"If I told you the secret," says Wayne Hoffman, laughing out loud, "I’d have to kill you."
I’m on a Zoom call with one of the most famous illusionists in the world and have just experienced an incredible, jaw-dropping moment after he read my mind correctly. Shockingly. Eerily.
A few minutes before the incident, seated in his home in Estero, Florida, halfway across the globe, Wayne was telling me how even as a pre-teen he was interested in magic and illusion, how he learnt tricks from several magicians from videos and other resources, and how he now enjoys taking his act across the world.
For the record, Wayne has performed in more than 70 countries, on countless TV shows, including America’s Got Talent, wowing crowds with his spectacular acts including one where he ‘materialised’ a splendid Ferrari in an empty car park (more about that later).
I’d seen plenty of videos of Wayne’s unbelievable performances, but the one act that truly amazed me when he accurately guessed what a volunteer was thinking. Keen to know if he can replicate that feat I ask if he can ‘read’ my mind while on a Zoom call.
"I can try," he says, his demeanour friendly, tone confident.
Wayne fishes out a pen and a sheet of paper while telling me to "try to keep your mind blank". I am unable to. A train of thoughts begins racing through my mind: What is he going to ask me? Will he be able to peer into the darkest recesses of my mind? What if he gets to know something I’ve been trying to hide? I stare at him on my laptop screen as blankly as I can, excitement rising but tempered with trepidation.
"Ok, think of a number from 1 to 1,000," he says, looking into my eyes.
I think of a totally random number.
He scribbles something, puts his pen down and holds the sheet of paper in front of his chest – written side facing him.
"Ok, shout out your number," he tells me.
"221," I say.
Wayne slowly turns the paper to face the camera. On it is scribbled: "The number you will say is 221."
To say I’m amazed is an understatement. I am gob-smacked. Saucer-eyed.
"Please," I plead, grinning. "Tell me how you did it."
Wayne laughs. "If I told you," he says, echoing the line every magician says when asked to reveal the secret of his act, "I’d ..."
For UAE audiences
But I’m hoping to get another chance on September 24 when Wayne will be wowing audiences across the UAE with a 60-minute mind-reading and illusion act via video-conferencing app Zoom.
"In my previous shows, I’ve always been amazed at the responses of people in the UAE. They are an amazing crowd. This time they can continue to enjoy the same entertaining performance but in the comfort of their homes. [Although on Zoom] there will be occasions when I’ll choose volunteers from among viewers and take them on one-on-one to read their mind or do some other tricks," he says.
Dabbling with the mysterious arts has been second nature to Wayne, who was born in Reading in Pennsylvania, USA. "Reading," says the 39-year-old, "has two claims to fame: it figures on the Monopoly board – the Reading Railboard – and Taylor Swift, the singer, was born there."
I correct him to say that now Reading has three claims to fame.
Wayne was barely nine years old when he began flummoxing his classmates with his ability to predict their actions. "I’d get my friends to pick M&Ms from a brown paper bag and would correctly guess the colour of the sweets," he says.
Quickly upping his acts, by age 12 he could correctly reveal what his friends were thinking of. By 15 when many of his pals were busy trying to catch the eyes of girls, Wayne had the coeds wide-eyed by guessing rightly what was on their mind – and often even the colour of their innerwear!
Did magic or the performing arts run in the family? "Oh no," he says. "All my family members held regular jobs." The father-of-one credits a little magic store – Mingus Magic Shop – near his home with helping him develop his skills. "I’d ride my bicycle to the shop and hang out with mind readers, magicians, card cheats.... It’s one of the oldest magic shops in the US and is still in existence."
Wayne learnt a lot from the shop owner, from people who came in to purchase props, from magicians and performers who frequented the place… "I’d spend a lot of time listening to – and learning from – them," he says.
Wayne’s interest in magic didn’t wane after school; he pursued psychology in college before becoming a professional magician after learning sleight-of-hand card tricks and assorted gimmicks. "I then blended magic with mentalism and natural intuition to create my own show – Mind Candy," he says.
A fusion of mystery arts
Is there a difference between magic, illusion, mentalism? I ask.
"They all belong under the umbrella of mystery arts," he says. "You have a hypnotist, then a magician who does close up magic, an illusionist who’d typically do large illusions like making a girl appear from nowhere, a card artist who does tricks with playing cards…
"Magic and illusion are typically visual where you see something appear or disappear. Mentalism focusses purely on things that are psychological. A mentalist can go on stage with absolutely no props and still be able to amaze you with the power of the mind."
While most entertainers specialise in one area, what sets Wayne apart from many others of his ilk is that he includes all facets of the ‘mystery arts’ to conjure up a show that quite literally can whisk you away to a magical world. "I made the decision early in my career to blend the various elements into one show," he says.
Can I become an illusionist? I ask, hoping he will take me on as an intern.
"Anyone can do what I do," he says, with a disarming smile. "I don’t claim to have psychic or special powers. Everything is related to human behaviour, psychology, physiology, biology and probability. It’s about blending together a lot of sciences."
He admits that learning to be a mentalist is not easy. "When I started, I also asked [a mentalist] the same question and was told that one cannot be a mentalist until one has been a mentalist for a very long time. Only much later did I understand what he meant – that mentalism is a developed skill. You’ve to practice for a very long time; but, yes, anyone can learn."
Wayne clearly has not stopped learning. When not performing live he is on national and international television channels including on CNN, Animal Planet. He was an expert guest on The Numbers Game on National Geographic.
Uri Geller’s advice
"I learn from a lot of different resources and videos; and yes, many people have given me lots of advice," he says. One of his favourites though is the illusionist and mentalist, Uri Geller – yes, the guy who can bend cutlery just by staring at it. "I became friends with him in 2008 and once sought his advice. He told me two things: one, cause controversy and, two, invest in real estate," Wayne says, guffawing.
An out-and-out entertainer, Wayne takes his job very seriously. "I think my job is to make people realise that we are all still children trapped in adult bodies. We are only playing the part of an adult. When I’m performing, I want to take you back to the time when every day was magical, when anything was possible, when the world was a magical place. That’s my mission," he says.
"I want people to forget their stresses and worries even if it’s just for an hour. To relax and just not take life too seriously. I want them to go into a space that’s magical."
The pandemic might have thrown a spanner in the works for many, but the illusionist says he has been able to "translate perfectly what I do live to virtual. I can still read people’s thoughts over a video call, and I can still show amazing illusions."
As the interview comes to an end and before he disappears from my laptop screen, I ask him whether there was a moment when he ever considered using his ability for nefarious means. Wayne laughs. "Yes, I could have used it – it could have gone that way. Having the ability to read someone’s mind and guess their passwords ... I could tell people I am psychic, that I have supernatural powers and can tell them their future if they give me some money, I could cheat at cards… But some 20 years ago I made a decision that I would use these skills to only make people smile ... to entertain them, never ever for nefarious ends."
Wayne on his best feats
I once made a Ferrari appear from thin air. That was challenging.
I’ve been able to read the minds of people on the opposite sides of the Earth, like I did with you just now. That is a notch in my belt.
The dynamite trick is also a popular one. I place three exactly same-looking sticks of dynamite – two of them fake and one real - on a table. A volunteer blindfolds me and rearranges the sticks in any order of his choice. I choose two of them blindfolded, put them in my mouth and light their fuses. When both fizzle out, I light the third and throw it into a safe area where it detonates.
The fact that I am here today and speaking means I’ve never got it wrong ever. But no one should ever try it.
Wayne Hoffman will perform his first virtual show for UAE’s residents, a 60-minute mind-reading and illusion performance, on September 24 via Zoom. Tickets are priced Dh30 and available at ae.bookmyshow.com/dubai/events.