David Blaine: Dah-daaah!

Paul Daniels he is not. He's been encased in a block of ice and buried in a coffin, has balanced on an 83ft pole and is currently to be found dangling in a box above the Thames, where he will remain for the next 40 days. It's not as if he needs the money. So, David, how's tricks?
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It is reassuring to know that David Blaine will not be reading this newspaper today. There is so much myth about this New York native who has made himself into the world's most popular magician and illusionist that there is little hope of avoiding errors. If anything here offends him, 42 days from now he will be free to lodge a complaint. Assuming that he still has his mind. Or, indeed, if he is still breathing.

Blaine, 30, is currently residing in a transparent box dangling from a crane above the Thames close to Tower Bridge. He was hoisted on Friday, vowing to stay there for 44 days - or 1,056 hours - without food or any form of distraction, under the gaze of Sky TV and Channel 4. He will be supplied only with water and will pee via a catheter. He also has baby wipes and nappies.

Already, you begin to see the conundrum here. Either Blaine, born 4 April 1973, is the smartest man alive, building his fortune ($30m and counting) by tapping into the public's fascination with mindless stunts such as this, or he is sick in the head. If we dare assume there is no trickery involved - he has insisted it is for real - he is putting his health, if not his life, at grave risk.

Of course, it is that peril that draws our attention. "You will see my skin have open wounds and lesions," he boasted last week. "When you have nothing but water in your body, your skin begins to rip open and scab. You are surviving by digesting your own muscles and organs. You will see it first-hand." Think Robbie Williams and his famously grotesque flesh-tearing music video.

Blaine is the most modern of magicians. With his practised sinister stare, he is hip not slick. Of mixed Russian, Jewish, Puerto Rican and Italian heritage, he rose to fame practising what he called "street magic", accosting ordinary folk on the streets, camera crew in tow, before dazzling them with seemingly impromptu tricks. Paul Daniels he is not. No sequins or toothy grins. He hits the gossip pages regularly, dating in the past the likes of Daryl Hannah and Madonna. He admits to once being hooked on heroin and other drugs. He is clean now, he says.

Yet at the same time, he is a throwback to the days of boardwalk freaks and vaudeville. With his Thames challenge, he is carrying on the legend of Houdini, whom he claims among his heroes. Indeed, his main residence is a Gothic-style mansion in Hollywood that was once home to the legendary escapologist. In the past three years, he has similarly encased himself in a block of ice for three days, buried himself alive in a glass coffin for seven days and balanced atop a narrow 83ft pole before leaping off into a pile of cardboard boxes. He did all of those in New York. This is his first London foray, although so far the reaction has been mixed. Some spectators have pelted Blaine with food and even golf balls, while others have dismissed it as a publicity stunt. Neither group, however, could tear itself away from the spectacle.

If you are beginning to think that this is a man in serious need of therapy, consider what he would like to do next. He fancies taking a fatal bullet - and walking away. As we search for what motivates someone to attempt such things, dollar signs must come first. If the day ever comes that he indeed volunteers to be shot, you can be sure it will be on live television. And boy what an audience he will get.

But the analyst will want to look deeper. As we have said, the mists of his life are thick, almost certainly by design. There is confusion even about his surname. Some say he is really David White, after his mother, Patrice White. Blaine may just be his middle name. He never knew his father, a Vietnam veteran who abandoned his Brooklyn family when David was just two years old. The job of raising him was left to Patrice, a teacher, who held down three jobs at a time. She married a banker, John Bukalo, when David was nine, and the three of them moved to Jerseyville in New Jersey.

The popular version of his biography has it that he started with magic almost before he could read. (Others say that is nonsense and that the art of trickery caught his imagination only in his teen years.) Allegedly, he was on a subway platform with Patrice aged just four when a busking magician told him to hold a wedding band in his closed palm. The ring had a shoelace threaded through it. When Blaine opened his hand the lace had become separated from the ring. Thus - or so it goes - he was addicted. A child who liked to be the centre of attention (some personality traits stay with us for ever) he allegedly performed tricks at family get-togethers and even with strangers in the streets throughout his childhood.

In his late teens, he moved to the then slightly shady Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan. He attended drama school for a year and had a few bit parts in soap operas and TV commercials. He was also waiting tables, and soon discovered the secret to earning much bigger tips - treating the patrons to a few of his tricks. Evidently, he was very good. A buzz about Blaine started to go round and before long even celebrities were seeking him out. Robert De Niro, who wants to make a film about him, and Leonardo DiCaprio were among them. The fame of Blaine was already beginning to build.

Then, one day in 1994, Blaine walked into the office of the celebrity agent Jon Podell and asked about getting a show on an American network. He returned later with a 10-minute hand-held video of street magic. One of his tricks involved asking strangers to think of the name of someone close to them. He would then reveal the name written on his arm, or point to a passing taxi with the name emblazoned on its side. Podell was impressed enough to approach ABC TV. Executives there also took to the act and Blaine was signed up for $1m. His first appearance on ABC led to snowballing fame, more TV specials, DVDs of his magic and, more recently, an autobiography, Mysterious Stranger.

But something else happened before then. And this is where the analyst really sits up. When Blaine was 17, his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She fought the disease for two years, but suffered a relapse while her son was away in France. He returned to find her close to the end.

"It was like walking into a room blindfolded and getting smacked in the face with a baseball bat," he wrote in Mysterious Stranger. "It was hard for me to fathom that she was dying. By the end she could hardly even speak. Her illness became the central focus of my life." By most accounts, her death has remained so ever since. If you are seeing a link between her demise and his flirting with mortality in his stunts, you are right. Writing of his self-entombment in New York, he said: "In many ways, I endured a week buried underground as a tribute to her since she had endured so much above ground before she died. I guess I am trying to put myself in a position where I could understand what she went through."

Blaine speaks often of his fascination with the limits of human endurance. In tribute to the writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, he has his concentration camp number tattooed on his arm. Swaying above the river for the next several weeks, he will have ample time further to ponder the nature of suffering. Meanwhile, he will not be totally alone. He has one other personal item inside his box. A picture of Patrice.