Hero of His Own Life

Looking for the man behind the myth of Las Vegas resident and world-famous magician David Copperfield

Magician David Copperfield is more famous than the character that inspired his stage name. The original Copperfield, a plucky Brit created by Charles Dickens 160 years ago, comes in second on Google searches to the man born David Seth Kotkin 54 years ago this month. Little surprise. Everybody knows what Copperfield the magician does, and how rich and successful he became doing it. (Quick recap: Copperfield has 21 Emmy awards, 11 Guinness world records, his face on postage stamps in six countries, French knighthood, 11 islands, a charitable organization called Project Magic, a monumental magic museum and two shows a night at the MGM Grand.) But beyond all that is a person, and that’s who I wanted to know about.

So I went to see his show, and while everybody else was oohing and aahing over truly impressive illusions, I studied his demeanor. His clothes were chosen to blend in rather than stand out: black slacks, a slate-gray button-up shirt and comfy black shoes. His gestures were understated, and his dominant expression was a loaded smirk. If you could ignore what was happening onstage and judge only by his face, it seemed less like he was conjuring miracles and more like he was showing old friends his titanium leg at the VA Memorial Day barbecue. “Hey, get a load of this,” he seemed to be saying as he revealed not a metal appendage but a car or a motorcycle. But then each time the audience reacted, Copperfield’s eyes would light up.

All in all, though, I could never quite tell if he was having fun. That’s the problem with magicians—they’re professional liars. They’re not experts at doing magic, they’re experts at making you think they’re doing magic. And when dealing with a class of people so adept at illusion, it’s hard to tell what they’re really feeling or thinking, ever.

But I had a trick up my sleeve: I’d set up a face-to-face interview. What I couldn’t divine, I could just ask. After the show, when my date was fully immersed in how-did-he-do-that, a stagehand wearing show-blacks led me out of the theater, around the casino and to a hidden hotel room. It felt like the beginning of Interview With a Vampire, when the journalist meets Lestat in an empty room, with nothing but a tape recorder and his own fear of getting eaten. In my case, I had a tape recorder, two stagehands and a fear of the usual celebrity non-answers. Either way, the gravitas was the same.

The magician sat across from me in the little desk that comes in every hotel room. He had intense artist eyes, he was strikingly tan and his right hand stayed up against his face, either protectively or because he was tired.

After a few misguided warm-up questions that led to meaningless answers, such as “Vegas is great in the summer,” I lit into the burning question: “You’re in the unusual position of already having achieved every dream a person could ever conceive of having, so what’s left to look forward to? What’s left that challenges you?” He inhaled and exhaled so audibly that it picked up on my recorder. “I worked really hard to check things off the list of things I had to do. And that’s why it was interesting, not just to buy an island, not just to own a big thing, or actually 11 islands, but to put my creative abilities and my creative team’s abilities into making [the island itself into] a very special kind of show. There’s lots of statues that rise out of the ground. Secret tunnels. A secret village of amazing things happening to you.” (Stays at the Islands of Copperfield Bay start at $37,500 a day, custom treasure hunt not included.)

Now, Copperfield is turning his attention to developing new material for his stage show and finding his next big thing. “For years and years, Madonna-like, I have rebranded myself,” Copperfield said. He’s gone from Broadway dance to making giant icons disappear (think Statue of Liberty) to an MTV phase to creating a show with Francis Ford Coppola where he used magic to tell stories about his life. “My thing was to do with magic what a filmmaker or a songwriter would do, that is to convey certain emotions and feelings, tell stories with the magic. In entertainment, that’s a pretty classic thing, but in magic, it didn’t exist.” Copperfield’s storytelling works in part because of the relationship he forges with his audience. “I think the audience becomes very involved, especially with a magician, if they feel like they understand him as a person, if he’s a guy they can relate to, yet he’s able at the same time to do amazing things.”

But other than plain clothing, how can we relate?

“I don’t take myself that seriously,” Copperfield said, telling me the one misconception audiences have about him. “If you see my pictures, always one eyebrow happens to be raised. That’s the picture that they use because it’s mysterious, but when they come to see my live show, they say, ‘He’s kind of funny, I kind of want to hang out with him.’”

My 10-minute interview had already taken 20, and I was wondering if I had embarked on a fool’s errand, trying to understand anything about anybody in such a short meeting. I had one more shot.

Is there anything left unchecked on your life list, other than developing new tricks?

He took another breath. “You know something,” he said, “I really enjoy my job. I really have a good time when I’m up onstage. Backstage, the work isn’t so fun. The business isn’t so fun, what you have to do to maintain all that is going on, but the actual performance onstage is really a pleasure. …

“It’s not about new tricks, it’s about finding a way to take the art that I’m good at and use it to elicit a response or make people think about their life, be moved in a certain way. … The magic is important, but parallel to that.”

Dickens’ David Copperfield is the classic example of the bildungsroman, a story of personal growth in which a thoughtful young protagonist goes out into the cruel world to find himself and find his fortune. Intentionally or not, the magician Copperfield’s life is a mirror of his namesake’s. But whether he believes in his own success is another story altogether.

“People think that I don’t have to prove myself,” Copperfield said at the end of the interview. “Eventually you get to a point where you don’t have to prove yourself as a writer, a magician or whatever. But I still feel like I have to prove myself. That’s a good thing.”

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