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Meet the women changing the face of magic

Katherine Mills, one of the headliners in the new West End magic show Impossible, says that ‘for a long time the Magic Circle was seen as an elite gentleman’s club, inaccessible to women’, but she believes times are changing. Photo: James Layton Katherine Mills, one of the headliners in the new West End magic show Impossible, says that ‘for a long time the Magic Circle was seen as an elite gentleman’s club, inaccessible to women’, but she believes times are changing. Photo: James Layton
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For the first time in the competition’s 50-year history, the Young Magician of the Year is a female performer this year. The winner of the Magic Circle competition is 16-year-old Leah Devine from Newcastle, who brings two crucial things to the magician’s table – youth and femininity.

In addition to Leah’s success, one of the headliners in the new all-magic show Impossible, which opened in the West End last week, is the BAFTA award- winning Katherine Mills, known to millions for her TV show, Mind Games.

At last, it seems the gentlemen’s club that has been British magic for so long is finally getting in touch with its feminine side. So why is it that magic has been such a ferociously male enclave for so long?

Magician Scott Penrose, president of the Magic Circle, admits the world of magic has in the past been perceived as sexist and anachronistic, but says that it is also the case that fewer girls and women appear to be interested in performing magic than boys and men, as reflected in the small percentage of female members of the Circle – fewer than one in 10 of its 1,500 membership.

Scott Penrose, president of the Magic Circle. Photo:  Gordon Drayson
Scott Penrose, president of the Magic Circle. Photo: Gordon Drayson

It is also true, as Penrose points out, that the world of comedy went through a similar “rediscovery” of women in the 1980s when the alternative comedy boom happened. Prior to that, stand-up had been an almost exclusively male domain. Traditionally, says Anthony Owen, director of Impossible and the man behind the TV success of Derren Brown, magic has appealed to those schoolboys who don’t get into football.

“It’s always been good for overcoming shyness and surviving in the playground rough and tumble. You’d be surprised how many magicians were shy in their youth.”

This seems to be consistent with Stephen Fry’s famous quip about magic being “the revenge of the nerd” – a way for smart, shy boys to get one over on the more sporty, outgoing ones.

The most successful magician of the moment is a classic case in point. Picked on at school because of his slight stature, Steven Frayne created an alter ego called Dynamo, whose card tricks and sleight of hand so beguiled his would-be assailants on the Bradford council estate where he grew up that they refrained from beating him up.

According to almost everyone I spoke to for this article, it is 32-year-old Dynamo who has, more than anyone else, changed the image of British magic in the last few years, making it cool, street and all those other words that strike a chord with the butterfly attention of the Facebook generation.

“Dynamo is very much a magician of his time,” says Penrose. “Magicians have always reflected popular culture, going right back to Victorian times, so it makes perfect sense for Dynamo and the new generation of magicians to wear T-shirts, jeans and baseball caps, rather than formal evening dress. Comedy and pop music work in the same way.”

The magic boom is surely also to do with the proliferation of TV channels and internet portals. Dynamo’s greatest exposure has been on the Watch Channel on UKTV. In order to get started as a magician, says Owen, you no longer need TV or even a live audience, you just need to record your own video and post it on YouTube. Ever since the American David Blaine burst on to the scene in the 1990s with his Street Magic show, there has been a steady rehabilitation of the magician’s role in popular culture.

“David Blaine and Derren Brown made magic cool again, just as the alternative comedians made comedy cool in the 1980s,” says Owen, who grew up hero-worshipping Paul Daniels. “Now it has reached the point where there are so many talented young magicians around that the West End can sustain three magic shows at the same time.”

Owen, an expert in the history of the genre, says it is the most exciting time for British magic since the 1900s, when stars such as Houdini, Maskelyne and David Devant were at their height. Interestingly, there were also a number of high-profile female magicians in the Victorian era, notably Ionia, the Goddess of Mystery, the stage name of Clementine de Vere, and Adelaide Herrman, billed as the Queen of Magic.

But, the question remains: why are there still so few women magicians more than 100 years later?

4 forthcoming magic showsMills says being a woman in a man’s world has worked to her advantage, even though she might sometimes be judged more harshly by her male peers.

“The fact that magic is based on secrecy means that it has fallen behind the rest of society, and for a long time the Magic Circle was seen as an elite gentlemen’s club, inaccessible to women. It was only in the 1990s that they started to allow women to become members,” she says.

So, with her success, as well as that of other women such as Laura London and Jasz Vegas, and youngsters like Devine waiting in the wings, are things beginning to change in magic circles?

“Yes, I think it’s changing,” says Mills. “Women come at it from a different angle to men. I might deliver a trick in a gentler or more flirty way than a man. I’m working on something at the moment where fashion and beauty are components of the act, and I don’t think a male magician would be interested in that.”

Jamie Raven, runner-up in this year’s Britain’s Got Talent, and a headliner in The Illusionists, coming to the Shaftesbury Theatre this year, is puzzled as to why there are so few good female magicians in circulation. “I can’t think of a single reason why women shouldn’t be every bit as good as men at magic, in the same way women stand-ups are just as funny as men. I guess it must be something to do with its nerdy reputation – maybe that puts some women off having a go,” he says.

If Young Magician of the Year Devine is as good as she is cracked up to be, the ranks of professional female magicians may soon be swelled to the tune of one. Her mum, Su, who was herself a finalist in the Young Magician contest back in 1989, believes there is still some prejudice about women magicians. “There is this attitude where people think girls can’t do magic, but they’re just as good as the boys,” she says.

Showing its determination to move with the times, the Magic Circle has appointed a woman as its secretary, Megan Knowles-Bacon, who told The Independent earlier this year: “The problem is not getting women to join the Circle, but rather getting them interested in magic in the first place.”

Meanwhile, the young lions – Dynamo, Troy, Darcy Oake, Ben Hart, Raven et al – will be taking to the road to capitalise on their TV success, with London hosting three high-end magic shows – Impossible, The Illusionists and Derren Brown – for the first time in more than a century.

“Magic is universal,” says Owen. “There is no language barrier. It’s like wildlife programmes. You can follow what’s going on without having to understand the commentary.”

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