Do you want to see how to escape from handcuffs?” Curtis Lovell II asked when we paid a visit to his Downtown L.A. office and rehearsal space. How could we resist? (Don’t ask—we’re sworn to secrecy.) The out illusionist and escape artist, originally from Columbus, Ohio, has been obsessed with all things magical since the day his father made a coin disappear and then reappear behind his ear.
As Curtis studied the life and work of Harry Houdini throughout his teenage years, magic tricks gave way to harder and more complex illusions and escapes. These days, a typical day at the office includes being buried under 1,000 pounds of dirt, shackled to two steel plates and dropped into the Singapore River or being locked in a box containing 52 gallons of water. He’s escaped them all. Oh, and he sawed Paris Hilton in half.
How did you become interested in magic?
When I was 7 years old, my father took a coin, made it disappear and pulled it from behind my ear. I was like, “Wow!” He noticed I loved it, so he went to a local magic shop and got this trick where you take a handkerchief, put it in your hand and it’s gone. That mystified me until age 13. I would see magicians at school functions, birthday parties and libraries. When I was in fifth grade, a friend of the family asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “A magician!” He said, “But what do you want to do for a living?” I said, “I want to be a famous magician.” [Laughs] I got books on Houdini and magic tricks and escapes. David Copperfield was coming onto the scene at that time. I was performing magic tricks at school, and then it progressed. I decided to become a business when I was 15. I got on my bike, went down to the local print shop and got business cards that said “Curtis the Magician”—with a little magic hat with a bunny rabbit coming out of it.
When did you first perform in front of a crowd?
My mom’s friends would always call me and say, “Hey, come do my kid’s party for $20.” But the day I went to pick up my business cards, there was a woman there who said, “Oh, you do magic? I work for the Festival of Arts, and we’re looking for entertainment.” So I got my first paying client who wasn’t family-oriented. I got $175 for four hours. I did walk-around magic and two stage shows.
How did you transition from magician to escape artist?
At 18, I came across some handcuffs and plopped them on my wrists—but I didn’t have the key. I was flipping through my magic book, thinking, I need to figure this out before my mom gets home! It took me about an hour and a half to pick those cuffs, sweating. I decided to become more of an escapist. It evolved over the years from magic to escape artist and illusionist. Magicians and dogs do tricks, I do illusions and escapes.
Card tricks are one thing, but how did you learn the more dangerous tricks like escaping from a box of water?
The more complex tricks, you study and learn the different concepts and principles. With escapes, you have to be careful, because the risk of injury or death is there. When I accept a challenge, I like to utilize a risk factor. But I like it to be something the audience can relate to—like being buried alive. I accepted a challenge to be cuffed by a city police officer and locked into a coffin, and they shoveled 1,000 pounds of dirt on top of the coffin. I had to pick the locks, get out of the cuffs and work my way out of the dirt. I can’t go too much into it because that’s part of the mystery, but I’ll give you a little secret: When you have a thousand pounds of dirt on you and you’re locked in a coffin, there’s little you can do except escape. Once they dumped the final shovel of dirt, it took me 17 minutes to escape.
You also get locked into a box of water. How long do you usually stay underwater?
The audience wants me to stay in there a long time, but my objective is to get out as fast as I can. The range is two to four minutes. There’s a high risk of going into shock. Your body is losing oxygen and will shut down. You can have seizures.
Do you ever use your ability to read minds in your personal life?
Here’s the thing—in order to read minds, you kind of have to have permission. You have to enter the mind and feel the vibes, the energy. Some people are locked down. You have to interpret facial expressions and body language. That takes many years of learning to accomplish. I just do enough to make the show interesting.
Do your friends ever ask you to show them how certain tricks are done?
Yes, and that’s why I came out with a video that you can purchase called Poof! You’re a Magician: Learn Magic With Everyday Objects. I’m like, “You wanna know how it’s done? Buy my video!” [Laughs]
You appeared on an episode of The Simple Life and sawed Paris Hilton in half. Was it tough to talk her into it?
I sent the show’s pro-ducers an interesting letter. I said, “I’d like to cut Paris Hilton in half. Is that OK?” They contacted me, and I met with her. She’s brilliant to work with. She may be crazy when she’s on the red carpet at an event or in Vegas doing her thing, but she’s a pro when it comes to her professional life. That was the box she was cut in half in [pointing]. See? You get to see Paris Hilton’s box. [Laughs]
Is there an ultimate trick you want to perform?
Of course! There are a handful of projects I’m looking forward to in my career. I want to break the world record of escaping from a straight jacket 194 times in a period of eight hours. Another escape I would like to do is called “Are You Crazy?”—I get shackled into a cage that gets dropped into water. The twist is there is another person in another cage dropped into the water at the same time. The other person has the key to my cage, so I have to train him or her to pick the locks, get out of their cage and get into my cage. That is the ultimate escape, because it doesn’t just rely on me. It relies on my ability to communicate and teach someone how to escape.
Do you talk about your sexuality?
I think society should move to where it’s not “gay, lesbian, straight, transgender.” I want people to come to my show for the entertainment value. Let them decide. I mean, it’s obvious—a boy in tights with zippers and rhinestones. If they have to ask me that question, they’re blind.
How did Houdini influence you?
He was the master of his time, and a great showman. I came across a recording online of Houdini presenting a water escape. The way he used his voice, the words he would choose, were unbelievable. I wish I lived during that time. Reading his books inspired me. He was born in Hungary, and he came to the United States. He left everything that he’d known. He escaped from the conditions of his living environment and became someone who so many people still speak about many years after his death. Growing up, I watched a VHS tape of Houdini starring Tony Curtis. He was my hero. I watched that tape over and over and over. A few years back, I was fortunate enough to be invited to be an opening act for Tony Curtis at an awards show. He placed me in a straight jacket and later signed the jacket for me.
What do your parents think of your career now?
My mother wanted me to become an architect, a lawyer or a doctor. My father wanted me to become a football player. That wasn’t going to happen. They’re very supportive, and they love it now. You want the best for your children. In the beginning, they didn’t have any experience in the entertainment industry, so they didn’t know. “Look! My son does tricks for a living!” I’ve never really had a 9-to-5 job. Through school, most kids were working at McDonald’s or the grocery store. I was doing tricks. Everything in my life has been magical. I’m living my dream.
For more information, visit curtislovell.com. Photographer: Ryan Forbes, ryanforbesphotography.com, 100 percent of Ryan’s photography fees will be donated to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center — Models: Lorelei Moreaux, Thor Thorvaldsson, Illusionist & Escape Artist Curtis Lovell II, Meyghan Hill, Carmine Bicchetti, Davi Shane — Photo Assistant: Rollence Patugan — Stylist: Art Conn, artconnstyles.com — Stylist Assistant: Samantha Czubiak — Wardrobe and Costume: Provided courtesy of The Costume House, valentinoscostumes.com — Make-Up and Grooming: Natalie Bohlin, nataliesmakeup.com; Marybeth Bagonghasa, marybethbeauty.com; Dezi Villalpando, deziv.com — Location: The One-Eyed Gypsy, one-eyedgypsy.com — Props: Large Magic Stage Effects, Curtis Lovell II; Natural history curios, Necromance, Los Angeles, necromance.com