This Feminist Magician Wants Women in Magic to Lean In
According to the Magic Castle's only resident female magician, if more women want to be magicians, they just need to grow a pair of balls. Preferably crystal ones.
Photos by Amy Lombard
"My ghosts show up on time, on command, every time." At the Magic Castle, Hollywood's exclusive magic club, a female magician named Misty Lee is levitating a statue of a baby's hands. It's midafternoon—hours before the Castle will open its doors to dinner guests who have managed to score a table at one of the toughest invites in town—but Lee is performing spells anyway.
"Everyone says it's a boys' club, but I have free reign," she says.
For several years, Lee has worked as the Magic Castle's only female full-time magician. Only a few illusionists regularly perform at the venue ("Most magicians only work here a week at a time," Lee says), and the society has an illustrious history. The magic club opened in 1963 as an invite-only space for the Academy of Magical Arts, an Illuminati-like society of world-class magicians, and their guests. (Patrons of magic can also pay to join.) Members include Siegfried & Roy, David Copperfield, and the imagineers who built Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.
Lee's shows in the Castle's legendary rooms have turned her into a hot magician. Venues pay her thousands of dollars for performances, she says, and the Morongo Casino recently hired her for a short residency. Lee says, "Male magicians are like, 'How did you get that job?' [The Morongo Casino] called me, and I said, 'Yes.'"
Lee's growing reputation makes her one of America's most successful female magicians. Although we've had female presidential candidates, female CEOs, and female billionaires, America has yet to produce a household female magician. There's Criss Angel, but we've yet to have Cristina Angel.
Lee could be the girl. She hopes to break into TV, and along with her talent, she displays television-worthy personality and looks. On top of this, she has been trained by Max Maven, a magician who everyone from David Copperfield to Siegfried & Roy has hired as a consultant. When we meet at the Magic Castle, Lee wears a corset and black dress that covers all of her skin, minus her face and hands. The skin that shows resembles porcelain. Her appearance captures the look every mall-loitering emo kid tried and failed to create in the mid-2000. Thankfully Lee's persona is more brash Ethel Merman than whiney Amanda Palmore.
"There's a bunch of female magicians who come and go, but usually they stink," she says. "That's their fault."
She credits the lack of female magicians to several factors. Primarily, she believes magic's deceptiveness goes against women's instinct. At the start of her career, she suffered from "magician's guilt" more than her male peers. She says, "When I used to come out onstage and have to tell a bold faced lie, I would get so nervous, I'd turn into a kindergarten teacher." On the rare occasions where she's told kids how a magic trick works, she has seen similar differences between young girls' reactions and little boys' excitement. If you use a wand during a trick, girls expect the magic to come to the wand. When Lee has revealed the tricks behind her illusions, little girls have gotten angry because they believe in real magic. Boys, though, have gotten excited.
"Men communicate to get the job done, women communicate to protect, from a caveman perspective—their community," Lee says. "A long time ago [women would have been] trusted with the valuables and the vulnerable [items], and then men would be out doing the hunting unless there was a really good female hunter. If that's [women's'] job, to establish community and provide safety for the precious, then lying goes against our very nature. It's completely counter-intuitive, and it's against our instinct."
Magic also involves heavy manual labor, which Lee also believes scares women away. Magicians must carry around equipment and heavy trunks filled with props. A show's load-in of props and set pieces takes 45 minutes for Lee, and after theatrical séances, she must then take another 45 minutes to remove her belongings from a venue. According to Lee, few women want to perform these tasks.
"There just haven't been a lot of women [who want to] hook up a trailer, to drag this crap around, unless someone is going to do it for them because you have to do all this," she says. "It's a lot of work. It's expensive. You've got to keep all that stuff organized. You have to be bold enough to be a boss and have assistants."
Lee understands hard work. She grew up in the east side of Detroit in a working class family. Her father suffered from severe schizophrenia, which kept him from a steady job. Her mother's parents lived far away in Texas, so the family was shit out of luck.
"He was a son of a bitch, but he's not any more," she says. "He never hit us or anything like that but he is very, very verbally abusive."
Today, her father is medicated and much better, she says, but starting when she was ten years old, he was in and out of institutions for several years. To give herself structure, Lee attended church on her own. She volunteered with the pastor to help poor families. She says, "I was all about it, working hard." Looking back, she remembers packing baskets with foods to give to families that couldn't afford to purchase essential needs. Two days later, the pastor came to Lee and gave her one of the baskets for her own family.
"I didn't know that, and it was heartbreaking," Lee says. "It was embarrassing to me."
One morning, Lee's mom walked outside and found her car missing. She called the cops, to file a police report that the car was stolen, and the cops told her she was wrong: The car had been reposed.
"I watched my mother crumble and weep," Lee says. "You look at that, and you say, 'That's never going to happen to me,' as a little kid. You make choices in adversity, and either you succumb or you overcome. I [thought], I think money solves problems and I don't want this."
At age 12, Lee started looking for work. She went to a banquet hall and asked to work as a waitress. They restaurant told her she was underage. "I know," Lee said. "Can I work anyway?" They agreed to pay her under the table.
"It's amazing how the world will bend and give you what you want when you want something very specific," Lee says. "Working really hard, I'm not a stranger to it at all, and I don't mind it. I actually value it and I love it."
In her free time, she studied theatre, practicing singing and dancing. According to Lee, one day during history class in her junior year of high school, a boy looked at her and said, "You'd make a great Minnie Mouse." He worked as a magician at local kids' birthday parties, and he offered Lee to come with him as Minnie Mouse. "I'm really not interested," she told him. "No, I'm serious," he told her. "I do kids shows on the weekend, and it pays 250 bucks a half hour." $500 an hour is a lot to a 16-year-old, so Lee agreed to work with him for a bit.
"Then the costumes started getting smaller and smaller," she says. "I quit because he was trying to vet me into being a stripper, and I wasn't really interested in that."
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A few years later, another magician offered her a job as a "girl inside of a box." Again, Lee denied a guy till he offered her $500 for an afternoon. "I started as a girl in a box," Lee says. "That job sucks." One day he decided he wanted a female magician because "he thought it would be a great marketing asset," according to Lee. She sang and danced, so he promoted her. Instantly, Lee was hooked on magic. Eventually, they split ways. Lee entered college to become a dentist, but continued practicing magic—especially tricks involving ghosts.
"I've always been a creeper," Lee explains. "A lot of little girls like Barbie—I always played with weird dolls. If I had a doll it was weird, and I collected old quack medical equipment. I have cabinets full of this stuff. Am I going to cut anybody with it? Maybe not, but is it cool to own and pick up and say this is a drill they drilled into someone's head with."
To teach herself the craft of illusion, she religiously watched The Masked Magician. The weekly Fox program presented magician Val Valentino performing an illusion and then revealed his secrets. She says she has learned more from the TV show than any other magical programs. Lee practiced card tricks, but she fell in love with "theatrical séances," or séance magic. In the genre, performers create an illusion of ghosts, ESP, or other supernatural elements. Detroit, the city that birthed dark musical acts like Insane Clown Posse, resonated with her performance. Lee noticed she had an edge on other magicians: her schizophrenic dad.
"Being able to read dad and know that dad was mad before dad knew has made me able to read people. As a magician who does séances, that gives me a really uncanny ability," Lee explains. "There's a trick that I do in the room where I divine a dead person's name. I have everyone at the table write the name of someone living. One person writes the name of someone who's passed on whom they think would be a good fit in our séance circle. I divine the name via the means of a magician, but I cold read the individual who wrote the name down and say very specific things about the dead person. I don't know that dead person—I'm not a real psychic—but what I'm seeing is, 'I'm seeing a lot of something with the hands.' I see them come forward and I go, 'That's a yes. Carpentry? Is it an artist?' I'm watching for a lean, and I'm watching, and my eyes are half-closed, but I'm waiting and I say, 'No there's something—its definitely an artist, painting, sculpting, ceramics, oh!' That's how the other psychics do it too, the other ones who are frauds. It's called cold reading, and it's a nasty, awful, awesome thing to do to freak people out—and I learned a lot of that from daddy. From watching daddy as a little kid and being able to determine what his mood was sometimes before he knew. It gives me an uncanny ability to read body language, when I turn it on."
Magic has also helped Lee cope with her early life. Although she loves wearing corsets in performances because they accentuate her beautiful curves, she also uses the restriction as a form of therapy. "It makes me feel very comfortable," she says. "As an abused kid it feels like a hug."
Two years ago, Lee took used her family problems as an inspiration for a domestic violence PSA. As she lays on the ground in a straightjacket, a man says, "Forget your family. If you love your family, I'm all you need... you don't listen to me.. don't look at me like that." The sound of a woman being hit. "You're worthless," he says. "Just stay down." Lee tells him, "No," and then starts escaping from the straightjacket.
"The straightjacket is actually my mother saying no to my father," Lee explains. "My dad almost died of ketoacidosis. She took him to the ER, and she stood over my father and said, 'Alright, I've brought you here. Now you're going to change some shit, or else I won't stay with you.' She stood over his hospital bed and said, 'This stops, that stops. You will start taking your medicine because it is a selfish endeavor to be insane. You are costing us way too much money.'"
"I was in my twenties—I wasn't a kid when it happened," Lee says. "I watched her and I watched her choose. Everything's a choice, and I watched this woman make a choice to save her husband and change her life. And I went, 'I can do that too.'"
Lee chose to continue trying to make it in magic, despite the fact that it seemed the financial odds were against her. In Michigan, she was working as a dental assistant while in school. She completed all the prerequisites to go to dental school and become a dentist, and nearly went to graduate school because magic pays so poorly. Then, one day, a friend gave her a comic book about a female magician named Zatanna, written by Paul Dini, the legendary comic book and cartoon writer who created Harley Quinn, the Joker's iconic girlfriend. ("He's kind of a thing," Lee jokes.) According to Lee, her friend said, "Dude, you have to read this. She looks like you. She's got your mouth."
Lee read the comic, identified with the heroine, and sent a note to Dini: "You clearly have an understanding of magic," Lee says she wrote. To her surprise, Dini responded. They emailed back and forth. He asked her if he could instant message her, and she agreed. Then he asked if he could call her. She told him she was flying to Las Vegas for a symposium on posterior tooth color restorations. Dini flew to Nevada to meet her. They ate dinner, saw a Lance Burton magic show, and then Dini flew straight home.
"He'd been stood up so many times, he didn't think I was going to show up," Lee says. "He was astonished that I was actually there."
They fell in love. Eventually, Lee quit working in dentistry and married Dini. In 2005, she moved to Los Angeles to peruse magic full-time. She worked as a voiceover actress for years to support herself, a job she still does. ("Pays better than magic," she says.) Struggling to figure out her magic brand in Los Angeles, she took classes at Second City and tried to understand what makes a Hollywood audience tick.
"I immediately staged a show at the Colony Theater in Burbank and realized that I had a lot to learn about being in Los Angeles and functioning within its parameters," Lee says. "In Detroit, they're just kind of looking for a nice time and they're hoping to god that you're competent, you know? So the standards are a little higher in LA in terms of what people are looking for and what they expect to see in a show—and it's not that my show was subpar, but it was very, very different. It was very Midwestern when I came here."
In 2006, she became a member at the Magic Castle. She regularly attended magic shows. After one such performance, Lee says, one of her favorite magicians, Jonathan Pendragon, grabbed her.
"Who are you and what do you do?" he said according to Lee. "I'm sitting up there looking at you, and you're supposed to be on stage."
"I'm actually a magician," Lee said.
"Don't fuck around with me."
"I'm not! I really am."
Lee pulled up her website on her phone and showed Pendragon a picture. Starting in that moment, Pendragon began teaching her his skills. Nine years later, Lee performs at the Magic Castle on a regular basis and looks very Hollywood—in a good way.
"Should I put some contouring in here?" Lee asks as our photographer shoots portraits of her. (Lee considers contouring a form of magic.)
When we meet at the Castle, she brings a Ouija board that was saved from a fire on Halloween 2011. In her bag, Lee has an old teacup and a magic spell book she created. Lee performs in the Houdini séance room for a private audience of six to 12 people a night. The oval-shaped green room contains some of Houdini's most iconic possessions: his straightjacket, handcuffs, and a photo of the magician with Teddy Roosevelt. Surrounded by these historical magic devises, she pretends to conjure a ghost named Timmy, who died in a fire five years ago and writes in chalk.
In live séance shows, tricks sometimes don't go according to plan. One night during another magician's show in the séance room, Lee says, a statue of Houdini's head accidentally fell on a Chinese businesswoman's lap. The Chinese businesspeople screamed, ripped the curtain off the door, and ran out the Castle onto the street. Lee understands audiences, though, and she recognized the cultural motives of their reaction.
"They just went running out because their whole culture is you don't touch dead things," she says. "You are life, and you do not associate with that. For a decapitated head, the essence of the human, to fall in someone's lap was like, NO. The poor guy was a salesman, and he was bringing them in trying to sell them something."
Audiences scream, but Lee says they never heckle her. "The boys have had trouble," she says. "I have never had trouble with hecklers or people not paying attention or anything like that, 'cause I go right at them. I look at everybody when I perform and I don't care."
Lee's attitude stems from her childhood and everything she has overcome to have her dream job: lying to people for a living, entertaining them in the process.
Her past makes her frustrated with girls and guys back in Detroit who say, "I always thought I could have been..."
"I know so many people in Detroit who are so scared to leave their insurance job," she explains. "There are people who love, love selling insurance—I'm serious! It is their jam: 'I make people protected. I am a shield. I am there in your crisis, and I will provide and that's what I do and let me get you all hooked up on insurance.' That is not my jam. Do you know what my jam is? Laughing with strangers. Do you know what my jam is? Being in a room full of people who could be anywhere else in the whole world but tonight they're here with me. I have a responsibility to connect with these people, and that is a joy for me."
Now, she plans to take magic show to the next level. In July, she held auditions for girls to perform with her and hired a blonde girl named Alex. She has worked as a figure skater for years, performing on the Dutch version of Skating with the Stars and touring with Nancy Kerrigan.
Lee plans to take her show, which is big in the magic world, into being a mainstream household name. "Now it's just beginning, and now we're going to get it," she says. "People call all the time and, when they're looking for a chick magician, they don't really care who it is. They want to put her in a fancy dress and have her do a couple card tricks. That's not my phone call."
"I don't get the call to be stuffed into a sexy dress and be a prop. I get the calls because they've seen my straightjacket, and the guy said, 'I need power and you're the only one I can find, and I've looked.' I'm like, 'Well you've come to the right place. Let's have a conversation.' They call me because I'm Misty Lee, and those are the calls that I want. I don't want to be just some generic chick magician."
"I'm doing jobs guys fight for," she says. "Middle fingers for everybody."