Being a Woman in Magic May be the Hardest Trick of All

7 min read

Though it was nearly five decades ago, Gay Blackstone can still vividly recall the first time she was sawed in half onstage. Her screams were an intended element of the illusion, but nerves and fear made them genuine that time.

For Ms. Blackstone, that gig assisting the master illusionist Harry Blackstone Jr. turned into a love affair and, later, marriage. After her husband died in 1997, Ms. Blackstone moved center stage and went on to a successful career as an illusionist, coach, producer and director.

But she is an exception. Only around 8 percent of professional magicians are women, according to a spokeswoman for the Magic Castle, a private clubhouse in Los Angeles for members of the Academy of Magical Arts. Ms. Blackstone and others say a number of factors are to blame for the stubborn disparity, including sexism, wardrobe limitations and the enduring stereotype that women best serve as the audience’s distraction.

“I think for many years, no one really thought of the need for women to be the magician,” Ms. Blackstone said. “But now, as we’re coming up with different roles and different things we want to be doing, then there’s no reason why women can’t be just as great as men.”

Ms. Blackstone predicted that there would be “an explosion” of women pursuing magic in the next five to 10 years, as a younger generation of illusionists learns to take old tricks and make them their own.

For now, though, being a woman in magic can be a lonely pursuit. Take Nicole Cardoza, who often says she is the “only Black female magician I know.”

Ms. Cardoza, 34, who specializes in coin magic, or coin production, has been touring the country for more than two years, performing at universities, churches and conferences. Onstage, she is equal parts storyteller, teacher and magician in shows that reference and evoke Ellen Armstrong, who is believed to be the first Black woman to have a touring magic show in the 1900s.

To understand the lack of diversity in magic, Ms. Cardoza said in an interview, “we have to get into the role of who is allowed, historically, to be magical, supernatural.”

People are subconsciously less inclined to perceive women and people of color as magical, Ms. Cardoza said. Research on gender bias supports that assertion; a 2019 study published in The Social Psychological Bulletin found that male magicians were judged to be more impressive than women, even when performing identical tricks.

To understand the lack of diversity in magic, Ms. Cardoza said, “We have to get into the role of who is allowed, historically, to be magical, supernatural.”Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

As she pulled one coin and then another out of thin air during a performance at a church in Brooklyn earlier this year, she told the audience, “Sometimes we need to believe in things before we can see them.”

“It’s up to us to cultivate this practice to reach out, feel something right between the tips of our fingers — and make it real,” she said, suddenly conjuring a third coin.

When Anna DeGuzman introduced herself at an audition for “America’s Got Talent,” in a performance that has been viewed more than 57 million times on TikTok since it aired in June, the actress and judge Sofia Vergara asked, “How is it that there’s not many women that are magicians?”

“I’m one of the few and I hope to inspire more girls tonight,” Ms. DeGuzman said.

She incorporates cardistry, or the art of card flourishing, into her magic, aiming to revive interest in a skill that Ms. Blackstone described as “a ballet of cards.”

Ms. DeGuzman wowed the judges, including the hard-to-please Simon Cowell, by producing the two of spades card, which had earlier been selected by Howie Mandel, from a deck that Ms. Vergara, when asked to hide it, tucked between her breasts.

Ms. DeGuzman, 25, said in an interview that her life changed “like that” after the audition aired. The exposure validated her work, she said, as well as her conviction that magic is a profession, and that women have a place in it.

“I use the fact that I’m different to my advantage,” she said.

She finished the season as the runner-up after impressing the judges with several routines, including one in which she pulled a card that Mr. Mandel had signed from a cake and spat out a card that another judge, Heidi Klum, had selected, perfectly folded.

“We need more female magicians!” Ms. Klum declared.

The only child of a single mother, Ms. DeGuzman started practicing magic as a way of entertaining herself. When she was a teenager, she started posting videos on social media of herself performing tricks. They generated enough attention that she was featured on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” and “Australia’s Got Talent” before reaching the American version of the show.

“I didn’t have a female magician role model when I got started,” Ms. DeGuzman said. For one thing, she added, “No one told me what to wear.”

She didn’t like the suits that many male magicians wore, but wasn’t aware of alternatives. She initially dressed in casual street clothes before landing on a style that she described, a little guardedly, as feminine yet modern with “professional utility.” (Proper wardrobe is critical for illusions, Ms. Blackstone explained, because that is where things are often hidden.)

At just 19, Gabriella Lester has been a touring magician for several years. She is a member of the Junior Society at the Academy of Magical Arts, which mentors gifted young magicians between the ages of 13 and 20. Of the 77 students in the program, she is one of just 10 women.

Ms. Lester says she was “definitely not the popular kid in school,” where she could often be found trying to escape after having her classmates tie her to a chair with rope. The first time she wriggled out of a straitjacket — at a school fund-raiser, while hanging upside down — she was 14.

“That was the first thing that I did on my own and now it’s the thing that I’m known most for,” she said.

Ms. Blackstone was impressed by Ms. Lester’s stage act after watching her perform at the Magic Castle over the summer, describing her routine as “much more versatile and much more universal” than other — and older — magicians whom Ms. Blackstone had seen do the same tricks.

Magic is built on keeping secrets, Ms. Lester said, which is why it is difficult to break into and learn. But for her, magic is not about fooling people. She wants to leave audiences feeling as though they’ve been let in on a secret. “That’s what inspires people,” she said.

But with few women in the field to watch and emulate as she established herself as a performer, Ms. Lester said she was largely left to find her own way.

“There wasn’t this girl or this woman in magic that I could chase,” she said. But that, she added, “also gave me the creative freedom to create that person that I would have wanted my younger self to see and be like, ‘She’s cool. That’s what I want to do.’”

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