David Blaine is our Houdini. He’s a master illusionist, but he’s also an amazing endurance artist. He’s been buried alive for seven days. Frozen in a block of ice for 63 hours. He stood on a 30-meter-high, half-meter-wide pillar for 35 hours. He spent 44 days with no food in a plastic box 10 meters in the air in London. He spent seven days immersed in a water-filled sphere, at the end holding his breath for seven minutes and 12 seconds, just failing to set a world record. He stayed inside a one-million-volt electrical field for 72 hours. Stuff like that. But in a way I find his simplest things, the card tricks, the most amazing.
text by GLENN O’BRIEN
photography by SANTE D’ORAZIO
I first met David at the Bowery Bar, then New York’s hippest hangout, 20 years ago. He would completely amaze us with card tricks. In 1997 he made a great TV special called Street Magic, showcasing the card tricks, casually performing mind-boggling tricks for real people he met on the street. His latest special, David Blaine: Real or Magic aired in the US last November. In one of the stunts, he set a fire by spitting kerosene then put it out with an amazing stream of water he had drunk first; in another he put an ice pick through his hand.
When I visited David in December, before he headed to Paris, he still had a little scab on his hand from the ice pick. We talked about his stunts. Then, for old times’ sake, he showed me some card tricks, including some that are as much about mind control as sleight of hand. “Okay, did you see how I did that?” David said, over and over. “No,” I answered. “I could sit here every day for a year, and I still couldn’t see how you did that.”
There is only one David Blaine.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You said that you were four when you started with magic
DAVID BLAINE — Yes. I messed around with cards when I was four years old.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did somebody teach you, or were you self-taught?
DAVID BLAINE — I went to P.S. 20 in Brooklyn. My mother worked three jobs. So while she was still at work, I would go to the library after school, and I always carried this deck of cards on me. So the librarian walked me through the self-working trick, a simple mathematical card thing. I learned it and then I was able to do it. Then I started performing it, and then I got the bug. Then I started looking at magic books and discovered Houdini and science and math. Down the line I got into Harry Lorayne.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He’s “The Yoda of Memory Training.” You can do a million card tricks.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah, I love the card tricks.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Are some of those in books?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah… It was like a slow accumulation, and then you combine things or change them. There’s only so many basic moves and techniques. But I mean, there are so many books on magic, it’s mind-boggling. You can find almost anything that you can think of. But you come up with your own variations.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I remember seeing it at the Bowery Bar. Throwing a card into the wall, sticking it to the other side of a window.
DAVID BLAINE — I hit the glass behind the partition probably. Yeah, I remember that. That was like 1994, ’93?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. When did you first perform and where?
DAVID BLAINE — I was standing up on tables and performing, apparently, when I was like five. So I thought I was a magician back then. But there was no way to succeed as a magician. As a close-up magician. You could do, like, illusions, like David Copperfield stuff, as a business model. But the close-up thing was no business model. It’s the only thing I ever did, and I loved it more than anything. When I was 18, I went to Neighborhood Playhouse and studied with Richard Pinter, and I would do magic exercises as my acting routines. Some people would study scripts; I’d work on a magic thing. Then I’d go and present it, and he would direct it like an actor — like try to find truth in it. It became really comical. It was amazing. So my whole viewpoint on magic shifted through studying one year at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and it became, in a weird way, trying to find an actual connection through magic. That’s where I met Tatiana von Furstenberg, who took me into those society circles at a young age. Then I started getting hired by all of those people to do tricks… Diane Von Furstenberg would have me over… But at the same time, I was a troublemaker, so I’d be in Central Booking, I’d be in jail for the weekend, and I’d have been doing magic at Diane’s house the night before. But the reactions that I was getting made me think that this could work on TV.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I liked that Street Magic show where you do tricks for the cops.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. That’s kind of the idea.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You’ve got the card somehow into the cop’s shoe. The cop doesn’t want to take his shoe off.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah! I think the reason for not taking his shoe off was because he had a hole in his sock, which was against regulations.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, I figured that was it. So was it Houdini who made you get into the feats of endurance and control?
DAVID BLAINE — I’d have to say yes. I saw images of him as a kid, you know, strapped up to a building. I looked at those images and had nightmares. I couldn’t get it out of mind, wondering, “Why is there a man with chains looking really crazy on the side of a building?” Then I was on the YMCA swim team, and hairing been born until my feet turned in I was probably not as fast as the other kids. The way I would win the swimming was I just wouldn’t breathe; I’d just do the laps. I noticed if you didn’t have to do that, you were faster. So I just learned how to go beeline without breathing. This is like at age five or six. I’d go there-back, there-back. I kept getting better and better, and then I was winning. Then I started to compete with the kids just on breath-holding. I’d say, “I’ll bet you I can stay under longer than you can go up and down seven times.” But I knew that when they go up and down real quick, it didn’t help, so I’d just stay calm at the bottom. Then I learned about Houdini’s underwater breath-holding, so I was competitive with that one as a kid. I just always wanted to do things that I felt would be my own version of creating, something more than just a card trick per se, even though I loved the card tricks. But Houdini started as the King of Cards, and then he went and did these big stunts. I look through those books and go, “Whoa, look at this; he had New York shut down.” He was just dangling off of buildings. It was exciting, what he created.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did he train physically?
DAVID BLAINE — He was incredible. He was a monster. Yeah, he was always ripped. Up until the day he died at 52, he was ripped. He’d run every day, train. He was a maniac.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you do exercises to increase your lung capacity and stuff?
DAVID BLAINE — I did when I started training for it, but before that I just fought. I’d come up purple-lipped and black out right when I hit the surface all the time. I didn’t know there was a technique to it. That was years later. And I’m sure Houdini didn’t know there was a technique. I’ll bet you he was just willing it. Once I found a technique, it changed the whole game for me. It became easy to hold my breath.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s funny, because some of the things you found are things that were done by religious people, like the monks that used to stand on pillars and stuff like that.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. That’s how I discovered a lot of things. I would just look through all the best images of weird feats of endurance. I’d look at what the saints had done, I’d look at performance art books. I’d look at Chris Burden. I’d look at everything. Marina Abramovic´. I’d look at Houdini. I’d look at the people who imitated him. I’d look at Evel Knievel. I would just study all these people that did these things. Then along the way you think, “Oh, that would be kind of cool,” but you don’t process that you can actually do it. One day I was in LA with my friend at the time, Guy. We were at a window, and just staring at this big column. He was like, “What about that?” And I was like, “That’s it; I’m going to stand up there.” It was symbolic of the whole Saint Simeon the Stylite thing. So yeah, that became the seed. Then how long can you stay in there? Then it was, like, how high can you jump? I started training with the best stunt guys to learn. Start at 10 feet, 20 to 30 to 40 to 50, get up to 100 feet. Into cardboard boxes, because nobody is doing that. Then that’s another year and a half of your life.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I saw a thing where you were talking about breath-holding, and you tried inserting this re-breather and stuff. Does it matter to you whether it’s real or whether it’s an illusion?
DAVID BLAINE — I prefer to actually do it, when it can actually be done. I prefer to really do something. Ironically, all the stunts were actual stunts.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. And I prefer it that way. But if I couldn’t do it the real way, then yeah, I wouldn’t say no to finding an alternate method. But so far, it seems like everything is easier to just actually do than cheat. It’s just about if you can go through the pain. But I have no issues with cheating anything. I just haven’t done that yet. I feel like in the box in London, if I had cheated on that, I would have gone into starvation, I would probably have died. So by actually doing it, your body adapts to survive, and then your body starts shutting everything down. But if I was taking glucose or something like that, my metabolism would not have stopped, and therefore I would have actually starved myself to death. This was a fast. It’s a straight water fast. The body reacts and does what it has to do.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Have you ever done anything that you didn’t really completely recover from?
DAVID BLAINE — I don’t know yet, because the results are slow. I know that my heart does funny things. I don’t know yet. Just with the last one, with the electric thing, a bolt went in, KCHEW…
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you were drinking water, right?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. I spit it and the electricity hit it, went in, and bruised the heart wall, so I was messed up from that for a little bit.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you get that idea from Tesla? There are famous pictures of him…
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah, I’ve seen all those pictures and I always loved them, but that’s not where the idea came from, because it was an abstract image to me. Remember those plasma balls that you touch the side of and then the electricity comes off to your fingertips?
GLENN O’BRIEN— Yes.
DAVID BLAINE — I wanted to build that. But obviously, that’s in a vacuum. You can’t live in a vacuum. But then I found the guys who were using Tesla coils in a Faraday cage, and I said, “Could we do it with just a small Faraday suit that’s made to fit?” We put it together pretty fast. But yeah, actually that one ended up being the most difficult and most dangerous one, ironically. But it didn’t look like it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you’re doing your card tricks, you’re always saying, “Now, this might not work.”
DAVID BLAINE — Which is true.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I always think that’s part of the setup for the people you’re doing it for.
DAVID BLAINE — No, I’m not kidding. Because the stuff that I like to do is stuff that might not work.
GLENN O’BRIEN — But it usually works, right?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah, it works. But it might not work. I’ll show you in a little bit.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Are you afraid before you do it?
DAVID BLAINE — The stunts?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
DAVID BLAINE — No.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you have a fear of heights, or did you train yourself not to be afraid?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah, I think I trained myself to rewire the brain a little bit. Yeah. I do that all the time. The hardest one for me was to get over the fear of spiders, but I did that, too. That one took the longest.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you trained yourself to slow down your heart, did you do that looking at a heart monitor?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. That one right there. I put it on my finger all the time. That’s exactly how you train it. But you also have to get in really good condition to do that. You have to eat perfectly, train really hard, run like an animal. Clean your system out so there’s no impurities. Then your heart rate just starts going down and down and down. And then you learn how to control it by breathing — slow, controlled breathing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What about the pain thing?
DAVID BLAINE — Pain tolerance? That’s just in your brain. You know how to do it. It’s like if you know about the Vikings, when they used to go to war, they would just bite their tongue until they bled, so it would trigger part of the brain, and they could go to war much more efficiently. It’s the same thing. You just change a part of your brain temporarily. I think we do it every day.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s your natural pain tolerance? Is it normal?
DAVID BLAINE — Normal, yeah. It’s funny, because I do this thing, I push the ice-pick through the hand, and I was pulling the ice-pick out of the sheath the other day, because we were packing it to do this thing in Toronto or something, and I lightly poked myself. I said, “Agghhh!” It’s so funny. It’s the same thing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How many times have you done that?
DAVID BLAINE — I don’t know. Quite a bit now.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you ever hear of Sebastian Horsley?
DAVID BLAINE — No.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He was like a crazy English writer-dandy-drug addict, a great character, and he wanted to go to the Philippines and be crucified, you know, like these crazy Christians do at Easter. It didn’t work so well.
DAVID BLAINE — Why?
GLENN O’BRIEN — He sort of fell off…
DAVID BLAINE — Well, you can’t be crucified this way. It can’t support your body’s weight. If you were going to do it, you’d have to be on an angle. You can’t do it upright. This isn’t going to hold the weight of your body.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He filmed it. It was pretty horrific.
DAVID BLAINE — It sounds it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you went to Haiti, you were entering into a magic place. Did you discover anything there?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. It’s amazing, different places where magic is taken literally; they believe that magic exists. Period. In Africa, too, I had that same problem. I was doing card tricks on the street in Monrovia, and some guy started chasing me with a tank full of gasoline that he was going to pour on me and try to burn me, light me on fire. Because the magic there, it’s black magic. I guess they don’t have those secrets of magic books or shows, or any of that stuff.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Julian Jaynes wrote this book called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and he says that until, like, the time of Homer, people actually heard the voice of God in one of the lobes of their brain, and that’s what idols were about. An idol that people believed in would actually induce voices. So it was a little bit like schizophrenia, but it was a tribal thing, and everybody would hear the same voices. Voodoo seems a little bit like that.
DAVID BLAINE — That’s how they say Moses got the Ten Commandments. He heard them.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Voodoo works something like that. Because these people actually get possessed, right?
DAVID BLAINE — That’s true, yeah. They go into a trance.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you buried yourself, were you in a trance or…?
DAVID BLAINE — No, I just jumped in there. I rehearsed a little bit, but not that much. I just went for it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What does something like that do to your dream life? You sleep, right?
DAVID BLAINE — Sleep? It’s pretty normal. I haven’t been having crazy dreams lately. But in the coffin, I don’t remember my dreams.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I would think the weirdest thing would be waking up.
DAVID BLAINE — I don’t know. In the coffin, I’d sleep like probably five hours a night. But not moving, not doing much, so no energy expended other than isotonics, so you don’t get blood clots. I think anybody could do that, for the most part. I think it’s a healthy, normal thing. It wasn’t that big a deal. It seemed like it was going to be difficult before I did it, but when I actually did it, it was like, “Whoa, this is easy.” I mean, I did drop a ton of weight. The effects were that I couldn’t walk afterward and things like that. But that’s just because I hadn’t moved for so long. That was an interesting one.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I was thinking of you last week. I think it was the day your new show aired in the US. It was in the paper about the free-dive champion who’d died. I thought it was weird, because he made it to the surface, then he died minutes later. Carbon dioxide had poisoned him. Were you worried about that?
DAVID BLAINE — No. But I’m aware that it’s a real possibility.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It seemed like you were really pushing it.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. Well, just the other day, I did a talk show. I was in the water tank during the whole show, so I was breathing on the commercial breaks. I must have been holding my breath for at least 44 minutes out of the 60-minute slot. Yeah, probably 44 minutes. It was very disorganized, because we didn’t know when we’d have to breathe. So as soon as the commercial came I’d breathe, then I had to hold another eight minutes. My friends called me up because that New York Times story ran on the front page, and they said, “You’ve got to stop doing this.” And the Times story on the diver came out the day of my show. So you’re right.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you talk to a doctor about this stuff?
DAVID BLAINE — I have a lot of friends who are physiologists and stuff. Some used to work at NASA, and some are at MIT. I have a lot of guys with whom I discuss things who are very thorough, but they all have the same opinion, which is, “Don’t do it; you’re going to die.” Their opinions are never right. They all have the exact same worries, and then it becomes a burden of worries that everybody starts dumping on you, and I feel like if I would have just actually done it, I’d have been fine. You have to meet with these people, and they tell you that you’re going to get too much radiation from the X-rays, and too much O3, or whatever, and you’re gonna die. It’s not the case. But one day they’ll be right, and then it’s too late, so…
GLENN O’BRIEN — What X-rays?
DAVID BLAINE — When I was in that electric field, the Tesla, it’s like being in an X-ray machine for 73 hours. It’s the same amount of radiation. But I was fine.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you read that Obama and all these government officials now have these Faraday tents?
DAVID BLAINE — When Obama is on the road, they set it up in a hotel room so that nobody can break into the phones.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. Apparently Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, is in one when he’s in Moscow.
DAVID BLAINE — Oh, that’s cool.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I was always worried about electric radiation. They used to show people standing under high-tension wires holding a fluorescent tube, and it would light up.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah, that’s right. That’s what Tesla was doing. He could hold the bulb far away and it would light up.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Maybe growing up in the electrical grid, we just get acclimated to it. Like people who live at a high altitude get used to thin air.
DAVID BLAINE — Right.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you ever meet yogis, or people who are into this stuff?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. They seem to appreciate this stuff the most. I appreciate anybody who pushes themselves to the extreme. I met a guy the other day who had the world record for pull-ups. I find that mind blowing. I get that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You have some world records, right?
DAVID BLAINE — The only one I really have is the breath-holding one. But they’ve offered them to me for other things, like the ice and then how long I was underwater, but I didn’t take it. It’s a process. They have to be there and sign the thing on the show. I didn’t want to do all that. But for Oprah, it was different. I knew nobody would believe that record anyway, so it was better that they were there to cover it and get Oprah to kind of make sure it was what it was supposed to be. Because I’m a magician, it gets very confusing. If I was just doing performance pieces, but not as a magician, it would be easily accepted. But because I’m a magician, they go, “Oh, there’s got to be a trick to it; those fish aren’t really in that water.”
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you watch somebody like Ricky Jay, do you know how he’s doing what he’s doing?
DAVID BLAINE — He’s just a great artist. I love Ricky.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. That’s one of the most fun shows I ever saw.
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah, it was great. You should go see these other two kids. Nothing To Hide, it’s called. They’re up here now Off-Broadway. But they’re great. Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães. It’s on 42nd Street. Two guys. It’s great.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you ever see somebody do something, and you’re stumped as to how they do it?
DAVID BLAINE — That was the water-spouting thing. I had to figure it out forever.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I saw the thing that you did on Leno. Amazing. Where did you get that idea?
DAVID BLAINE — Hadji Ali did the water-spouting. [David shows me an old film clip of a man in a turban spouting water like a fountain.] I’ve been obsessed with this clip since I was a kid. This is Hadji Ali, and he’s putting a deadly amount of water into his stomach. Next he drinks a bottle of kerosene that floats on top of the water. Then he brings the kerosene back up in flames. Finally, he extinguishes the fire with the remaining water. Within a few short years, this act killed him, and he took his secrets to the grave. I spent over 20 years trying to figure this out. Then a video leaked online of a man water-spouting with more power than I’d ever imagined. In the video, there were numbers on the wall. Through that, we were able to find this location. Finding him wasn’t simple. We put ads on radio and newspaper, and posted fliers in all of the marketplaces. Finally, after three years, someone recognized him from the flier, so I immediately traveled to Africa to meet him. His name is Winston Carter, and he’s a 35-year-old security guard. I showed him the footage of Hadji Ali’s act, and I told him about my journey to learn the spout. He was shocked, because he didn’t know anybody else in the world could actually do this. For him, the spout has nothing to do with entertainment. Because clean water was so scarce when he was a kid, Winston learned to control the muscles around his stomach. That skill allowed him to store clean water that he could access at any point if he needed to. No one inspired him to learn this. He generated it purely out of his imagination. He shared his secret with me. For the first time in my life, I did it, sort of.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That was great on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno when you drank, like, three pitchers of water. How much water was that?
DAVID BLAINE — I can do a full gallon.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Where does it go? Does your stomach hold a gallon?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah. Easy. It stretches so it bleeds.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you really use kerosene when you spit fire then put it out with the water you drank first?
DAVID BLAINE — Yeah.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You couldn’t have just used grain alcohol?
DAVID BLAINE — You can’t, because it mixes with the water. I have Bacardi 151. You can spit that if you put it in your mouth. But if you drink it, it dilutes into the water so that you can’t use it. The good thing about the oil-based petroleum hydrocarbon is it floats on top of the water, and then it comes out first. But we came up with a new brew. I have a new brew that a chemist made for me. Obviously it’s a flammable oil, so it still leaves. It’s terrible for you, but it’s not as bad as the lamp oil or kerosene. So I’m slightly better off than I was. But after that one, I was so messed up, because it absorbs into the bloodstream and all that stuff. You feel it. That’s what I think may be causing the heart palpitations. But the new stuff I have is much cleaner. It’s called Blaine’s Brew. It was Zel-Jel, made by Dr. Geller. So he says it’s not going to kill me as fast as the other stuff would.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you have some dream stunt that you have always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet?
DAVID BLAINE — I’ve got a bunch that I still haven’t done, that I’m meaning to do. It takes so long, and they’re so difficult. I’m not as young and risk-taking as I used to be. But the one that I wanted to do, but that I’m too intimidated to do now, is the sleep deprivation. I just don’t know how you do that without tripping the brain…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Why do I think you’ll find a way?
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