I lost most of my tools and tricks during an unannounced house move the year I turned 13, not given any warning to rescue my most precious possessions before leaving. A year later, using tricks I learned from one of the few books I managed to snag, I put on a small magic show for a secondary school gathering. The response was a little lacklustre — and so I dropped my passion. Looking back at it now, I can see that my problem really was that I didn’t choose the right set of acts and didn’t rehearse enough; however, being self-taught in a culture of “if you’re not immediately a master and fail even once you may as well stop trying” meant I had very little support or motivation to continue. I had other skills, other talents — might as well pay attention to those.
I had been idly considering getting back into magic, especially after getting in burlesque and performance art nearly a decade ago. There was that drag act where I played an accidentally incompetent magician; had I known the audience would find my breaking props hilarious I would have leaned harder into it. There was Blake, a Fairy Godmother-esque older queer trans woman and professional children’s magician who was friends with my then-girlfriend, whose Magic Room filled wall-to-wall with books and tools and art made me break down in tears when I saw it for the first time (& realised it wasn’t a euphemism), who taught me a little bit of magic to connect with me after the messy breakup with my ex but then lost touch (possibly because of said breakup). Little things, small attempts, but nothing much more serious than “hmm, might be nice to try again.”
In the past year or so, whenever I’d told my friends about my interest in magic and my musings about trying again, I’d always be met with resounding enthusiasm. The real kick in the pants, however, came from a friend’s Facebook post discussing the lack of queer female magicians. I commented again about my historical passion and current curiosity; it was her OMG YES PLEASE that made me finally take it seriously.
2018, I decided, would be my year of the Queer Lady Magician.
The response to my decision has been its own kind of magic. I immediately had friends lining up to be my assistant (most of them were serious about it). A friend who’s a milliner offered to make my hats and costumes, and then referred me to another friend who’s a director; we just had our first in-person meeting and have developed a plan of action for study and act development. Another costumer friend is on board, as well as a couple of prop designers, a musician or two, a compere, a comedian. I’ve started applying to residencies and staging opportunities — very ambitious, but I’ve long had the resolution to try out for long shots and they’re worth a shot. Friends, acquaintances, even people I only know from online messageboards are virtually lining up for tickets. While I’ve had supportive friends since my early performance days, the sheer fervour about the idea of a Queer Lady Magician is one I haven’t seen in a long time.
Of course, I need to do the hard work. I need to brush up on my basics. I need to read and watch as much as I can, take copious notes, put what I learned to practice. I need to learn from my teenage self: pick acts that suit the setting and actually rehearse them. I need to learn from the incompetent drag act: try not to have your stuff break, but if it does, roll with it. I need to learn from Blake: get the basic sleight-of-hand principles down, but also connect with your audience, show them love so they’ll be inclined to love you. Henry Hay writes in The Amateur Magician’s Handbook, considered one of the core texts for any magician, that magic happens not in the hands of the magician but in the mind of the audience. Getting the act down is important; knowing how to invite the audience’s interest even more so.
As part of my learning, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks scouring the Internet for magicians that fall outside the Straight Cis White Able-Bodied Male mold. Female magicians are on the rise and there’s a significant number of magicians from across Asia. The Got Talent franchises and Penn & Teller’s Fool Us have been surprisingly good sources for diverse magicians: Indonesian horror-themed magician The Sacred Riana won the latest season of Asia’s Got Talent and both hip-hop magician Jibrizy Taylor and pianist-turned-card-illusionist Shin Lim managed to fool the esteemed magician duo.
Finding LGBTQIA magicians, however, has been a little harder to accomplish. There’s Blake, who last I heard was working on a one-woman theatre show using magic to tell the story of her transition. Derren Brown opens one of his shows with an anecdote about being picked on at school for being gay and Fay Presto was barred from The Magic Circle after transitioning. Most other magicians aren’t necessarily that upfront about their sexuality or possible gender-nonconformity; the closest we get are married heterosexual couples that perform together.
I did, however, find Ursula Martinez and Jess Love’s very queer take on the quickchange, generally performed by male/female duos where the woman changes into all kinds of fancy dresses and the male occasionally changes suit colours in a snap. Martinez and Love play with gendered expectations on attire and appearance, in an act that’s somehow both drag queen and drag king at once. (Note: it gets NSFW at the end)
(As an aside: I’m highly amused that the character of Aubrey Little/Lady Flame in the latest The Adventure Zone campaign; Amnesty might as well be me with fire powers and a bunny. Also, yes that’s right – Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Oxford student and all-round badass, can also do magic.)
My work has always been political, stereotype-breaking, and very very queer — and I want my magic work to be the same. The befuddled looks I get from people when I pull off a relatively easy card trick are entertaining enough, but I’m not just after “how the hell did she do that?!”. I want to explore magic as a medium for social commentary, expressing ideas and telling stories about what’s important in my life, my communities, my world. I have a stack of ideas for acts already: feminist takes on the gendering of Magician vs Assistant, cultural appropriation in magical history, perception and identity, escaping abusive relationships, and much more.
It would be neat to be invited to perform for Fool Us or magic festivals, but that’s not really my goal. My core audiences are part of my intersecting communities, particularly of marginalised peoples: the queers and gender-non-conformists, the people of colour and immigrants, the First Nations people that we pay rent to for being on their unceded land, the disabled and neurodivergent, the artists and activists and radicals and healers and builders and organisers. They’re not (necessarily) at an exclusive boys’ club like The Magic Circle — they’re at cabarets in dive bars and protest marches on city streets, at festivals over Pride Month and house parties with fairy lights over backyard trees. If the traditional magic world wants to watch me perform, they’re more than welcome to join in — they just need to recognize the queerness of my magic and I.
Being a Queer Lady Magician to me means sharing the truths of our lives in unexpected, thought-provoking ways, instilling a sense of wonder, expanding our imaginations around what is possible.
2018 Playlist: Queer Lady Magician
(note: a couple of tracks contain the g*sy slur)
Abracadabra, Robin Mckelle
Magic, Olivia Newton-John
Dark Lady, Cher
Cherry Bomb, The Runaways
Laura, Bat For Lashes
Killer Queen, Queen
Paint It, Black, Ciara
Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe feat. Solange
Tigerlily, La Roux
Queen, Perfume Genius
Rebel Girl, Bikini Kill
Witch, be steadwell
Wonder Woman, LION BABE
Raise Hell, Dorothy
A Little Wicked, Valerie Broussard
Captivate You, The Marmozets
Because I’m Awesome, The Dollyrots
Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), Nico Vega
Magic, Olympic Ayres
Black Sheep, Gin Wigmore
Strange Magic, Darren Hayes
Glitter & Gold, Barns Courtney
Malagueña Salerosa, Chingón
Someone Tell the Boys, Samia
Love Potion Number 9, Kinzie Jones
Bubblegum Bitch, Marina and the Diamonds
Sympathy for the Devil, Sandie Shaw
Spider in the Roses, Sonia Leigh & Daphne Willis feat. Rob the Man
Gotta Love It, Ruelle
Here We Go, Lene
Ampersand, Amanda Palmer
Yes, I’m A Witch, Yoko Ono
I Put A Spell On You, Nina Simone