David Blaine has vanished into thin air. Which, to be honest, is exactly the kind of thing we had been hoping for this afternoon at London's exclusive 50 St James casino. Only this isn't a trick. Blaine just hasn't shown up yet.
In our gilt-edged, private gambler's haven, the croupiers, still woozy from last night's late finish, are staring blankly at their watches and becoming restless around the baize blackjack table. This was to be our big test for the star street magician who, single-handedly, wrested magic back from leather-trousered David Copperfield and his ilk and made card tricks exciting again. Then, just as we are about to give up and go home, as if by magic, the phone rings.
"I'm sorry we're late," Blaine's publicist crackles from their traffic-locked town car. "David's really excited about this. I've never seen him quite like it. We've just had to stop at a cashpoint so he can get out £2,000. He wants to break the bank down there. Can you wait?"
Of course we can. Because, despite this room being full of professional cynics (one journalist plus a phalanx of people who get paid to take money from gullible punters), we all want to see Blaine beat the odds. Especially in a controlled environment like this, where he can't touch the cards or alter the random outcome of the croupiers' deal. And somehow we all genuinely seem to believe that he can do it. After all, he is David Blaine, Magic Man.
But the hard cash thing is a problem. This is a working casino, and even if the British gaming laws don't make it illegal for anyone to play here without a minimum 24-hours' prior membership, the owners don't want to risk this flash American card sharp coming in and using his special powers to clean up for real. And maybe tell Independent readers how to do it, too. Because despite our rational understanding of the laws of averages and the practised trickery required for successful prestidigitation, we are all just a bit afraid of the shamanistic Blaine.
Not without good reason. Anyone who remembers Blaine's silent encounter with Eamonn Holmes on GMTV three years ago knows that his dead-eyed stare and reluctance to explain himself have become part of the mystery. Later, he will tell me, laughing, "I was just trying to really listen to what he was saying", but at the time it was a great piece of TV that announced the Magic Man's arrival in the UK. It also sent a clear message to future interviewers that he was not a man to be messed with. In fact, he seemed actively to enjoy freaking people out, once pushing an acupuncture needle through his hand during an interview. Which is why no one here today wants to be the one to tell Blaine he can't gamble with his own money.
"Damn. I was really excited," Blaine mutters, a fat roll of fifties clasped tightly in his hand, when the intricacies of the British gaming laws are explained to him. "They don't let me gamble any more in the States. I went to the Hard Rock Casino for the opening with Jay Z and Wycliffe. And I was drinking. But somehow I started with $500 and got it up to $40,000. On press day. So they wrote about it and I never got to play in any US casino after that. Even my friends think I cheat. I thought tonight I was going to make me some cash."
We compromise on a theoretical £2,000 stake and a gentleman's agreement that no cash will change hands, win or lose. Accepting the now valueless multi-coloured chips Blaine growls, "It's just not the same. You don't play blackjack for fun."
Dressed casually (for our location) in his trademark black T-shirt, exposing LA beefcake muscle tone and a Primo Levi concentration-camp tattoo, together with the more recent "Buried Alive, 7 days and 7 nights", Blaine is in genial mood for a man regularly compared to the devil, chatting pleasantly with the casino staff and even signing copies of his recent book, Mysterious Stranger. Immediately and obviously relaxed by a deck of cards to play with, he takes £2,000 in £25 chips and starts to bet.
"I want to make it clear that I don't condone gambling," he offers as the evening's first caveat. "When it becomes an addiction, it's an illness. And, anyway, I like to play with the odds rather than against them."
It seems a strange assertion from a man who chose to encase himself in ice for 62 hours, against all medical advice and then, later in New York's Bryant Park, jumped 90ft into cardboard boxes rather than on to an inflatable mattress. It was a decision that even Hollywood's top stuntmen declared spinal injury madness at the time. He's also betting like a man possessed. We're only 10 minutes in and already Blaine is down a theoretical £1,600. "Give me another two grand," he barks. "I've got to hit a winning streak soon. And can we not talk for a bit? It's hard to concentrate on both things."
Blaine loses another hand and starts to grin. "That's seven in a row. And seven's my lucky number. If I was playing for real I would have walked away a while ago. But I do have an obsessive personality, for sure. I can become addicted to anything. Once I set my mind to something I find it very hard to pull back. Cards and books are the only things that relax me."
It's a criticism that has been regularly levelled at the 29-year-old street magician, not least by many of the string of high profile beauties with whom he has adorned himself over the years, including Madonna, the rock star Fiona Apple, Daryl Hannah, Naomi Campbell and the Playboy model Josie Maran. While Apple contented herself with a polite "He has this incredible allure because he has no limits", Maran was more blunt. "David has a death wish," she insisted following their break-up soon after his ice-block stunt. Blaine had just outlined to her a plan that involved him taking a bullet for his next stunt. No trick. Just pure and simple getting shot. It was the last straw.
"Look, the way I always explain that is, people survive getting shot all the time," Blaine begins. "There are places on the body where you can take a bullet and survive. That's all I want to do. Film the bullet entering my body and then get up and walk away. But post-Colombine, no one in the US wants to get behind something like that. Which I understand. But it's not a death wish. If I wanted to die, I'd just do these stunts and not prepare for them. This is about life affirmation, not killing myself. Like I say, I like to play with the odds. Not against them."
Realising this is all getting quite personal, Blaine glances down at his greatly diminished stack of chips and bets irritably and heavily against an open 10. "The path I have chosen makes it very difficult to maintain relationships," he admits, as our croupier collects another £5,000. "They pretty much have to accept this is just the way it is."
Getting shot aside, there's still a lot for any woman to have to accept. Since his first television magic special, 1997's Street Magic, Blaine has done remarkable things. We have watched him turn a street derelict's coffee into small change and make the name of a mark's dead mother appear on the side of a passing cab. Somehow, by focussing on the reactions of his impromptu audiences, almost as much as his tricks themselves, Blaine taps into our universal desire to believe. A bit like encouraging a Peter Pan panto audience to clap if they believe in fairies. Only much, much hipper.
Then came the stunts. Used mainly as publicity devices to draw attention to his latest TV special, Blaine buried himself alive for a week in a Perspex coffin outside Manhattan's Trump building, encased himself in a 30,000lb block of ice for three days and, if that wasn't enough, stood for 35 hours on a 22in-wide pillar, far above Bryant Park, before jumping off in front of 50,000 eagerly waiting people. Just as Houdini sardonically remarked 100 years before, "No one wants to see a man fall 100ft to his death. But they do want to be there when it happens."
Now Blaine is gearing up for his first public stunt outside New York. On 5 September, he will climb into a glass box, suspended above the Thames, to survive for 44 days, in full public view, with only a water drip to sustain him. Effectively, he will be performing a very public hunger strike that doctors have warned him could lead to permanent physical or mental damage.
"I will be surviving by digesting my own muscles and organs and you will see it first hand," he says. "My biggest fear is coming out of there permanently brain damaged."
Even so, remarkable though Blaine's latest endurance test may be, it is very different to the stunt the illusionist had originally planned for London when I met him last year. Then Blaine had told me he intended to reconstruct Houdini's infamous bridge jump. Either from Tower Bridge (180ft into the Thames) or maybe even higher, from a helicopter hovering above London's most famous architectural icon, bound and chained with his feet encased in concrete. That scheme, it seems, has now gone the same way as his plan to get shot. The drawn-out feat of endurance is, none the less, guaranteed to keep Blaine in the headlines and on our televisions for a far more profitable period of time than the seven minutes he estimated it would take him to escape from the murky depths of the Thames. Without wanting to denigrate this latest trial of physical strength, viewed in the context of the profits he will receive for selling the TV rights first to Channel 4 and Sky One, and then the rest of the world, he suddenly appears far more materialist than shaman.
Blaine calmly plays another hand. He is now down £54,000, which would probably be a good point for most people to stop, even if this is just theoretical money. The truth, as they say, is now out there. Even to a magician of Blaine's stature, the cards don't lie. And, what is the point of being a master illusionist if you can't even cheat at cards?
This is not, however, a point of view to which Blaine subscribes. "Let me just get ahead again and then I'll quit," he says, eyes gleaming at the possibilities provided by an open dealt ace and a three. Abandoning all house limits and using the casino's bank as his cashpoint, Blaine stakes the equivalent of my mortgage as his next bet. Even in real money, it would be a drop in the ocean for a man who made a reported £3m from magic last year, but when he wins, Blaine is as elated as a 10-year-old who's just swapped three Panini football stickers for the card that completes his collection. In a moment the shamanistic showman becomes a punter like the rest of us. Almost. "I'll get to £300,000 up and then stop," he says. "It'll be good for the story." Now confident that her bankroll is safe from the master magician, our croupier smiles, and deals another hand.
Only Blaine's publicist has other ideas. The Magic Man is now late for his next levitation appointment and here, backslapping the casino staff while he performs a few card effects over drinks at our blackjack table, Blaine has become just a little too real for PR. "I really enjoyed that," Blaine assures everyone as he packs away his cards to go. "Everyone expects me to levitate now when I meet them. When that happens it's like being a performing seal. There was something really cool in the old days about just working in bars, doing magic and being unknown. When people expect it, magic is a different thing. Just hanging out, when it's natural - that's when people are amazed. That's when they run away screaming. And that's when magic is amazing for me."
Then Blaine is led away to a waiting car to entertain the press somewhere else. Only next time he performs, win or lose, a whole lot of money will change hands. And you can bet on that.
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