In performance, Criss Angel is slightly more Saruman than Gandolf, more Count Dooku than Obi Wan. His dark stage persona is composed of equal parts Marilyn Manson, Robert W. Smith, Harry Houdini, and the comic book antihero known as The Crow.
In real life, however, the magician born Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos is actually a sweet guy who seems more interested in inspiration than invective.
Years of work pays off
He is a humble fellow who wants you to know that if a poor schlub from Long Island can become widely successful, so can you.
“Criss Angel is nothing special,” he said in a phone interview. “He just worked his ass off. I want to send people away from my shows thinking, ‘If I work my ass off, maybe I can fulfill my dream as well.’ Maybe it won’t happen on their timetable, but it took me 18 years to become an overnight success.
“I give people the opportunity to believe in themselves,” Angel said. “To see that it’s possible. It’s very possible.”
Angel was born in the town of Hempstead, New York. An aunt taught him his first magic trick and he did it for anyone who could be persuaded to watch. The idea that he could do something that amazed and bewildered adults was intoxicating to him.
He performed magic in Long Island bars and restaurants as a teenager. It was a time when the mere presence of a child in a bar stirred no alarm.
After he graduated, he decided to become a professional magician rather than go to college as his parents wished.
“My parents wanted their kids to do whatever made them happy,” Angel said. “Being a magician is not a career that many people are able achieve huge success with.
“But my parents were very supportive. They understood my love for it, my passion for it, and my commitment to it. So when you have love, passion, and commitment, these are the ingredients of success.”
Finding the perfect name
His stage name emerged from a brainstorming session with James Randi, the well-known magician and debunker of charlatans.
The word “angel” came up in conversation and Randi seized upon in immediately.
“James said, ‘Yes! Angel! You look nothing like an angel and you work with doves. Perfect!’”
Angel’s tagline, “Mindfreak,” which has become its own idiom, is just a cleaner version of a term that incorporates what is often referred to as “The Mother of All Swear Words.”
It took Angel two decades’ worth of dues-paying to score his A&E program, .
It was the network’s No. 1 show for a while, and it has been widely credited with leading resurgence in the popularity of magic.
Making Magic relevant
Angel believes that he and David Blaine saved magic from becoming as dead as vaudeville.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting or I’m conceited, but I think David and myself made magic relevant again,” he said.
“I was more about doing illusions on the street and he was more about close-up magic. From that point, I never looked back. My show is something that the world of entertainment, forget about magic, hasn’t seen before.”
Angel creates new illusions in a 60,000 square-foot Las Vegas studio.
“I literally try to do things that have never been done before,” he said. “I do everything in-house. It really gives me and the hundred people that work for me the opportunity to produce things that are at another level than what we see in the magic world.”
In spite of the great care that Angel and his staff take, the illusions do sometimes injure the illusionist.Angel has twice been hurt while doing a stunt that involves upside-down straightjacketed suspension.
“I take calculated risks,“ he said. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s just a magic trick.’ They don’t realize the inherent danger. I’ve had many, many (injuries). Every time I do a show, I put it on the line. I have to. I want the audience to see a show they can’t experience anywhere else.”
Angel said the success he has achieved far exceeds what he imagined in his wildest teenage dreams.But he keeps finding ways to push himself.
“I love creating,” he said. “And I don’t believe my own hype.”
Fighting Childhood Cancer
And Angel said he plans to continue to raise money for pediatric cancer research and treatment. This is a cause that Angel took up long before he son was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Angel said his 4-year-old son is now in remission after three years of arduous treatment.
“We’ve raised a considerable amount of money for kids,” he said. “One hundred percent of everything I raise through shows or any way goes to research and treatment. I don’t take a penny out for expenses of any kind.”
He is funding a documentary designed to help parents cope with these extraordinary circumstances.
“It’s called 1,095,” he said. “That’s the amount of days that a boy has to go through treatment. It will show families that get that horrible news how to deal with it.
“One child every two minutes is diagnosed with cancer,” Angel said. “It’s time that we come together.”
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