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Before explosive performance, Mindfreak speaks: 'Failure is not an option'

Sporting a necklace shaped like handcuffs, except with hundreds of diamonds, a black T-shirt and hat promoting his upcoming Believe, a new show by Cirque du Soleil at Luxor in Las Vegas, internationally renowned illusionist and escape artist Criss Angel sat down with the St. Petersburg Times for an exclusive interview Monday afternoon.

Speaking for almost an hour, he touched on topics ranging from life and death to family, fighting, magic and why he doesn't want to be a role model yet somehow sets an example anyway.

Oh, yeah, he also mentioned Wednesday night's event on Clearwater Beach, where he'll attempt to escape from the Spyglass hotel before it implodes. Here's almost the entire interview:

So on one of your shows I saw you turn a few $1 bills into some $100 bills. Are you going to help a few broke journalists out here if we scratch together some ones?

(Laughs.) I wish what I do was all real. Some of it's real, some of it's an illusion and I try to blur the line between both, but unfortunately I've got to be honest with you. Taking a $1 bill and turning it into a $100 — unfortunately it's not real.

Aw, you're killing me. I thought we were going to get paid for doing this.

Me as well (laughs).

So what's your knowledge and connection with the area, Tampa Bay, Clearwater?

This is my third trip here, being that last week I was out rehearsing. I guess it was probably about 12 years prior to that I went out to Clearwater, then went out to Tarpon Springs, which I know has a tremendous Greek community, and being 100 percent Greek I had to go to that community. The Greeks are amazing. They don't have a lot of us in the entertainment business, so when they have someone who is 100 percent Greek in the entertainment business, they really get behind you, so I'm looking forward to also stopping by Tarpon Springs if I get some time as well.

How long are you going to be in town?

I'll probably be here until Thursday evening. What I can say is that the beaches here are just amazing and the people have been incredibly hospitable and I'm just grateful for the opportunity to try this because we didn't have a lot of options. We had a lot of options in buildings, but when it came down to putting me in a building when it was going to implode, nobody was going to let us do it except for Clearwater, so I thank all those officials who trust and respect my artistic vision, and hopefully we generate a lot of publicity of this wonderful place we call Clearwater.

What gave you the idea? Did you just wake up one morning and say I'm going to shackle myself to a building that's going to blow up?

I've done about 1,000 demonstrations now, going into my fourth season (of his A&E show Mindfreak), and season four has been an amazing process for me because I've got to do things I've always wanted to do.

But traditionally I've had these thoughts that run in my head that I'd like to see as a spectator. And (I'm) a huge fan of obviously Houdini and even Evel Knievel.

Back in the day there was no more exciting television that was beyond Evel Knievel. And when he would do that live jump and you didn't know whether or not he was going to live or die, people tuned in to see how it would unfold.

And I think very much with this episode, which is live … I'll be in the same situation. No one knows what the outcome is going to be, even me. I know what I'm going to try, but you never know. Anything can happen.

You don't know the outcome?

I know what I want it to be, and I've trained for what I want it to be, but anything can happen. Anything. There's 550 sticks of dynamite that will be below my feet, there's a helicopter that needs to hover 30 feet above the roof.

If I don't make it through the handcuffs, five locks and four doors in no more than three minutes and 30 seconds — if I'm one second late, that helicopter needs to leave without me. Who knows, I could trip, I could have trouble picking a lock. … Who knows? Can dynamite detonate prior to when it's supposed to? There's a million uncertainties.

The only thing I have to do is remain on target and be calm, cool and collected so that I keep my heart rate low and think clearly about what I have to accomplish in the time that I have.

So on Wednesday, do you have any rituals? Is there a special meal you'll eat, a special workout?

You know, I just kind of get myself into that zone.

The difference, though, between what I'm going to do Wednesday and what I typically do, is that usually when I'm taping Mindfreak I go on when I'm ready. I can't do it this time. I have to go on, you know, the clock, it's live, I have to go on when it's my cue to go, whether I'm mentally there or not. I've only allocated one hour, so it's going to be rough.

But typically, I just like to be by myself, I like to visualize in my head over and over again like an athlete what it's supposed to look like, so hopefully my body follows through.

You kind of caught the magic fever early. I guess when you were 6 or 7 your aunt taught you a trick.

My Aunt Stella.

Then it took off from there. So you're in high school? Are you thinking is this what you want to do?

I knew right away what I wanted to do since I was 6 years old. … As you pointed out, my Aunt Stella was kind enough or not kind enough (laughs) to teach me my first card trick, but you know, it's kind of interesting because to be perfectly honest with you, I wasn't — I did well in high school because of my personality and teachers liked me personally, but I was in the slowest classes.

I wasn't a smart kid and I still don't think I'm too smart when it comes to book smart, but I was very good with what I knew and with my craft and I think that was my calling in life. But even today I never went to college. …

But it just goes to show you that if you want something bad enough and you're willing to work through the rigors to get it, then you can live your dream basically like I'm living mine. I'm not smarter or better, I just was very — I persevered. When people told me no, it just made me stronger and more hungry to prove them wrong, and I think that's really where I excelled.

It was in my attitude and how I looked at things because I'm not a book smart kind of guy. I'm not.

Can you talk about your lean years, your lowest point?

Well, not knowing how you're going to pay your bills ...

Right, right. Was there ever a time where you thought, "I've got to give this up?"

No, I never thought about quitting. I have a very competitive spirit about me and no matter what I put my mind to, I have to accomplish it, no matter how difficult it is. That's just in me, in my personality. And even when times were tough and I didn't know how to get through, I was very fortunate to have an amazing family who were very supportive with what I wanted to do. But I did whatever I had to do to get by, and if it were easy everybody would be successful.

What you put in is really truly what you get out, and I worked my a-- off. I put everything on the line. I took the greatest risk: my future. I said I'm not going to college.

And it's something I would never encourage anybody to do, but when it's in your blood, you have to do it. You can't do anything else. It's just what makes you, you. You eat, live and sleep what you want to be, what you can visualize with your life. And I always knew what I wanted to do.

I always knew I wanted to create art and express myself through images that I create, and that's even true in the live show — the Criss Angel Believe show — it's really about my life and that process and it's about creating those tableaus that will connect to people, because I never cared about how something worked or how a trick worked. I cared about how people would feel when they watched it.

And I think that's why people, thankfully, have connected with my television series Mindfreak. This is the best season ever, and I have so much to say artistically, and hopefully I'll always have an audience and thanks for all of you for watching me and supporting me because without all your love and support I wouldn't be here right now, so thank you.

Let me ask you something about that. You've got some of the most rabid fans of a celebrity I've ever talked to. I mean your fans are just

They're loyal.

My e-mail inbox is full. I could retire now if I could get all these people autographs for all the bribes I've been offered. (Angel laughs.) But why do you think your fans are so attached?

No. 1, I am so blessed. And I think the reason we connected is so simple.

People look at what I do and there's a connection, like with what Houdini had. When Houdini would hang upside down in a straitjacket and people would watch him escape, it wasn't about Houdini. It was more about the message that Houdini provoked and that was if I can get out of a straitjacket, then you can escape poverty, you can better your life, and people received that message wholeheartedly.

They wanted to see the underdog succeed, and then they wanted to succeed. So the greatest compliment I get as an artist is when a fan comes up to me and says: "You know, I saw you hang from four fish hooks, and you know it made me realize I can confront my fear. I can live my life a little fuller. I can get on a plane. I can go in elevator, I can be that doctor — it's not too late."

And I think when you have a message that's much greater than an enigma, than a puzzle, then you have that connection. And people also know that although I have this nonsense (he grabs his diamond-plated, long necklace that looks like a long chain attached by a pair of handcuffs) and cars and stuff like that, which are all nice to own, these things, everybody knows that they don't own me. That I'm just a person and that I try to be positive in the world, I try to do good, I'm very conscientious because success is not easy.

I used to think that if I had success I would have freedom. But I have less freedom now than I've ever had. And what gives me satisfaction is not the jewelry and not the cars. What gives me satisfaction is doing things for others, like children.

And for me the greatest honor I've ever gotten — forget about the accolades for Magician of the Year and nonsense like that — is getting the Criss-gracious award as the television celebrity who has done more for the Make-A-Wish Foundation than any other person.

When I see a kid who has two or three weeks to live and he has a smile on his face, it just makes me think about how much I have to be really truly fortunate for, because they understand what the meaning of life is, and that's to live each minute to its fullest with love, happiness and — thank God I have my health — and those are the three things you can't buy.

And I think people understand that's where I come from as a person. People mistake the image when they first look at me, but when they see what I'm really about and they don't judge me for what I look like, then they see that I'm really different than what they think I am. And they see that I'm trying to be positive in a sometimes very negative world.

What do you have to say to the people who are skeptical, who say it's like professional wrestling, that magic is all phony? Well, wait, the fish hooks were real, right?

(Smiling.) I have lot of marks on my body that I'll be happy to share with people. But the truth of the matter is I have nothing to prove to anybody. The only person I have to prove anything to is myself. And the fact of matter is I said I was going to blur the line between reality and illusion.

And you know what? I love the people who hate me just as much as I love the people who love me because without those people I wouldn't be here. People who write things negatively about me in the press? I love those people. Thank you all for talking about me because it has given me the platform to create art and make people talk about it.

When you're at the top, and I worked my a-- to get there, they tell you how great you are. But when you're there, everybody wants to tear you down. And you know what? None of that stuff bothers me.

I actually think it's funny because people who supposedly hate me so much will waste their life talking about me probably because no one will talk about them. And to me, I'm flattered that they would waste all that talking about someone they would hate so bad. But they don't really hate me. We all have our own insecurities, including myself, and sometimes some of us can't confront what they are.

So instead of looking in the mirror, we look toward being negative in life and I say screw that. Life is too short, life is too precious. Let's try to be positive and try to be a positive force in this world.

OK, let me throw a few editors under the bus on this one. They want to know who is locking the doors (in the Spyglass) and who is flying the helicopter.

(A stunt coordinator and friend will fly the helicopter.) As far as the locks … I'm picking someone randomly by throwing my wristband (into the air and whoever catches it) can come up … and they will proceed to check everything. … They can lock it. There is nothing to hide. There is absolutely nothing to hide. And that's the funny thing because people are so skeptical of an escape. … What people should be so skeptical of is the palm reader up the block.

Right, right.

The people who will take your money and talk to you about your dead loved one, they're doing cold readings. They're doing nothing for you.

What I do is, look, there are real consequences to what I do. And I have scars all over my body. (He points just below his right biceps, where he was burned when he lit himself on fire, and under his nose, where he was injured from being underwater for 24 hours.)

I've never had a major catastrophe, thank God. But what I do is the real deal. This situation is an escape. … And when I'm doing illusions, those are illusions, but this is an escape.

You've talked about Houdini a lot and I know he's one of your idols and I've even called you the postmodern Houdini

Well, thank you.

And I know one of the things you don't believe in are psychics and he didn't believe in them, but have you ever gone to one of the yearly seances for him?

No. Houdini was a smart man because when Houdini lay in his deathbed in 1926 on Halloween, he said to his wife that people are going to come out of the woodwork and that there would be a great opportunity for people to exploit this, and I'm going to give you a secret code word.

So for 10 years that code word was in an envelope on the table and no one was able to produce what that code word was, so on the anniversary of the 10th year of his death (Houdini's wife) revealed what that word was, and it was the word "believe," which is the name of (my upcoming) live show, which incidentally has another word in it, which is "lie." It's kind of funny.

What you do is sometimes pretty crazy, pretty dangerous. Personally I hope you live a long healthy life

Thank you.

And you die a ripe old age. But is death something you think about? Are you afraid of it? And how do you think you'll die?

First of all, I don't fear death, so if you don't fear death, then there's nothing to fear in this world. Right?

Uh-uh.

I think that the problem is that people fear so many things and they don't live life to its fullest. And for me as an artist, if God should want me to come this Wednesday to the end of my life, so be it.

I don't want to die. I want to be very clear, I've trained my a-- off and I am totally focused. Mentally, physically, I'm there. Spiritually, I'm there. And I'm going to do everything in my power to be incredibly successful.

My life is on the line. As for how I will die? God only knows how I'll die, but I hope to live a long, fruitful life. I hope to do a lot of positive things in the world with my charity (It just started in his father John Sarantakos' name).

I'm looking forward to raising $2- to $3-million a year for children, so I'm hoping I'm around a little bit.

But once I do this (Wednesday night's event) and God willing, I'm successful, I vowed to my mother that I will not be doing things of this nature. I'll still be doing television and my show, where there's a lot of dangerous things, but I won't do things like this. I've done them enough. I've done a thousand demonstrations and I haven't killed myself, and I have nothing to prove anymore, and I'm going to move on to do other things.

The underwater kennel (where you almost drowned during practice)? The one where you didn't

I did it this season.

Ah, so you did get to do it.

I did it. I trained, I was holding my breath for over six minutes, and I trained for a month so I could have much more time to get through any complications. I did it, but without giving the episode away, it was a trip.

So in season four we see it?

Yes, there's a whole episode dedicated to that. Really, this whole season — and your readers are going to think I'm saying this to hype them up, but honestly I'm not — this season of Mindfreak is the biggest, the baddest, the most diverse.

I do everything from two close-up shows, from really intimate close-up stuff, to the stuff like we're doing live, which we've never done before. We're really trying to shake things up, and I'm really trying to raise the bar and hopefully I can jump all the bars that I've set for myself.

Why did it take so long to do a live show?

It's very hard to determine time frames. … So we needed to have under our belt 92 episodes of Mindfreak to really have the confidence to pull it off, not from just the escape portion, but the technical portion, to make sure things are prepared and people understand, and I think people are prepared …

Talk about your future plans.

(Believe officially opens Oct. 12 and will include 4,600 shows). In the midst of all that I will be doing, obviously, more of what I do on television. There's a variety of things like movies. But there's just so many things that I'm working on right now that I'm really excited about. I'm basically booked, besides 10 years (for the Believe performances); I'm booked for other projects for the next two or three years.

How long is Mindfreak going?

Well, Mindfreak (has 21 more episodes) and depending upon what A&E does, but I think there is a fifth season. And providing I have things to say artistically, and I have my little notebook of stuff I haven't done, I'll broach that.

I'm fortunate because I remember the days when I had no opportunities and now I have too many opportunities, and I'm able to kind of pick and choose what I'm able to do and what I'm not able to do.

If you didn't have one of your insane days of two or three hours of sleep, workouts, thinking, writing, what would you be doing? A normal day?

I don't know. I so badly want a break, I want a vacation. I just think if I can get to an island in the Caribbean somewhere, have a couple of drinks and think on and reflect what has transpired in my life, I think that would be something that would be a very healthy thing for me to do, and hopefully something I can do soon.

But I'm not able to sit still, I have to keep moving, so I would probably get tired of that very quickly.

Hypothetically speaking, say you never got into magic, you never learned that first card trick

What would I be doing now? I'd be a fighter.

A fighter?

Yeah, I'd be in (Ultimate Fighting Championship) or something.

No kidding. You do a lot of fighting?

I love fighting. I love the whole kind of chess game that it is, and I studied martial arts as a kid for several years, and I just have such a respect for so many fighters who are out there and training really hard. And even though they have a team, at the end of the day when they're in the ring or the octagon, they're just depending on themselves, their skill level, how bad they want it, their passion, their determination.

And when I go into (the Spyglass) and do this escape, that's exactly how I perceive it. It's me against what it is I'm doing. It's either going to be me that's going to be the victor or the outcome is going to be whatever that thing is, is going to win. And that's how I perceive it. I really do.

I have a very competitive mind and I kind of equate everything as that if I don't succeed in this, then I fail, and failure is not an option for me because I lose my life. So when I'm training at the gym, I think about — I know it sounds crazy — but I visualize that building as what's getting in the ring with me and I have to beat it.

And I know it sounds really strange, but it works for me. And I just kind of think of it that way.

Well that kind of segues into something I've been curious about. Watching your show, your brothers and friends are always pulling these jokes on you. And you're always saying: "You know I'm going to kick your a-- when this is done." So have you ever gotten into it?

(Laughs.) Well, now that I'm in my situation, I have to be an example. I'm not a violent person by nature. … One of my sayings is there's no problems, just solutions. So I always try to find solutions.

Ah, come on, you get those guys back somehow, huh?

I can't hit anyone unless it's my family (laughs because he's joking), and I've gotten into situations like that and I've had to restrain myself ... I knew people were trying to provoke me for that reason, because people sometimes don't want to work for their own money and they want to try to take it from somebody else, and I'm not that stupid.

I think I pulled a coup on you the other day (people talking in the background) …

Hey, guys, quiet down — hey (to the Times), want to see me kick someone's a--? No, just joking.

So, I think I stumped the master when I asked him, what's the one question he'd never been asked that he'd always wanted to be asked? (The Times did this last week.) You probably haven't thought about it, but you've been interviewed a million times. Anything you want people to know about you that they don't know?

That's a great question, and you did ask me that on the phone, but I honestly haven't had the opportunity to think about.

But I think people know a lot about me that's true and a lot about me that's not true. There's so much information on the Internet, I would just say to anybody that you can't judge somebody that you don't know and you can't judge somebody from the perception of the way they come off.

Mindfreak is me, but it's just one aspect of me. Just like I'm meeting you right now. Your personality is one way, but I'm sure you have a lot of different sides to your personality —

Naw, I'm a jerk all the time.

(Laughs.) I'm certain that some people say I'm a jerk sometimes depending on the mood and how much sleep you have. But at the end of the day, but I'm very different than what people perceive me to be. I know I'm not answering your question.

No, that's all right. I had to stump the master.

Well you stumped me, but that's a great question.

I don't want to take up too much more of your time, but family is very important to you and you don't see that with a lot of celebrities.

I'm not a celebrity, I'm just a person. I hate that word.

Well, how about someone in the spotlight. Can you talk about that?

We have a major crisis in this country with kids and them getting into things that are not producing positive results in their life, and for me I was just so fortunate.

In life, everybody is dealt a better hand than the one you have, and a worse hand, and you've got to do the best you have with what you have. And for me, the way I was raised, I'm a product of my environment and family was very nurturing, very loving, and it is important to have that as a foundation, especially growing up because kids today, a lot of times, their parents don't know where they are or what they're doing.

I'm not a role model. I never claimed to be, never wanted to be. I just think that if you have a single parent or two parents that (they) should take a real interest in their child and get them involved in activities when they're young, whatever it is, whether it's playing the drums or martial arts or playing the flute — whatever the heck it is.

Keep them occupied, keep them experimenting in the arts and in education and doing things as a family. Whether you're a single mom or a single dad, take an interest in your child's life.

I think that nurturing that friendship and that relationship will allow more kids to grow up without drugs, without alcohol, without stealing and killing and robbing and live their life with a more positive force.

I think a lot of our problems with society would be resolved if parents were involved. And that's what I love about Mindfreak. A great compliment I get is when I have a kid who is 13 or 15 years old with their parents and they say: "You know what, your show brought us together. This is the only thing I do together with my dad or with my mom."

Last question, an easy one. At the end of all your shows you always go 'Aaah' to the camera. Where does that come from?

I've been doing that since I was a teenager. (Laughs.)

Yeah, so have I.

A lot of people will come out and try to take what other people do, whether it's the way you dress or the nature of your art and try to mimic it. But the thing they don't realize is you can't steal someone's soul. It has to come from within.

And that was just part of my stupid, nutty personality, and I'll just end off with this: (Jumps from his chair, races toward the Times camera, opens his mouth wide and) 'Aaah.'

Wednesday night's stunt

Las Vegas-based illusionist Criss Angel will perform his "biggest and baddest" escape Wednesday night on Clearwater Beach when he attempts to uncuff himself from the sixth floor of the Spyglass Resort, make his way through a series of locked doors and then get to the roof, where a helicopter will ferry him away just before the nine-story building implodes. The event will be broadcast live on A&E beginning at 10 p.m. It will be the first time the hourlong show Mindfreak has been broadcast live.

Before explosive performance, Mindfreak speaks: 'Failure is not an option' 07/29/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 3, 2008 8:57am]

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