It's No Trick: Women Are Crashing the Male-Dominated World of Magic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Venues are opening up to female illusionists like never before.
By Tania Bhattacharya
You can tell a lot about a person by what they drink, declares Lucy Darling, the elegant, razor-sharp alter ego of 31-year-old Canadian magician Carisa Hendrix. She’s entertaining a giddy audience at the Magic Castle, the Academy of Magical Arts’ (AMA) private clubhouse in Los Angeles, with her Maker Martini routine. Tony and Jennifer — two spectators — select the strawberry martini and the gimlet as the cocktails they want. Darling goes behind her magical bar to shake up an empty shaker, then pours three different drinks in one go. She hands the strawberry martini to Tony and the gimlet to Jennifer, and they return to their seats, amazed.
A Guinness World Record holder for the longest duration of fire torch teething – a stunt where you hold a fire torch upright with your teeth – and winner of best comedy magic show at the 2017 Melbourne Magic Festival, Hendrix is among a growing number of female illusionists changing the world of magic. For decades, women have largely been relegated to the role of perky assistants who are sawed in half. Now, more and more women are joining the profession as magicians themselves. Top magic schools are recording a dramatic surge in female students. And audiences are embracing them like never before.
The International Magicians Society (IMS), the world’s largest body of illusionists, has seen a 35 percent increase in global female membership over the past three years, including in new markets like China and Japan, and a 42 percent increase in female enrollment in its 22 schools over the past two years. Over the same period, the Los Angeles–based AMA — one of America’s pre-eminent magic bodies — has witnessed the percentage of women in its classes increase from 15 percent to 50 percent. California-based Chavez School of Magic, one of the country’s oldest and most respected magic colleges, has seen a similar rise. Today, women form half his class, says Dale Salwak, director of the school.
Women are coming into their own power after many years of stepping aside to let men take care of things.
Erika Larsen, president, Academy of Magical Arts
American magician Jen Kramer has been headlining her own show in Las Vegas, the first woman to do so since the 1990s. Dutch illusionist Sabine van Diemen is touring with “Now You See Me Live” (but she’s the sole woman in the four-prestidigitator show). Late last November, the Chicago Magic Lounge hosted a three-day event, “Spotlight: Women in Magic,” which included five performances by female magicians, an unprecedented move by a brand-new establishment looking to make a name for itself as a bastion of the lost art of bar magic. And Shezam!, a feminist podcast about the issues faced by women in magic, hosted by Hendrix and fellow illusionist Kayla Drescher, has had more than 10,000 downloads.
“Women are coming into their own power after many years of stepping aside to let men take care of things,” says Erika Larsen, president of the AMA.
The shift, illusionists say, is in keeping with the discourse on diversity that is shaking up multiple sectors of the world of arts and entertainment. The popularity of live magical entertainment has also led to a growing demand for illusionists in general, allowing women more opportunities. Globally successful tours, including “Now You See Me Live,” “The Illusionists” and “Impossible,” are examples of how people are ditching screens for a more intimate entertainment experience. “Until recently,” says John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA and, yes, an amateur magician, “the most frequent question a U.S. magician got was ‘Do you do birthday parties?’” Now, magic is increasingly being seen as a “legitimate art form,” he says, which is likely drawing more women to the profession. And the world is taking notice. “Through TV and social media, magic is increasingly in the public consciousness,” says Kramer. “I see more and more women becoming magicians today.”
Certainly, some women have had success in the magic world in the past. Late-1800s America was enthralled by Adelaide Herrmann, aka the Queen of Magic, who graduated from assistant to magician when her husband died. During the same period, Minerva the Queen of Mystery — possibly the world’s first female escape artist — was enticing Europe, with Harry Houdini as her peer. But for the most part, the world of magic has been closed to women. Traditionally, the association with sorcery-performing witches didn’t help. Women traveling alone — as magicians often need to — were frowned upon for generations. All of that means that audiences — predominantly male — “hardly ever expect women to be magicians when they first see them,” says British illusionist Megan Swann, the first female secretary of the Magic Circle, one of London’s best-known magic societies.
Professional female magicians still form only a fraction of the industry, says Larsen. About 260 — or less than 10 percent — of the 2,700 magician members of the AMA are women, and there are only about 35 women who perform onstage at the Magic Castle.
Change is taking far too long, says Alba, a veteran Argentine magician who is the first woman from South America to regularly appear on the Magic Castle’s three main stages. “The magic community is still a boys’ club where women are tolerated but not completely welcome and nurtured,” she says. “Tokenism is not our friend, we just need equal opportunities for the same talent.”
But the illusionist has hope. “The good news is that the girls are coming in bigger numbers, they are strong, relentless and super talented,” she says.
That academies like the AMA are seeing female magicians comprise half their classes points to a bright future for women in the profession — if the industry is patient, says Hendrix. “Clearly the next generation of women is very interested, it’s just going to take us about 10 years to see the change,” she says. “We just need to make sure that the environment of magic is safe and welcoming enough so that we don’t lose them along the way.”
The women entering the profession are also bringing a range of skills and approaches. “There is just as much diversity in style among female magicians and this needs to be taken into account,” says Jeanette Andrews, a Chicago-based illusionist whose brand is performance, theater and science rooted in 1800s parlor magic.
And at places like the Chicago Magic Lounge, female magicians are finding institutional support from venues in ways they didn’t before. “We are pushing hard to redefine a typical magic show, not only the way we’re performing but also who is performing it,” says Joseph Cranford, the venue’s co-owner and CEO. “The fact is that female magicians are rare and increasing the visibility of women in magic must be thoughtful, intentional and explicit.”
The Chicago Magic Lounge has had women performing in every room of its venue since it opened in February 2018. And a walk through the venue earlier this year had Hendrix in tears, not least because of how far she has come — she worked as a juggler, circus entertainer and magician’s assistant, among other jobs, before making it as an illusionist. “Here, you feel the future and how important it is to make good work now,” says Hendrix. “We’re somewhere in the middle of the history of magic, and the lounge reminds us of everything that’s to come.”
- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY Author Contact Tania Bhattacharya