3 Female Magicians Tell Us What It's Like To Be A Woman In That World

Photographed by Simone Lueck.
Belinda Sinclair in her conjuring room.
When you picture a magician, what comes to mind?

Is it a fictional character like Steve Carrell in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, or Edward Norton in The Illusionist, or Adrien Brody in Houdini? Or is it contemporary real-life magicians David Copperfield, Criss Angel, or David Blaine?

One thing you more than likely will not picture is a woman. But, perhaps it's time we did...

Women were the earliest sorceresses, muses, and practitioners of magic. They dealt cards in parlors, they tricked audiences, and they entertained. One such woman was Adelaide Hermann, who rose to fame in the late 19th century. Starting off first as an assistant to her magician husband, Alexander Hermann, she took over the show after his death. Nicknamed the Queen of Magic, she proved to audiences, night after night, that a woman's place was in the spotlight, not in the shadows.

Yet for some reason, men have primarily represented the world of magic. The brief glimpses of women in films about magic paint them as minor or supporting characters, or the damsel in distress. At best, they're the stage assistant, done up in overly sexualized outfits, adding little, to no fervor to the performance.

Even the recently released film, Now You See Me 2 couldn't get it totally right. The movie's poster was mocked on social media for its glaring lack of women. It featured a sole female, Lizzy Caplan, promoting people to rename the film Now You See Men 2.

Caplan told Refinery29 that while preparing for her role in the film, she tried to find female magicians to talk to with no avail. "There are so few of them," she told us. "Not only are their numbers small, but the vast majority of them have to incorporate this overly sexualized thing, which is really strange."

Once a woman successfully makes a name for herself in the magic business, she is often faced with a series of choices on how to be perceived. There is an ongoing controversy within the industry itself because women are not sure how to be participatory in magic without capitalizing on sex. The common question seems to be, How can I be a female magician without doing a sexualized performance? And the answer, like a magic trick itself, is not obvious. These are gray areas of the magic industry that only women have to deal with.

That's why Refinery29 talked to three very different, very talented, astoundingly captivating women who are all masters of their own distinct type of magic.

Some emphasize humor, like Maritess Zurbano, and others physical endurance like Tanya Solomon, and some, like Belinda Sinclair, focus instead on the history of the art. They each told us their unique stories of how they came to be magicians, what it's really like to be one in 2016, and why they love it so much. Unique stories aside, they all share the same ultimate goal — to leave audiences awestruck.

Here's the side of magic not often seen on the screen, told straight from the muse-worthy magicians themselves.
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Photographed by Simone Lueck.


Belinda Sinclair — Magicienne & Conjurer

From Musicals To Medicine To Magic


Belinda Sinclair had always been drawn to creative subjects, like photography, because she was inspired by her father, a photojournalist for the Associated Press and United Press International. Combine that with the diligence of her mother, who was a local politician, and you're left with the perfect mixture of curiosity and coordination needed to be a successful woman in magic.

Sinclair attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, where she pursued theater. While in school, she worked with Bill Britten, who performed as a Bozo the Clown in the '60s. He used to tell her, "If you ever want to be successful, you'll study clowning!" Sinclair was turned off by the idea of being a clown, and decided to focus her studies on medicine and become a paramedic. From there she moved onto comparative religion, then clinical hypnotherapy, and finally — magic.

"I use magic as a kind of tool to help [my clients] find whatever it is their quiet zone is, to help them find that place that opens up the question or that opens up a focus or that allows them to listen to themselves even for just a moment," she said of her style of performance. "Because with magic, it’s one of the only pieces of universal language you really have to be present for or you’re going to miss it."

History Of Women In Magic

As a result of over 20 years of research, Sinclair has built the largest collection, to her knowledge, of writings, research, and relics pertaining to the history of women in magic. Acquired from various bookstores, and auctions within the magic community, Sinclair has factual evidence that women were the first practitioners of magic. Sinclair keeps a third of her vast anthology in The Conjuring Room where she holds performances for a small crowd of eight to 10.

The earlier magicians, she said, didn't need to hide behind toys and gimmicks. Magic isn't about trickery. It's about expanding a thought process. "I think that the misconceptions behind magic are that magic is the culmination of a bunch of tricks that are designed to entertain," she said. "I really believed that women were responsible for [magic] for very, very many years, and to an extent still are."
Photographed by Simone Lueck.

Fact or Fiction?

Sinclair is clear to point out that she does not feel that the world of magic is sexist. She isn't trying to bring feminism ideals to the intimate gatherings. However, she does feel that a woman practicing magic is much different than a man. Not due to skill, or spite, but just due to the audience's experience.

She explained further: "When people hear about magic and magicians they think about Harry Houdini and the escape artists and the illusions and the hanging from the head and the gauging of eyes out, and how many steak knives you can put in your tongue. But they are not realizing that the foundation of magic is a university of wealth [of knowledge.] And I have been collecting this university of wealth for very many years. And as a female magician, and I don’t like to separate myself from the [male] magicians because they do work really, really hard, like women. We all have to go through the same basic schooling to get from point A to point B, so I don't want to diminish men from women or create a feminist outlook on it. But as a female, I have the ability to nurture [magic] in a very different way.”

Sinclair suggests an idea that there are two types of magic — endurance magic, and then nurturing magic. “For men, it’s more about endurance magic. It’s eye-candy magic. Subliminally it does entertain, but not as a formula or a system. Whereas I'm using it as a system to bring magic back to what I believe it is supposed to be. Well not, supposed to, but where I’d like to see it go. I’d also like to elevate the purpose the magic."

To Sinclair, the subtleties and mysteries of being a woman in magic was what made the job so appealing to her. They "imparted wisdom" and ignited curiosity. They didn't shock or scare. "You see, women a long time ago never called themselves magicians. Why would they do that? What would be the point? They wouldn’t want anyone to know that they were 'a magician of amusing diversions' they were real. They imparted a certain insight and a certain feeling that carried people through their lives on a daily basis. They were not going to say, 'Look at what I do — I do a trick!' Anyone can do that. They were not going to hang upside down for three hours in order to get people inside of their theater. No, no, no, they were just going to say, 'Listen, your grandmother came and told me a secret I need to tell you.' And then you get hordes and hordes of people — you know, 'I see dead people' — you have hordes and hordes of people who are going to come to you. You don’t even need to advertise."

Magic With A K

In regards to her own show, Sinclair describes it as a "magic show plus." She incorporates different methods of magic, all the way back to the early 1800s, when magic was spelled with a "k." She strives to teach the audience about magic, and leave them wanting more.

"My goal in my life of magic, for the last 33 years, has been to elevate not only the art, but also to change the perception of what it is, what it can be, what the future of it can be, and to build this much more unified or universal — university-like — foundation where people can actually learn all of the wonderful things we learn in school, math, science, in a way the encompasses and compromises the superstition part of it, into something that is organically part of our life," she said.
Photographed by Simone Lueck.


Tanya Solomon
Magician

Circuses, Sideshows, & Clowns, Oh My!

Solomon didn't start performing magic until she was 30. She was previously working in publishing, and went to graduate school for philosophy. On the side, she was "obsessed" with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. So she did what every circus-loving grad student would do — she ran away with them.

She started by selling merchandise for a few weeks with them, and then things escalated very quickly. "I started performing with them and they encouraged me to perform, and I started doing sideshows, and I travelled with them, and I did finish the master’s degree, but that was it. I literally ran off with the circus. I got the master’s degree in philosophy but that was that. It was all circus for me after that. And I joined the Coney Island Sideshow too and worked with them for a couple seasons. I was doing sideshow things like pounding nails up my nose, and walking on broken glass, all that stuff." From there, she went to New Orleans where she was taught and mentored by a key mentor, Harry Anderson, former star of Night Court.


Male Magicians Aren't The Problem

Solomon said that she never felt she was at a disadvantage performing magic as a woman, even though the traditional image of a young magician is an 8-year-old boy toting around a magic kit. Learning to work with men, and position yourself as one of their peers, is a daunting, but doable task. Male mentors are more popular than female mentors for one main reason — there are more of them.

"Anyone who’s ever become a magician had a mentor. I had Harry Anderson and other mentors, who have all been male because almost every magician is male, but they haven’t treated me any differently because I’m female. I have a feeling that one of the questions that’s going to arise is, 'Do you feel that the male magicians treat you differently?' and what I have to say to that is, professionally — I feel that I’ve always been treated respectfully by professional male magicians. They’re a little surprised to encounter me, if I’m in a place with a lot of magicians they think I’m someone’s girlfriend or wife — they can’t figure out what I’m doing there. Once they realize that I’m a magician, then it’s all shop talk. They’ve been very respectful."

The only type of magician that Solomon has butt heads with are amateurs. And the reasoning why isn't too surprising. "A lot of them are teenage boys, and if I walk into a magic shop and there’s a teenage boy working there he will ignore me in favor of other customers, often. Or he’ll treat me like I must be some little kid’s mother, he won’t take me seriously. Or a lot of amateur magicians just want to show me one card trick after another so I’ll be so impressed with their moves. It’s very condescending. But I never get that treatment from professional male magicians, they all have been really helpful."
Photographed by Simone Lueck.

The Vanishing Act

Women are so rare in her industry that Solomon has plagued herself with trying to find a way to welcome more women to the industry. She said she couldn't speak for other magic hubs throughout the country, like in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but from what she's seen, the lack of women is "baffling."

"What I know from there is that a lot of times the magic community reaches out to female magicians, because there aren’t that many. I do not have an answer to that question [of why there are so few female magicians] and believe me I’ve tried to answer it before and then—I’ve never found any discouragement. The only discouragement I’ve found is from amateurs who are intimidated by me."

When asked if the media portrays women in magic correctly, she didn't quite know how to answer since they often aren't portrayed in the slightest. "Now You See Me 2 is kind of accurate, I think. As far as percentage, it’s really low. And again, I don’t know why, I’m just going to keep working on my material. And I kind of wish I didn’t have to focus on being a female magician. I mean, of course I’ll play that up if it will get me a gig, but in the end I want to be taken seriously as a magician and an entertainer. I don’t want to be a “female magician.” I just want to be the best magician I can."
Photographed by Simone Lueck.
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Maritess Zurbano — Master Magician, Author & Comedy Hypnotist

Magical Mentors

Zurbano started experimenting with magic tricks in Chicago, in her early 20s. She felt the influence of fellow female magician Frances Marshall, who was a popular figure in the world of magic who was well-connected and well-respected in Chicago. From there, she moved to Vegas where she assumed in her “naivety” that “all magicians must love female magicians.”

In Chicago she was treated with nothing but respect, but when she moved to Las Vegas at age 21, it was another story. By 1992, she was a “pro” which, in her words, means she was making enough money to support herself as a working magician. Since then she has played into every stereotype that there is as a woman in magic, from wearing skimpy outfits, to putting up with casual misogyny among her male peers.
Vegas In The 90s

Living and working in Vegas gave Zurbano a unique perspective on other magicians that she carries with her to this day. Zurbano travels frequently to perform in theaters around the world, so she's amassed a large network of fellow magicians, and can say that it is a very male-dominated business.

“The reason why there are very few women in magic is because you have to have very low self-esteem to be in that very misogynistic world,” she explained. “The world I’m referring to is the Las Vegas magic world in the 1990s, which is still prevalent today. If you want to get to the guys that know all the biggest secrets — who are famous, who are the holders of magic knowledge — you have to put up with their stupid-ass misogynistic jokes, which comes with the territory.”

She says the misogyny is rooted deeply in the fact that magic is a male-driven industry. Because the men so outweigh the women, it is nearly inevitable to experience sexism. “The reason why people think of magicians in the tuxedo with some ho next to him wearing a bathing suit is because that’s the male fantasy. The male fantasy is, 'Ah, I can get my bitches to hold a tray and wear a skimpy outfit, be my assistant, and I can cut her in half, and I can set her on fire, and I can make her vanish.' So the most interesting thing is even though I’m a staunch feminist — I’m an educated person, I went to college, I was associate editor of my student newspaper — I’m a straight up extreme feminist. I never thought twice about the image of the male magician in a tuxedo and the woman in the bathing suit. That’s just like, oh okay, whatever. Well, no not whatever, that’s part of the patriarchy, that’s a narrative that we all accept. So it doesn’t become real until you’re actually vying for a spot in a male-dominated field.”

In addition to many male magicians mistreating their female counterparts, there is also a blatant gender pay gap, she said. So much so that she couldn't even compare her income to a man's. It was in no way equivalent. “The thing I’m trying to say is there aren’t enough women in equal positions as men. So your question is kind of like, 'do female American presidents get paid as much as male presidents?' I can’t tell you because it’s never been. I mean if you want to talk historically, women didn’t have the right to vote less than 100 years ago, so historically I would expect that damn straight women aren’t paid the same as men. If they weren’t given the simple right to vote. In modern times — I mean, I get paid a lot of money, but do I know of any other female magicians who have their own TV shows and I can tell you if they get paid the same as guys? There’s none. Not right now.”
Photographed by Simone Lueck.

Magicians In Movies

Media plays a huge role in how the public perceives certain niche groups, magicians included. When the media plays up certain roles, like women continuously being cast as the Vanna White figure in the magic industry, it's difficult for people like Zurbano to be a feminist magician. In her efforts to quell stereotypes, Zurbano has found it's easiest to address the media itself.

"The reason I talk to media outlets is because this helps me to figure out how women fit into the world of magic. Because magic is for everybody, even though I say magic is the world of men, I’ve seen a sunset. I’ve kissed people. Magic is for everybody. I think in this intersectional world you have to just figure out how to reclaim that, and that magic was taken away from us because — well, I had a baby and I was like, 'I can make milk come out of my breasts, what can you do?' I just baked a kid in my tummy and I squeezed it out of my ass, I am the entryway from another dimension into the current dimension. I am awesome. So I put a hold on my magic career because, I’m not going to do a card trick for you. Why? I’m someone awesome, I’m really amazing (laughs)."

The other difficult part about the portrayal of women as magicians is that "no one’s ever told the truth about being a magician in Las Vegas," she said. "Ever."

Of the magic movies that exist, Zurbano said that it's been the same "over and over and over again" with "the same lines and everybody buys it. That's not the story. The story is much more troubled."

Realizing The True Meaning Of Magic

But, even all the sexist men out there can't spoil the daily enchantment Zurbano gets to experience. It's well-worth the trials and tribulations. "I love the obsessive nature of magic — I complain about misogyny but I also love the people in magic. There are plenty of wonderful people in magic who are cool and funny and smart, and it’s fascinating. There are few things in this world that are actually, really magic, which is what I am searching for."
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