« Question & Answer »A rare insight into one of magic's finest

Q&A

Can you just tell us a quick history of yourself, where was you born? How you got into magic and illusion etc?

I was born the 30th of November, 1960 in Middlesex, England. My father and mother divorced that first year. My mom remarried and had two children. We immigrated to South Africa in 1969. That same year my mom up and left us. My stepfather became an alcoholic. So we were pretty much abandoned in the sense of the word. I therefore pretty much raised my two siblings, a year old and three years old by myself. In 1975 I went to Australia to find my real father at an air force base. We move to the US in 1976, that did not work out quite so well so while in high school, I moved out had my own place, three jobs and finished high school at the same time. During that year I read a book by James Randi about Uri Geller, “the Truth about Uri Geller!” From this I devised a few ways to bend nails. Now instead of the embarrassed teenager at the back of the classroom with a heavy coat on even in the middle of summer and turning red in the face if the teacher even called on my name. I was the center of attention and even competing in talent shows and winning. I next put some method together for bending silverware, they were so successful that other students were stealing cutlery from the silverware for me to bend, so much so that the cafeteria went to plastic ware. During that same year I wrote a letter to Randi explaining if he ever wanted someone to fool scientists, I felt I could do so. Thus the Alpha Project was born a few years later when the situation presented itself to us.

How do you drive a car while blindfolded? (Guessing you are not going to tell us)

Very carefully !

What kind of satisfaction did you gain out of fooling the scientists at McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, that you had psychic ability, and what do you believe you accomplished in doing so?

It was not a question of satisfaction. I would have been just as satisfied if the scientists had used proper protocol, and probably more so. There was certain dissatisfaction if anything that it was so easy to get away with the techniques that we did. For decades many parapsychologist had lamented that the reason for the lack of positive results when it came to series PSI research was due to lack of funding. It was our contention it had nothing to do with a “lack of funding” but more so the fact that most parapsychologists went in to the testing with a pro-biased opinion. It was this pro-biased opinion impeded proper research; these parapsychologists were too busy documenting their own belief system rather than doing proper testing. To test properly does not cost that much money. Also most of these parapsychologists felt that due the fact they held a PhD they could not be fooled so a second one of our hypothesis going into this was that they would not seek expert advice in this field to detect any possible trickery even if it was offered for free (and it was, Randi offered his and others services for free).

We were able to prove beyond any doubt that their research bias interfered and also that they would not seek expert advice. Keep in mind this was also in accordance with the suggestion of a few other parapsychologists who had even suggested that if Randi and others felt they could fool scientists then they should try to introduce a magician into a research lab and see what happens.

These scientists believed. No doubt about it. Despite the fact they had been given a half a million dollars to do the research. Some have suggested it was unethical for us to do what we did. We took no money for what we did, we actually lost money In other words, we did not get the half a million dollars as some would like to think. I would suggest to those who think this way to ask themselves, is it ethical for scientists to take money for research and then not perform such research properly? They were paid to do a job they were not doing.

What did we accomplish? If anything, at least scientists will be more careful when treading in this area, and maybe we have helped stop some of the ramped cheating that was going on in this area, at least when it comes to testing.

Derren Brown has been quoted as saying that “Spiritualism was ugly” what are your opinions on spiritualism?

I agree 100 percent with Derren. At least in the areas of James Van Praag, John Edward and the others of their ilk. It is very ugly and to me these guys are scum. They are stopping the proper natural grieving process from taking its course. Example: I had a friend whose son died of cancer. His wife went to a spiritualist who was able to convince her that he could communicate to her dead son. As a result she spent all her time trying to communicate to the kid. She avoided her husband, neglected her living children to live in the world of the dead. She almost lost her husband and probably would have lost her living children. Luckily she came to her senses in the end. This is a dangerous game these guys play. Yes they may help some people get through it, but in the majority of times they are hurting not helping in the long run. Heck, I can give crack to a junkie; it might make him feel good today but is it good for him in the long run?

Do you believe that genuine psychic ability may one day be proved?

I could not tell you. I really have no opinion either way. And the definition of what is psychic may indeed change due to the lack of evidence of it existing as we define it today. All I can say is I have never seen anyone who claims to be psychic show me conclusive proof they are indeed psychic. This is not to say they are not, just that it does not stand up under tight scrutiny or is not repeatable. The times it has been repeatable it has turned out to be a trick, either by the people themselves on others, by misunderstanding of what was happening by the people making the claim or by self deception.

Have YOU ever been fooled by someone claiming to be psychic only to find out later it was a trick?

I can’t say I ever have. There have been times I have not cared about the method simply because it was blatant they were using trickery. For instance, you might see someone on TV do something; there is no way to explain it because you don’t have all the facts. Of course I can probably think of two or three or more ways to accomplish the same effect. I understand that just because I can duplicate does not make it a trick, but after many years of this, when it looks like a duck, it probably is a duck. The responsibility is upon the person presenting the unusual claim to show they are real, not the other way around. And most of these guys and girls stay as far away from any proper testing as is feasible.

Other than yourself, who do you consider as history’s greatest Magician/Illusionist?

Wow, I know you want an answer on this, but this is such a complex question for such a simple statement. It is kind of like stating, “who is the smartest man in the world” or “who is the most beautiful women in the world.” When it comes to greatest, there were those who were great showman and terrific at getting publicity, like Houdini or Criss Angel, then there were those who were terrific at technique, like Cardini and again those who were terrific at staging like Thurston or Copperfield. If the question means who has been seen more, definitely Copperfield or Criss Angel. One TV show and either one  has probably had more people see him than saw many of the old greats in a lifetime. Then there are those that influence us by their thinking and creativity, for instance, Scarne, Dai Vernon, Max Maven and so on, certainly these have a position when it comes to greats? Maybe even more so since their work creeps into the masses and influence our art more than the showman in many ways? So the answer really cannot be answered in such a simple way. Each answer would need to be put into context. Probably a better question to answer is “who is your favorite magic/mental performer of all time.” However, having said that, I could not give a simple answer to that question as it would be like asking me, “what is your favorite kind of music?” and that would depend upon my mood at the moment as I have a very eclectic music collection from Punk, Hard Rock to Easy Listening and Classical.

Is there any trick that you are too scared to perform, or class as too dangerous?

Having performed the buried alive (probably the most dangerous trick I can think of) and the bullet catch, I honestly can’t say there is any trick I would not perform. As I get older there maybe some I may not be able to perform to physical reasons though. I would try to talk anyone out of performing the buried alive effect and think very serious about performing any dangerous effect. The real secret to these type of effects is making it look as dangerous as possible when in reality the effect is very safe and there are many backups for anything that could go wrong, at some point, what could go wrong will go wrong. Houdini knew this. Most of the feats were very easy to perform; the real secret was knowing how to make them look impossible and dangerous and the experience of knowing what to do if something did go wrong and not to panic.