Blaine


While some stage magicians claim to possess supernatural powers, there is also a strong tradition, nowadays, of the magician as a truth-telling skeptic. The likes of Harry Houdini, James Randi and Derren Brown have all stood up to the fakers, debunking psychics, mediums and scammers, often explaining how seemingly mystical conjuring tricks are performed. But few have done it as effectively or as entertainingly as Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller. This odd couple aren’t close friends off stage, but there is a comedic chemistry to their partnership – Penn the brash, wisecracking, Groucho Marx-style loudmouth and Teller the Harpo Marx-like elective mute – that makes them perfect in an arena context. A talented escapologist, Teller is invariably the comedic stooge. He often finds himself dangling in a straitjacket over a bed of nails or in shark-infested waters, tied in chains and submerged in a tank of water, or run over by a 10-tonne 18-wheeler truck. The pair are militant atheists and libertarians. One of their most politicised stunts sees them inserting an American flag into a copy of the US Bill of Rights, and then setting fire to the package so that the flag is destroyed but the Bill of Rights remains.


Born Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos, in 1967, but looking more than a decade younger than his 48 years, Criss Angel is currently the hottest draw in the world of international magic, managing to transform his skills into a thriving international brand. His Believe and Mindfreak shows, both collaborations with the Quebecois acrobatic troupe Cirque du Soleil, have generated around $20 million a year from residencies at the Luxor Las Vegas hotel. He’s taken shows to London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway, and has also played arenas in Asia, Australia and continental Europe. He loves to imbue his shows with danger. One signature trick is to set himself on fire and casually walk among a screaming crowd for several minutes; another is to shackle himself to the side of a burning car filled with explosives; or suspend himself from a moving helicopter held only by fish hooks inserted into his skin. On stage you’ll also see him appearing to rip people’s bodies apart, or pass through solid objects.


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