She loves the feel of breaking glass

... It makes such a lovely mattress.
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She's swum for Ireland, showjumped for Britain, raced Haile Selassie's horses, and busked all over Europe. She has an MA in psychology and an M Phil in Anglo-Irish literature. She's been voted All-Ireland Twisting Champion, and has an RSPCA gold medal for jumping into the Liffey to save a drowning mongrel. She's taught juggling to orphans in Romania, and literacy to tinker children under the arches of London's Westway. Her idea of a nice time is to throw down a carpet of freshly-broken bottle-glass, lie on it, and invite a heavy man to stand on her stomach. She's one of the few female members of the Magic Circle.

I knew none of this when I first encountered Rosy Gibb on a package tour to Bodrum. But I was as astonished as the Turks when, to jolly things up in a fishermen's cafe, she began extracting flowers from people's ears, and making crockery disappear. It wasn't just the dexterity that bewitched us - it was the atmosphere she generated, larky and assured, provocative yet protective.

I next caught her act at a London street festival, then at a private dinner party, and was struck each time by the sang-froid with which she handled people and objects, no matter how unruly. How on earth did she acquire these uncanny powers?

"Hard work from start to finish," is how she explains it. But what was the start? She can't remember. Her ambition was to be a vet. Only child of a surgeon/ hypnotist (aha!), she nearly died of TB when she was four. Her parents were told that, if she recovered, she would never be able to run about like other children. But she ran about like hell, led little strikes and demos at school (following her itinerant parents through Africa) and, after a late burst of furious self-tuition, stormed her way into academe.

She threw up literature to do youth work, married and had children, was perennially broke, and still didn't know what she wanted to do. Until, that is, someone said she'd make a wonderful clown, and why not try her hand at it in Hyde Park? "I loved it. I immediately enrolled at a circus workshop to learn how to lie on a bed of glass, how to ride pillion upside-down, and how to walk on fire." She took her new skills onto the streets of Brighton, made 7p in an afternoon, and went back to her magic books. Gradually, painfully, she began to establish herself.

"Audiences love to be mystified, but they also like things to go wrong. I learnt to use my failures rather as Tommy Cooper did." What about hostile audiences who sabotage tricks? "Awful. It's like dying on stage. My whole body goes numb." One of her worst experiences came when she was doing her escapology act - inviting spectators to tie her up and seal her in a sack - at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. "Some men in the crowd started to kick me through the sacking, and the more I screamed, the more it turned them on." On the other hand, a young insurance salesman who tied her up in Brighton fell in love with her and threw up his career.

How did she storm her way into the male-dominated Magic Circle? "With what I call my 'card and orange' trick." We choose a playing card and tear it to bits. We give her all the bits but one, and she burns them. Then she produces the whole card from inside an orange, complete apart from the little bit we're still holding. I've seen this trick more than once, and it really is magic.