A generation ago, it was unthinkable that we might see magicians once again on prime-time television. The old rabbit-in-a-hat brigade were hardly cutting-edge entertainment.
But a recent renaissance in stylised, theatric illusion shows has made magic cool again, spearheaded at opposite ends of the world by Cockney wide boy Stephen “Dynamo” Frayne in England and shy Goth boy Paul “Cos” Cosentino in Australia.
Cosentino’s TV show – The Great Illusionist – has now hit 35 countries, including here, and is, bizarrely, big in India. He doesn’t wear tails and a white bow tie, and doesn’t own a rabbit, but his long hair, multiple piercings and peacock outfit have tapped the zeitgeist.
It was a runners-up placing in the 2011 edition of Australia’s Got Talent which launched Cosentino on the big stage (he escaped a locked straitjacket while dangling inverted in the maw of a giant, closing steel trap) and also led him to an important realisation.
“I thought ‘jeez, am I really the boy next door’ But the boy next door doesn’t jump into 10-metre tanks or escape knives thrown at his head. So how can you be normal And what I learned is the kid with long hair and the armful of tattoos is the boy next door now: I represent my demographic.”
Growing up, he says, “magicians were pretty daggy. It’s more relevant now. We have our ears to the ground … we resonate.”
And so there’s plenty of choreography, flash costumes, showmanship and bared flesh in Cosentino’s act, which, in his own words, combines four disciplines: street magic, stage magic, escapology and reality TV.
The latter, in effect, is suckering the audience with an explanation of some of the trick – but not all. So when he escaped six padlocks chaining him to a 60-kilogram block at the bottom of the Melbourne Aquarium, there was a pre-reel of his physical training and breath-holding preparations.
“We pull back the curtain,” he says, “it makes it more potent. We’re letting you in, and I think you have to do that – the days of Houdini getting inside a water tank, the cloth goes up, it comes back down and he’s escaped, are gone – people want to know what’s going on behind the cloth.”
The mention of Houdini is not casual. The underwater stunt was an homage to a similar stunt performed a century ago by the great escapologist. And because of those “daggy” musicians of two decades ago, Houdini was the nearest thing a young Cosentino, learning magic as a social prop to overcome learning difficulties and crippling shyness, had as a role model.
“There was no blueprint,” he says, “that I could say ‘that’s what I want to be like’.”
Performing a trick was “an ice-breaker, a confidence-builder”, but the moment he knew he loved magic was performing his first real trick for his dad at the age of 12.
“In my world, he was a genius, he knew everything. So I go up to Dad and nervously perform this trick and he says to me ‘how did you do that’ There was a massive transfer of power: I could do something my dad couldn’t do.”
Of course, he didn’t tell him. He never does. Now his dad helps build some of his apparatus, “so he knows how a lot of things are done, but if he doesn’t know, he doesn’t ask. He’s cool with that”.
Cosentino’s father and a brother, John, are both structural engineers, so construct the machinery. John doubles as his physical trainer, and his other brother, Adam, is his tour manager. It’s a homemade model which, again, emerged from the lack of an act to emulate.
That made it a tough road to stardom. At 17, Cosentino registered a business, performing in schools; at 19, he was booked on a cruise ship, earning US dollars with all expenses paid and realised he could make a living. But it was arduous.
He built an “underground following” doing free gigs in shopping malls, then, as his own manager, set, costume and lighting designer and publicity agent, began touring 500-seat arenas.
“You want to know a guy who has done it from the grassroots Look at my bio.”
But he couldn’t crack the jump to the 1000-seater venues and Adam suggested Australia’s Got Talent as a way to build his profile.
Honestly, he says, he was reluctant. He was worried how the mainstream commercial market might react to his unconventional look, and didn’t want to change to suit their preconceptions. He was worried about being judged by judges who knew nothing of magic. He was, frankly, nervous.
“Lucky for me, I connected, not a little, but big-time – that show was the biggest show on TV that year; 3.1 million viewers at home who tuned in to watch a cute young boy singing… then I come on. They’re not expecting it, what is this guy about Australia had never seen anything like it, so that was my big break. I’m so glad I did it and so lucky it connected.”
The shy boy who hated being singled out at school is in person an exceedingly polite, gentle figure and on stage a brash, body-baring showman.
“I’m more shy in person with a group of three or four, than I am in front of 5000 people,” he says. “The reason for that is when I am on stage, I am in control: you are in my world, you are seeing what I want you to see and thinking what I want you to think.”
But if he walked into a room and was asked to do a trick, “that’s very nerve-racking”. He performs one for me anyway, a faultless sleight-of-hand card trick.
“The guy you see offstage is pretty much the same as the guy you see on stage,” he considers.
“On stage, it’s heightened because I am living out my fantasies; like an actor who plays a superhero in a movie, they take a bit of themselves into that. But the guy you see on stage isn’t suppressed, so in essence I believe I am actually more real.”
The final episode of Cosentino’s The Magic, the Mystery, the Madness airs on TV2, Tuesday, 7.30pm. He tours New Zealand in early 2015.
– Sunday Star Times