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J C Sum, Mega Illusionist
"Candid  Interview with 'Magic Babe' Ning - Singapore's Only Professional Female Magician"

This interview was conducted by John Teo, President of  the International Brotherhood of Magicians Singapore Ring 115 (Singapore Ring 115) for The Quantum Ring (TQR), Official Publication of Ring 115 and is reproduced with full permission.

The interview was featured in the July 2008 issue of TQR, just prior to Ning's successful 'The Impalement Cage" Mega Escape.


By John Teo

"Everyone knows “Magic Babe” Ning, as she is being featured recently in numerous local presses and magazines as the hottest and sexiest and the only professional lady magician in Singapore.

"Ning is one of our Ring 115 members. We seldom see her in our month meetings because of her tight working schedule.

Betsy and I have known Ning since she was one of the founder members of Singapore Magic Circle and have seen her grown in her magic to become one of the superstars of local magic. I feel that an interview with Ning is appropriate here.

Enjoy, and get to know her better!"

 

Although my wife is involved in the performance of magic, to me, lady magicians are few and far between.  What makes you love magic enough to want to do it as a career?

Magic has always been a flaming passion and I fell in love with illusions when I first saw Copperfield on TV when I was a little girl. Princess Tenko became a lucid inspiration when I realized it was actually possible for an Asian woman to hold her own on stage as well! I performed magic for various charities (Sharity Elephant, Children’s Cancer Foundation, etc.) and private parties in my late teens, and did well because I was such a novelty! However, it was only after graduating with my RMIT Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication, that I decided to seriously consider J C Sum’s offer of having me fulltime in his Concept:Magic team.

Weighing out my options, I realized doing magic fulltime as a professional commercial entertainer was really now or never… since objectively speaking, with my prior industry experience, track records, scholarships and university degree, getting back into Marcom wasn’t a big issue. More so really when I had several contacts who comfortingly informed me at that point in time that they’d truly love to have me on board their creative agencies if “my magic stint didn’t work out” since as you know, a full time female magician was unheard of here. Hah!

Everyone around me was completely astonished with my unorthodox decision to take on such an ‘alternative’ career but I recognized the need to follow my heart. Close friends who understand me know that I don’t believe in regrets and I honestly don’t want to be a 80 year old wondering what it could have been, should I have had the guts to walk the path less traveled… so I did what I had to do. Carpe diem!


 
It would be interesting to know how you actually got started in magic.

Copperfield & Tenko were on TV, which led me to significantly realize that magic could be far more spectacular than what the kids magician who performed at my kindergarten presented. I wanted to learn how Copperfield did all those amazing feats like flying and all, but the library books my mother borrowed for me, never revealed such big secrets. However, through the pictures of those huge books, I learnt how to perform simple magic effects using casual every day objects that I could easily find around the house.

My favorite uncle eventually bought me my first magic set (Marvin’s Magic!) when I was in Primary 1 and I was hooked. It became a secret hobby but I wasn’t allowed to showcase my magic or perform in school because MGS was a Christian school and predominantly discouraged magic as a hobby and interest because it was ‘ungodly’. Sad but true!

In my late teens, a friend invited me to help out at various charities and that’s when I started to use magic again… to cheer up the little kiddies who were recovering from chemotherapy treatments and all. I subsequently became an online magic shop owner (www.MagicBoutique.sg) as well as, a founding member of Singapore Magic Circle where as a moderator, I strongly advocated forum members to use their magic skills and knowledge for positive things too, like making others happy, instead of it just being an ego trip to impress girls. Haha!

And yes… There’s been absolutely no looking back since!


What categories of magic do you like, and do?

My first love is for illusions really, which I only got to do in late 2006.  Most of my illusions are performed with J C, who is my magic producer and onstage partner. Last October, during my Triple Actz stage performance at Alliance Francaise theatre, I did a presentation of the traditional sword basket illusion but with a big theatrical twist. I graduated with a diploma from film media studies and being an avid reader since I was young, I was inspired by JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so my opener essentially had a dark, mythical and enchanting feel.

Most performers do the sword basket illusion in a pretty standard way where their assistant goes into the basket under the cover of a large cloth before it’s whisked away and the magician starts stabbing swords in. My version saw me enter the stage under dim lights and smoke, cloaked in red velvet with haunting music setting the mood. As the mists cleared, I revealed my face and magically lit my candle before throwing up a fireball. A precious pouch is produced and as I show the contents, 2 armed and evil ogres suddenly loomed up from behind with a trap.

Jumped upon, I’m trapped by their dark colored cover and with their weapons, they jab me into being a prisoner inside the basket. The lid is closed and they start stabbing their ugly swords in. To show the fatality, one of the ogres climbs up and shoves his spear all the way down the lid and the end goes through the basket. All the shaking within stops and the ogres celebrate by howling in laughter. They remove their weapons and advance towards my fallen pouch.

As they are distracted, they are unaware of the sudden movement from the basket behind them. The lid is thrown off and I immerge in my Magic Babe costume (Tadah! Costume change!) complete with my twin Japanese sais! I flourish the sharp daggers and point it at them, swiftly engaging in a swordfight with them before they back off, defeated. I claim my pouch and the lights fully come on to signify the end of the dramatic opener.

I admire Jim Steinmeyer because he’s a great illusion designer, and so is Mark Parker from the UK. My favorite illusions to perform are J C’s Crystal Metamorphosis, Full Throttle and Light & Space because they never cease to garner reactions from the crowd.

To be honest, I’m also crazy about mentalism because it’s just so intelligent, and I’ve been told that I do it well. Boon writers are so handy, I never leave home without one in my purse! I recently purchased Jason Messina’s Tube, which is a modern-day book test prediction effect that is revealed on YouTube. Really nice! Currently, I also include a localized version of Andrew Mayne’s Focal Point in my professional close-up repertoire and have received nothing but great reactions because people can identify with the pictures displayed 

Also, it’s quite amazing but I still have magicians who still remember my 2006 stage magic competition act in Heartland Mall, where I was 2nd runner up in the Open Category. They still vividly recall my unusual closer that saw me spontaneously combust an audience-selected page of the morning’s newspaper. The guys shared that they were greatly impressed because apparently no one had ever performed anything like that before!


What, in your opinion, is a successful magician? 

Being a full-time professional commercial entertainer, I would have to say what the general market and media classify as successful. The recent Forbes list of top 100 powerful celebrities in the world ranked the entries by money earned, press & TV exposure and website hits. So, I would use similar objective quantifiable benchmarks. It is also by these benchmarks that advertisers, sponsors, event organizers and media content producers will seek these individuals because they bring tangible value, brand power and attention to their products or events. Of course, within the magic community, the number of awards or convention appearances might be the benchmark but this does not necessarily translate into commercial value outside of the magic circle.

So this is my 2 cents worth. In magic, based on the above criteria, we can identify a number of people who have been successful: Cyril Takayama in Japan, Criss Angel & David Blaine in the US, Derren Brown in the UK. In this part of the world, our IBM Ring 115 member J C Sum is in good contention to be considered successful…. And soon yours truly! :-)

Another unofficial guide to see how successful a magician is, that I have come to learn, is how well-liked you are by other magicians. The more a magician is disliked (due to jealousy) by peers, the more successful that magician tends to be. Just look at the masses of magicians who hate Criss Angel. Haha!


What contributed to your being such a successful magician thus far?

Thanks for the compliment! But, I’m really at the dawn of my career and I have been lucky that I have had a modest amount of success and able to elevate the art in Singapore in such a short period of 3 years. Some may snipe that I’m just a pretty face, but they’re also the ones who’d also condescendingly declare that a girl driving an expensive sports car would have gotten the vehicle from a sugar daddy or has a rich parent, etc instead of her very own success.

Ultimately, I’m a professional commercial entertainer with a strong USP who creates value for clients, sponsors and advertisers that choose to work with me. ‘Magic Babe’ is a strong, sexy, Asian woman who brings sex appeal and glamour to the local entertainment and events industries. And, there has never been such a defined female character in local magic before, at least not in recent years.

My background in PR and degree in Mass Communications have also helped me understand how a good product should be publicized and promoted. As a commercial magician, you are in show business… you know, show + business. You absolutely need a good balance of both to be successful, along with some luck! Many times, magicians focus on only one aspect.

But, I also honestly feel that I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am right now (12 – 16 hour days are the norm and just last week I’ve lost 2 toe nails but no one would know such unglamorous details!) and those I’ve worked with obviously recognize my unique package that encompasses skill, talent, eloquence and distinctive image. There’s absolutely no way anyone can get by superficially with just ‘looks’ in showbiz. I suppose they may have a novelty factor at the beginning but that would all fizzle out if they didn’t have anything else to back them up.

There is an ongoing discussion on who makes a better magician:  one doing technically demanding sleight-of-hand tricks or one doing tricks without much sleight-of-hand?  What is your take on this?

Ultimately, it is how the magic is designed. If you have tremendous sleight of hand skill, use it to your advantage. The magic should be designed to the performer’s advantage to give the best possible result. The method is the means to the end.

I also think it should be more about the audience than all about the magician really. At the end of the day, the better magician is the one who successfully entertains the crowd, leaving them wanting more. Period.


What is your ambition as a lady magician?  How far have you already accomplished?

My stage alter-ego, Magic Babe, is reflective of the modern cosmopolitan woman who’s confident and empowered. I’m not a feminist but I simply hope to inspire more women in believing it is possible to break into a male dominated industry. After all, we now have an increase of female doctors, lawyers, politicians and professionals as compared to 50 years ago. Magic wise, besides striving for interesting, ground-breaking projects, I also hope to set an example that women in magic do not have to portray cutesy roles or be submission on stage. If you’re a self-assured sassy girl, show it!

I also see myself in a position to elevate the art of magic in Singapore with the projects I’m currently working on. I personally believe the best way to elevate the art is by raising the public profile of magic into mainstream entertainment. While I honestly respect many magicians who cultivate young magic talent through “sessioning” and workshops, I think the most effective way truly, is to have the local media and entertainment industry here acknowledge magic as a mainstream pop culture entertainment form and not just amusement for kids. Looking into history, it is David Copperfield, Criss Angel and David Blaine who elevated the art by drawing mass interest at a mainstream level (and interestingly, they’re the ones who’ve received the most flack from other magicians). Obviously, the greatest challenge is to be able to be in a position to showcase magic at that mainstream level.

Thus far, I’ve had a very good run of things. 2008 is a huge year for me and I have a good feeling that it will have a resulting positive impact on the local magic scene.

J C & I secured our own permanent illusion show, “Ultimate Magic” at The Arena, a club in Clarke Quay. This is slated for a 16-month run till 2010 with shows 6 days a week, 2 times a day. This is really a landmark project as it is Singapore’s first Las Vegas-style regular illusion show. It is a S$1 million dollar project and The Arena has been really great and has retrofitted their entire stage facilities to accommodate our show. This show will allow us to showcase good quality local magic to international visitors as the show is targeted at tourists. The local tourism industry has already been buzzing about this new attraction and The Arena has already tied up with multiple tour agencies for advanced ticket sales. This is also the first time magic in Singapore has penetrated into the tourism market, so it is also a milestone from the business aspects of the show.

To kick off “Ultimate Magic” I will be attempting a mega escape called “The Impalement Cage” on 5 July 2008, 9pm at Clarke Quay fountain. This is the first of its kind escape performed by a female magician. I’m doing this because I believe it’s all about women empowerment. I sincerely hope it inspires confidence to women in Asia, driving across the strident statement of being brave and chasing your dreams, even if that means breaking gender stereotypes. It is also the first full-view spike escape of its kind in the world (as far as we know). The more familiar spike escapes like Andre Kole’s “Table of Death” and other variations always have the magician hidden from sight by a cover or behind a translucent curtain that just shows a silhouette of the magician trying to escape. But this type of escape, while good, is just too common.

As you know, for the last 20 years, it has been seen in just about every large illusion show all over the world. Also being one to push the envelope, I wanted to do something different; to show an improved evolution of such an escape. J C designed the final design (based originally on Gerry Frenette’s Spike Escape but has since been completely redesigned and rebuilt) and the local media has picked up on these unique differentiating points and has been incredibly supportive.

The NewPaper did a two-page spread and we are firming things up with TODAY for an interview. Media like Channel NewsAsia, Stuff, FiRST, FHM, Time Out, IS Magazine, 8 Days, I-Weekly, Her World, OMY.sg, STOMP and others are covering the mega escape. I think it is the most media-covered magic event in Singapore’s history. J C’s landmark 50-storey teleportation from last year really helped pave the way for this mega escape to attain such mainstream attention and interest.

My largest project to date and the one that will showcase local magic at a level never been done before will be for the Singapore F1 Grand Prix Season in Sept 2008. J C & I were approached by Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to create something spectacular for the Singapore River Festival that is a major event during the F1 season. As recently announced, on 24 Sept, we will teleport 3 random people across the Singapore River in full view of the expected 5,000+ crowd for this one off spectacular!

The press conferences we’ve been pulled to attend have been overwhelming. But, we made such a positive impact at the first press conference that our mega illusion was singled out on the Channel NewsAsia report that called it “South East Asia’s Biggest Magic Event”. We were on the cover of Lianhe Zaobao and also featured in TODAY, The NewPaper and My Paper. Glenn Ong and Flying Dutchman from Class 95FM also talked about us on their hugely popular morning show! 

This the first and only time STB has ever commissioned a singular magic event and they rightfully chose Singapore magicians to pull it off. On the day itself, there will also be foreign media invited by the government, so you can imagine the excruciating pressure! But this will showcase local magic once again to the international media, because they will be in town for the F1 

Meanwhile, next January also sees me traveling up to England as the very first Singaporean in history to actually headline a UK magic convention! This will be for the South England Magic Convention, which is the very first UK magic event that kick starts the new year. I got the phone call after the organizers saw my 2-part exclusive interview with MagicSeen, UK’s largest magic magazine! It is great because I will be able to see magicians I’ve been in contact with like Graham Hey, Mark Leveridge, Collin Richardson, Geoff Pescud, as well as hang out with England’s brilliant illusion designer Mark Parker. 

It’s been a crazy ride but it’s all good and very, very exciting!


What are your future plans? 
 

While we will be committed to The Arena till 2010, some interested parties have already approached J C & I to work on a new project after our contract with The Arena is over. Until then, we will still be taking on special projects and corporate shows on top of our daily shows at The Arena. 

I’ve also been approached to do some media projects too; a personal offer from Eric Khoo to be his female lead in his upcoming film seems fun but we’ll see how things go since our schedules are just so hectic!  

Essentially, I’m only 25 and though I’m young, I see myself working hard for the next 5 years before I allow myself a nice break and a long vacation. I look forward to visit Batsaikhan Gunbileg, my adopted ‘son’ from World Vision Mongolia. For the longest time, the adorable boy’s been bugging me to fly up to personally teach him magic!
 

What final words do you have for our members? 

Well, I’m really thankful to members of IBM Ring 115 who have done so much for the art & our magic club. It’s because of wonderful people like you who’ve contributed and given so much that it truly makes this a better place. It’s good to know there are kindred spirits here who are protective and concerned about my well-being, I truly appreciate that.  

Some of you may know that since I started getting more obvious commercial success, I’ve been the target of unfair rumors and hearsay but such is life I suppose. Never believe everything unless you know the other side of the story ;-) I’m completely approachable and actually really goofy and easy-going in real life, despite my aloof ‘Magic Babe’ persona. So please, feel free to drop me an email or tap me on the shoulder to say HI in person.  

I’d truly love to see you at my upcoming Mega Escape feat this 5 July @ Clarke Quay, 9PM!