Female magicians struggle for respect in a male-dominated profession whose audiences are used to seeing women as the assistant to be sawn in half
- Audiences are used to thinking of women as assistants to male magicians – not surprising when fewer than seven per cent of magicians are women
- US magician Kayla Drescher’s career shows female magicians are no less of a draw, and she says the profession needs calling out for its old-fashioned attitudes
Sitting behind a card table in the secretive Magic Castle, Kayla Drescher widens her eyes and nods exasperatedly when asked about being called a “female magician”.
“Yes, I am very, very sick of being asked what it’s like to be a woman in this industry,” she says. “‘Female magician’ feels like I’m being placed in a subcategory of magic … I’m being placed in a metaphorical box, not just an illusion.”
But while the label is “exhausting” and “annoying” for Drescher, “we still have such a small percentage of women in this industry – I think it does still need to be talked about.”
The stereotype of a magician in a top hat sawing his glamorous, sequinned female assistant in half endures among the wider public, who can rarely name performers beyond Harry Houdini, David Copperfield and David Blaine.
While the outfits have changed, still just seven per cent of magicians operating today are female – roughly the same proportion as the membership of the elite “Academy of Magical Arts” that calls the Magic Castle home.
Drescher is one of two billed female headliners on a recent visit to the cavernous members-only institution on a hill above Hollywood that is devoted to the art of illusion.
As the reaction of a spellbound audience to Drescher’s baffling card tricks and subtle sleights of hand later in the evening will show, women may be a minority in magic but are no less of a draw.
Drescher, 31, has been performing since she was seven, and has long found that audiences – like the aficionados and rowdy wine-drinking Halloween parties filling the “Close Up Gallery” – tend not to care about a performer’s gender.
Instead, it is the “shocking old-fashioned” mindset of magicians that is keeping the number of women in her trade low – and that is something she feels is important to keep “yelling about”.
Drescher has long dealt with male magicians excluding her, assuming she is someone’s girlfriend, one time even requesting she “do magic by a poolside in a bikini” in Las Vegas.
“Magic is very much written by men and for men, so suits, large trouser pockets, big hands, all these different elements, very masculine-style stuff,” said Drescher, who hosts the “She-zam” podcast.
“You have to jump over a lot of hurdles to be respected in the community for being a magician and not just a woman. And that’s always annoying.”
According to Drescher, if the assistant could just as easily be replaced with an inanimate object like a lamp or a table “she doesn’t need to be there … she’s a prop”.
“The mutilation of women …” she says with a sigh. “It just feels really gross in 2021. But luckily it is shifting.” The last few years and #MeToo have massively boosted demand for female magicians, says Drescher.
But inbuilt obstacles remain, including the powerful status of reform-resistant, generally male-dominated magic “clubs”. The Academy of Magical Arts itself faced allegations of sexual harassment in a Los Angeles Times investigation last year.
Its general manager resigned, and his replacement Herve Levy says that policies to improve “diversity and inclusion” have been put in place, including training for staff to prevent sexual harassment. The group now has 36 women on its magicians’ roster.
The other female headliner on the recent visit is Mari Lynn, who performs with her husband John Shryock. “We’re more of an illusion team. I always call myself a co-star, rather than an assistant,” she says.
The couple from Arizona used to perform a trick in which she would turn the tables by locking him up, known as “The Assistant’s Revenge”.
When she started out, Lynn found some audiences were “much more critical of the females trying to take the male roles. But I am really happy to see that things are changing. It’s coming around slowly.”
Tonight Lynn and Shryock are performing “The Great Escape”, which sees them joined centre stage by their two daughters.
Sixteen-year-old Jasmine wants to be a solo magician herself one day, while 13-year-old Hailey has her heart set on becoming a doctor.
“I’m really optimistic going forward that Jasmine will not have as hard of a time as I did,” says her mother Lynn.
While Jasmine learnt by performing with her parents “in every magic show since I was born”, she noticed early on that most of her friends who were also interested in magic were boys.
“There have been times where someone in the class will be like, ‘oh girls can’t do magic as good as boys do’,” she says. “And then they’re proven wrong.”