Honourable Harassment

To celebrate International Women’s day 2020

Here is an essay on my journey as a women into Close Up magic.

When I recount the true story as to how I began performing close up magic out loud in company people usually cringe upon hearing it, especially men. I presume this is the case because they recognise the truth first or second hand within the story I’m telling. 

Why should we feel guilt for telling the truth about how we have been treated by people when performing in our careers?

As females we wish to look our best so we wear nice clothes, put on make up, do our hair, wear heels to feel feminine and yet sometimes for all the effort we put in we are made to feel objectified and not taken as seriously as our male equivalent. After years of experiencing this, I wonder if these feelings of guilt and inadequacy are real or just inside my head?

I did. Feel guilt that is…

For being a girl. From the moment I first performed magic in public I was treated differently. I will never forget how I was immediately spoken down too, felt up, followed by men (with their children) trying to make me notice them and persuade me to give them my phone number. How I was told in my first year of performing – in front of children – that it would be nice to hear how I sounded when I orgasmed. I was told this in a dingy bar as the man who loudly spoke those vulgar words stroked the small of my back! These are just a few of the reasons why as soon as I began my journey into close up performance I put a halt to it, permanently!

I just couldn’t face trying to be taken seriously as a female magician performing magic for “adults” when I was being treated so unkindly and sexualised for essentially, being a girl. Looking back now I wonder why I was made to feel so uncomfortable and why those men thought it was ok to speak to me this way!?

I can’t answer for the guys, but my short answer is I was young. I didn’t have the life experience nor the confidence to ignore or respond appropriately to the comments or actions. I didn’t have the ability to just walk away without it effecting me and getting upset. So I did what anyone would expect me to do, I walked away and delved into kids magic instead. It appeared to be an ideal environment allowing me to avoid sexism, uncomfortable situations and a safe place where I could develop as a performer without being judged or treated differently for being a girl by adults – mostly men.

This new path did not stop my love of close up material, particularly card magic. Alongside performing for children I continued to watch, read and practice with cards – never daring to perform my tricks in real life for fear of being objectified like I was all those years ago. Close up magic became a hobby that I secretly loved but dreaded being asked to perform.

Attempting to break the wheel…

In an attempt to break myself out of this bad habit I’d formed, I took on some free walk-around close up events – even though I was petrified I don’t normally give up on things too easily. None of these were successful. My most recent memory of one close up event I attended was that I arrived, felt physically sick and shaken to the point I could not even pick up a pack of cards and had to call the customer reporting that I was too ill to complete the engagement. It’s worth noting at the time of that phone call I was already standing at the doorway to the venue. My memories of being harassed emotionally and physically at the beginning of my career paralysed me to the point where I could not bring myself to perform for adults no matter which gender they were. 

Times were a changing…

In 2018, 10 years into performing my kids character and 15 years into performing magic in family homes, hospitals, schools and theatres globally, the urge to perform close up magic again was at the fore. I had an itch and for some reason it would not fade. I decided to attend Vanishing Inc’s Magic Convention ‘The Session’ on my friend Andi Gladwin’s guarantee that I would leave inspired!

I was beyond inspired. Attending that convention was like magic therapy for my soul. I got to see Paul Vigil, Max Maven, Tom Stone and witnessed the late legend Johnny Thompson performing. All masters of close up performance. There may not have been a surplus of female performers there however I realised that I wanted more than anything to perform and get to the level these magicians were at in their careers. 

As the convention was at its end, I found myself sitting in the foyer with all the performers from the weekend. A man I hadn’t met before offered me a seat beside him. He began asking me who I was and why had I come to The Session.

I found myself retelling the story of how I came into magic, my love of card magic and how I was frightened to ever perform again in a close up setting because of the harassment I experienced as a young girl entering the magic industry. I remember him looking at me, sitting silent for what felt like an age before responding, 

“You cannot let this experience in the past prevent you from performing close up again. These experiences, important though they seem, are singular and perhaps might never happen ever again in the same way. You have so much more experience now as a performer and you might surprise yourself at how you handle the situation now compared to then.”

Marco Fida

The man who sat and spoke to me that day was Marco Fida and I am eternally grateful for his push.

Marco Fida

Marco made me laugh about the past and realise that I should not let bad memories spoil or limit my future as a magician. Through someone else’s insight I was able to take a step back and realise that a long time had elapsed since my initial dabbling into card magic. I had grown up, toured countries performing all kinds of magic on stage and perhaps there was no better time to throw myself back into the fire and see if this time I would make it out unscathed.

Even though I knew I had changed as a performer and that I had more life experience as a person, I was still hesitant at the thought of performing close up for adults. I continued making the excuses for a while; telling bookers that I wasn’t free to perform on particular dates – anything to avoid facing my fears. Luckily I met THE definitive performer in the UK Close up Magic scene, who just happened to be a woman – and an inspirational one at that! I came under the radar of and became friends with none other than the wonderfully talented close up legend, Fay Presto.

Fay Presto photo by Olav Holten from Mystique Stockholm

Meeting Fay in person is really a once in lifetime opportunity. I am so pleased to say I’ve had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with this lady and her generosity and encouragement over the last two years has been the making of me as a person and performer. She has mentored me unofficially, investing her time and energy into giving me the tools I needed to thrust myself into the business of Close Up magic. Every time I spoke to Fay there was something worth taking note of.

The best piece of advice she gave me this year was “You need to fuck up to give some soul to a piece of magic”. Being a woman you will get unnecessary attention, but try to use it to your advantage, rather than always look upon ones gender as I negative thing. “Sex sells, but style is more expensive”, and if you are good looking and talented at what you do use it and take advantage of what you have been gifted with. 

After being with Fay I was ready to face my fears at the first close up event I performed at. I built myself up so much over the week prior to the event I was ready for anything happening and was determined to complete it. Oddly, after all the deep breathing, chanting and crossing fingers prior to the event, it turned out to be a very uneventful occasion. No touching, no weird comments just smiles, laughter and joy. 

My first close up event after years of not performing them.

What on earth had happened? Why did everything click into place at that moment? And why was I no longer treated differently? 

Perhaps I was finally ready to become a Close Up performer. Maybe I stopped thinking that it was me who was different.

Nikola Arkane

I got some of the best advice in the business, saw first hand how another woman worked her magic and I had done a lot of the hard work learning my craft performing for children. From that event on I never said no to close up work again.

Beginning to work my magic…

Within a few months I was booked to perform at an event in Sweden for nurses and doctors alongside Tom Stone, Martin Hansson and Leif Olberius – which wasn’t nerve wracking at all!! As if performing in a different country was not pressure enough, knowing that I would be observed by people attending the event and three extremely talented magicians, well that would be enough to frighten any new performer away. I decided not to let the pressure get to me. Instead I focused on my material and tried my best to have fun at the tables. The time flew in, I was laughing, the people were smiling and it wasn’t that bad performing alongside these experienced performers after all. To the lay people I was one of them; a talented, experienced performer performing magic at their event too.

Looking back on this event, I realise that I was unique in that situation being the only girl performing that evening. My initial perception of being the only girl magician in situations was slowly morphing from a defeatist place to a more constructive one.

My close up journey did not stop there. I was asked to perform in Oslo, Norway, at Davido’s Magic Club working alongside twenty close up and stage magicians. Even though English was not the audiences native language, I was able to charm them with my personality and choice of material. Using my theatrical knowledge I brought people in close to witness colour changing cards, vanishing coins and to end the night I performed my first solo piece on stage. After I took my bow and the applause died down, I returned to the audience to watch the remainder of the show. Sitting on the steps gazing up at the stage, I realised this was the life I had always dreamed of. All my fears slowly slipped away into the night.

I performed the Irish Link for the first time at the Magic Club in Oslo Norway.

After spending a full week as a guest at the Magic Castle Hollywood LA in March 2019 – it literally felt like my home – I got to see performances everyday, hang and talk magic with magicians daily. I got so inspired by material and the level of skill I saw that I realised what my next goal had to be. I wanted to get booked to perform at the Castle myself. 

Me, a girl from Ireland, who’s only been performing close up magic properly for a year could potentially be a performer at this prestigious venue. Impossible!?!

Nikola Arkane

To me it seemed inconceivable to me… but not to everyone I’d met that week – they were more than encouraging. Everyone kept saying “All you have to do is get an act together and send it through to Jack Goldfinger”. As daunting as that sounds, that’s exactly what I did!

In order to make my dreams come true I had to become my own hero…

A week after returning home from the Magic Castle as a guest, I set a date and time period to build and perform my close up act. With help from friends I borrowed a space to perform my act in and got someone to record it. Looking back now the stress I put myself under in that short space of time was bonkers. I cried – lots – and there were a few days I truly believed I would not complete the task I set myself. My plan was to get as many non magicians to come see my close up act as possible, trying to replicate the audience that I would actually be performing for. Tickets were free. Thirty people came to support me. The feedback was positive. I’d done what I’d set out to do. The first performance wasn’t without error, I knew that but upon watching back the recording I decided I needed the act recorded again. 

This time I performed it for an audience at Belfast MagiCon 2019. When I had the initial idea, I was told by the organiser that I was not allowed to perform my act as an official part of the convention, so I organised it in a small room as a rogue performance inspired by my friend who told me to do it anyway. I am a rebel at heart!

Upon announcing the show the room filled with conventioneers eagerly awaiting to see what magic was in store. My peers were surprised at what they saw. I was hugged, kissed and praised but I was tired, emotional and drained. As I bid my audience farewell, I now had two recordings of my act and two performances under my belt. I felt good. I did it! Now it was time to send my videos off to Jack and await his response.

The wait…

I waited. And waited and waited some more for what felt like an eternity (it was actually only two weeks before I got a response).

In the meantime thanks to Fay Presto singing my praises to the manager at The Chicago Magic Lounge, magician Benjamin Barnes, I was booked for four nights in July to perform close up magic. I couldn’t believe it! I hopped off an eight hour flight, had an hour to beautify myself and BAM I went straight into performance mode. 

I didn’t have any time to get nervous – although on the plane I was thinking ‘what is happening with my life right now?!’ – I was escorted via a tiny laundrette with twirling washing machines into the new home for Chicago’s elite magicians.

Looking at the beautiful theatre I could tell immediately that the space was designed by magicians with magic in mind. So much care had been taken. Backstage there was a shelf with brand new bicycle packs, sharpies and a box filled with used cards if any performer needed to make a gaff. The technicians looking after the performers were also magicians so they knew exactly what was required in terms of technically staging a magic show. We had a Magic Host (Super Shauna) whose job it was to direct each of the close up performers to the tables. This guaranteed that every person in the audience had seen a little bit of close up magic before the show. A wonderful concept! As a performer this took all the stress out of deciding which table I was going to perform at and allowed me to arrive and delve straight into the magic without any prior judgement.

The working environment was unlike any I’d ever experienced before. You have to juggle performing magic whilst waiters are serving drinks and food to the tables at the same time. You have to work in tiny hallways with very little room and be aware of people moving around you whilst trying to keep the attention of the spectators you are engaging. 

After four nights working there I thrived in the environment. I learnt quickly, tried different material each night and by the last night I had tricks that suited the venue and accentuated my personality. I believe I came up with a routine of three tricks that were engaging and the guests enjoyed watching amongst the chaotic environment surrounding them. My last set consisted of a coin trick and two card tricks (finally I’m performing card magic again!) One of the tricks I learnt from a visit to Magic Inc in Chicago (which is THE best magic shop I’ve visited EVER!). 

Lessons learnt at the Lounge.

From my time performing at the Lounge I discovered that it’s not actually the tricks that matter when performing close up, it’s you. You have your personality, your charm and wit and by using those tools you can make sure the audience watching are engaged and having fun.

A performance becomes magical when you feel magical inside.

Nikola Arkane

I will never forget the first tap on the shoulder from a customer I just performed for, handing me my first tip in close up – I thought only Fay Presto could produce that kind of magic. Performing for Don, one of the owners and his guests twice across the week was nerve wrecking but incredibly fun. Getting to hang with Danny Orleans and his wife Jan, The New Bad Boys in Magic Danny and Eric, Tom Stone, Tony Cabral, Luis Carreon, Devon Brown, Ryan Plunkett, Gozner and many more. Being thanked personally by Joey the other owner and Benjamin for coming to play with them. 

In the Chicago Magic lounge dressing room with The Bad Boys of Magic, Tom Stone, Jan Rose, Luis Carreon and Jeff Bibik.

Upon returning from performing at the Chicago Magic Lounge and reflecting on this intense year of pushing myself to achieve my goals and face my fears, I went into rehearsals for and attended the IBM British Ring Eastbourne Magic Convention. There I entered all three competitions and won two of them. The Ali Bongo Micro Magic competition in a normal setting voted by the public and the IBM British Ring Close up Competition 2019. The first girl in 37 years to win.

The moment the winner was announced at Eastbourne IBM convention 2019.

A nice little accolade to achieve just before being invited to perform a week at the Magic Castle in Holywood in the Close up Gallery. I can now say officially I have been to and performed at the Magic Castle as an Early Close Up performer (the performance start around the 2 minute mark in the video below).

Every show sold out and the response from both magicians, lay people, men and women, was just so magical.

I met new friends and people got to see what I’m made of. The whole week I was not treated as simply a girl, but a magician.

Nikola Arkane

Since then I now have the confidence to just be unapologetically me. And people are now booking me because of the work I have put into the magic I do.

I was lucky to be booked to perform at my first convention after the Magic Castle, Magic Weekend 2019 in Lund, Sweden, alongside Fay Presto and Alana from Germany in a Ted Talk style performance by Gay Ljungberg. It’s an amazing thing to be given the opportunity to talk magic alongside women that not only inspire me, but encourage me to follow my dreams. We as women need to be there for one another. Help each other to grow and share with one another. Become giants for others to stand upon.

So, I did it!

My reaction after my first week performing at the Magic Castle, with the lovely Say Jay Hynes who was my rock the entire week.

In a matter of months I did the honourable thing to myself…

I changed my attitude to performing for adults.

I stopped harassing myself with the thought that being a girl made me different. In the end perhaps the bad thoughts have always just been my own fears manifesting from inside my head. That feeling of inadequacy because of my gender (pushed upon me by the society I’m living in) got exaggerated to the point I could not face my fears. And I let it. I had to change.

Magic historically is recognised as a man’s business. In fact, most industries are. We cannot blame the actual magic business alone for helping to sell this fallacy. Regardless what industry we are in the treatment of men and women socially is inconsistent. This is the case for many reasons and has been influenced by history, written material, law and general ignorance.

Change takes time

Society’s acceptance of gender equality is changing slowly. What this means for the magic industry is that the acceptance of female magicians is developing at an even slower pace. It’s good to remember that we hold ourselves to the norms society has created for us.

If society cannot change, change your attitude within it so that it shines on the surface through your performance regardless of what gender you are. People will see that and learn to love you for who you are. Your talents, skills and personality are key.

The truth is women have always been performing magic, perhaps not recognised in the same way as their male counterparts are but historically the magic world would simply not be what it is today without the contribution from both men and women together. Never forget that!

And I believe, something truly wondrous will happen when that contribution is equal.

11 comments

  1. Proud of you.
    Always remember, YOU did it not anybody else. Whatever you are has come from inside of you, there were just a few people outside of you slowing you down. We just helped you take your foot off the brake pedal and find the accelerator.

  2. Dear Nikola,
    thank you for an absolutely amazing story!
    It was impossible not to read it through!
    I admire your inner strength and from the bottom of my heart I wish you all the best for the future and hope to see you in Sweden one day!
    XXX
    Anders

  3. Such an amazingly inspirational story – and having heard it narrated over chat and cups of tea whilst it all happened its SO interesting to see it in writing like this since it puts it all into perspective.
    There are aspects of the society we live in that I am positively appaled by (many of who you identify in your blog post above) and it continues to baffle me how this can permeate even the magical community.
    One would have hoped that the follies and prejudices of past generations would have been slain in this day and age. Wish that it was so! Every time we take a small step towards equality the more the unfairness of the past situation becomes apparent.

    Yes. I cringe at the story. Feel sick from hearing it even.

    And yet I am not immune to it either, despite how much I want to label myself as a feminist or a liberal. Just look back a few sentences and ponder what I wrote without thinking about it: “Every time we take a small step towards equality the more the unfairness of the past situation becomes apparent.” Apparent to whom!? Apparent to someone who has been privileged enough not to have the situation stare you in the face every single day of your life…

  4. Now YOU are a role model for others. A role model for both young women in magic and all those performers with self doubt which you battle to overcome.You are inspirational.

  5. Nikola that was absolutely fantastic and it would make an amazing start to a new book – becoming Nikola Arkaine. I’m so proud of my girl, oops WOMEN.

  6. Woohoo! You’re truly an inspiration Nikola. As I’ve said before, I happened upon your blog, which then inspired me to sign up to Toms Workshop. Thank you as always Nikola, for sharing the magic.

  7. It was a delight to see your shows at the Magic Castle! It must have been a grueling week for you, but thank you for taking time to be with the Women Magicians’ Association. We are looking forward to your return appearance at the Castle. This time we’ll make you work even harder because we want to see your lecture!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *