Survival of the cutest

Hot young magician David Blaine gets all the love while the best tricksters get hardly any.

Published May 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

While I was hanging around the New York Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden the other night, I noticed
a group of about a dozen young black and Hispanic nightclub kids from Queens,
carrying notebooks. They looked like the types you'd normally see leaning on
airbrushed trucks and saying, "Ssssssssssss" at girls in tight pants or menacing stoplights with their bowel-shuddering,
mega-bass "trunk of funk." They were stumpy cologne-and-gold-necklace guys with that bad,
whitewall-sided bowl hairdo that gives the effect of a bald guy wearing an
oily yarmulke. Their women were tough Latina Jheri-curl chicks who could
swat you to death while applying their thick black lipliner.

They were bluffing and fronting next to Rodin's sculpture of Balzac,
holding what looked like a press conference. One of the guys was sitting on
a garden chair with his arms folded rap-style over his nipples as he addressed the group. Another guy,
with reflective sunglasses, baseball hat and long coat, was acting as
bodyguard-manager. The rest were listening intently and
taking notes.

I snuck up and eavesdropped as they dragged their show over to a Picasso sculpture. The garden chair guy was pontificating, pointing at the piece: "And I created dis one to represent certain changes I been goin' through
in my life."

A Cleopatra Jones girl with a big afro and long zipper boots raised her
hand. "I'd like to know what you made this sculpture out of, sir."

"Uh," said the "artist," scrunching up his face, staring at the piece, stroking his
invisible beard. "Coppah pipe."

His crowd erupted into applause.

While they were enjoying their little performance, it was obvious that they
couldn't care less who actually created the sculptures. The objects were dead
for them; they meant less than a sports trophy or a good plumbing job, which
brings me to my big sermon of late: In today's media-centric world, it
doesn't matter who originated the Thing (whatever it may be), or who spent
their lives building and perfecting the Thing. All most people want to know
about the Thing is this: Who's that bad-ass guy in
the leather coat and sunglasses, leaning against it?

This principle is working for Puffy Combs, who has built a career out of the skeletons of other people's music, and now it's working for
David Blaine, the tattooed guy in the black leather and sunglasses, leaning
against the statue of Houdini.

Hot Young Magician David Blaine is supposedly seducing America by storm
with his sanpaku stare-down, thug-life shave-job, streetwise
posturing and celebrity dating record. He is best known for recently getting
the Nederlander organization and Donald Trump to pitch in upwards of $200,000 so he could inter himself in a see-through coffin in front of Trump's building for a
week, reclining in what his press material called a "self-induced
trance-like state." This was "not a publicity stunt," Blaine insisted,
although it happened to occur in the week before "Magic Man," his TV
special, aired, and 85,000 people just happened to walk by and watch him
doing this very expensive test of personal endurance.

"Can it be done? Will he die?" asked the press release of this
non-publicity stunt. Blaine's premise was to pick up where Houdini left off,
Houdini having once entertained the idea of burying himself alive. I have a
funny feeling that by "buried alive" Houdini didn't mean in a transparent
jewelry box at Trump Place, but I'm confounded by
anyone who would want to further the continuum of weird spiritual murkiness
left us by Houdini in the first place. There has always been something grimy
about magic. Even at its very best, it is a long con. Magic is based on
tricks and secrecy, so traditionally, only pathetic, lonely people ever
want to lie that much to get attention. Magicians are historically a
sorry-assed lot, who keep company with flame-retardant midgets and

Recently, sex has become an inextricable and unfortunately necessary part of marketing
the magician mystique. Seigfried and Roy started it, even though their sex
life seems to consist of coaxing rhinestone tigers in and out of each others'
parachute pants. David Copperfield carried the torch, although his sexuality has
also been kind of questionable (what kind of "real man" would ever
fall in love with a two-dimensional lawn flamingo like Claudia Schiffer?). Still, he's a damn sight more palatable and entertaining than Seigfried and Roy,
who have maybe the worst magic act ever, consisting largely of absurd outfit
changes and bad rope-tricks that everybody got in a Frosted Flakes box when they were 8. I saw Copperfield a few years ago, strictly on a mission to
skewer the guy for being a bottle-bronzed nancy-ponce with arrogant
soap opera hair. But when the show was over, I honestly couldn't think of a
single nasty thing to say about him. Magicians may cast nasturtiums at
his technique; Penn & Teller may think he's the worst card-knitting sissy in
Admiral Hornblower sleeves ever to pose on a Harley with the kickstand down,
but fundamentally, Copperfield is an old-fashioned ENTERTAINAH with a lot of
overblown sincerity and rooster feathers and liquid eyeliner, like Liza

Fat women in the Midwest who are still impressed by such things want Copperfield to
materialize in their laundry room, replete with shiny pneumatic torso and
bales of money -- but only for a dirty little romp session. Copperfield, who disclaims himself and his shtick
with the title of "illusionist," doesn't inspire lasting or desperate love. Blaine, however, whom one Internet
gossip hound called a "hot little bucket of spooky," seems to be cultivating
an obsessable, Rasputin-like sex aura and some form of serious, unholy
magical legitimacy. Blaine suggests he is magic personified.
This is not a hoax. He is reading your mind, he is invading your soul. To
keep his magical secrets, famous and beautiful women would tear out their own
tongues and pledge lifelong slavery to David Blaine, Sorcerer-Sheik. He
bends I-beams and feminine willpower with his dark, gypsy bedroom eyes; the
men won't know, but the little girls will understand.
Blaine is a cock-rock Copperfield for the Generation Y crowd.

And this is a problem, because, according to the "Survival of the Cutest"
standard that protects the better-looking of our endangered species and lets
the homely ones die in ignominy, the best magicians, sadly, get hardly any
attention at all.

Ricky Jay is considered by the hermetic world of magic cognoscenti to be one
of the greatest sleight-of-hand experts ever, which he demonstrated in his
off-Broadway show, "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants," a few years ago.
Unfortunately, Ricky Jay is a bearded fat guy with skin like an old sponge,
so his brilliant career only extended itself beyond his stage show to a
couple of consulting gigs, some walk-on dirt-bag roles in Dave Mamet
films and a 1986 book on circus and freak performers, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women." He just wasn't fuckable.

Blaine, a fraction the card shark, looks
like the kind of swarthy danger boy that old rich homos would go all the way
to Morocco to buy for outlandish sums, henceforth, he travels around in
style, and gossip mavens write about the fact that he was seen eating veal
in Miami. Rank-and-file magicians are going crazy about Blaine. It isn't
fair, they say. He's pulling cigars out of Bridget Hall's bikini and making
cognac disappear with Leo DiCaprio while superior magical geeks are honing
their skills and trying to be louder than the children's birthday
party, trick-shuffling in a vacuum with nobody paying any attention.

Those pathetic bucktoothed bastards never figured out how to get famous in
America: Tattoos. Leather jacket. Abdominal six-pack. Sunglasses.
Appropriating other people's material. Sexy sexy sexy.

Naysayers have said
that the most miraculous trick Blaine ever performed was getting people to
think he's interesting, but shut up, you jealous, pasty fat boys, you'll
never saw Victoria's Secret models in half. OhmiGod, my panties are melting
and running down the leg of my dirty riot-grrrl jeans! How'd he do that?

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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