“What we need to do is always lean into the future. When the world changes around you and when it changes against you—what used to be a tail wind is now a head wind—you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining isn’t a strategy. ”
The ultra-successful illusionist astonishes audiences by appearing to fly unaided across the stage, but he relies on business jets to traverse longer distances.
Magician David Copperfield is the highest-grossing solo entertainer in history, with upwards of $4 billion in ticket sales. In collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola, he performed Dreams & Nightmares in 1996, which still retains the Broadway record for most tickets sold in a week. He has won 21 Emmy Awards and holds 11 Guinness World Records. His chiseled face adorns postage stamps in six countries.
Signs of Copperfield’s potential surfaced early. Born David Seth Kotkin in Metuchen, New Jersey, as the only child of two Jewish immigrants, he was an accomplished ventriloquist by age 8, when he performed for his school. A weekend visit to a magic shop in New York City sparked his interest, and soon he was performing tricks adults couldn’t do. At 12, he became the youngest person ever admitted to the prestigious Society of American Magicians. At 16, he performed onstage in his hometown as Davino, the Boy Magician. He also taught a magic course at New York University.
Two years later, he changed his name to David Copperfield (from the Charles Dickens novel) and left for Chicago to play the lead in The Magic Man, which became the longest-running musical in the city’s history. By the time he was in his early twenties, he was starring in network TV specials devoted to his magic.
In 2006, Copperfield purchased a chain of 11 islands in the Bahamas for $55 million and renamed them the Islands of Copperfield Bay. He spent an additional $35 million to renovate one of those islands, Musha Cay, and transform it into a vacation destination, complete with magic antiques such as Houdini’s pool table. He owns a magic collection that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and includes the collections of Georges Melies and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, two of his most celebrated predecessors.
For the last 13 years, Copperfield has sold out the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, performing two shows a day Sundays through Fridays and three shows on Saturdays, seven days a week, 42 weeks a year. (He devotes the other 10 weeks to vacations.) We caught up with him late one evening after one such performance.
How did your parents feel about you doing magic?
In the beginning they loved it but when I was 16 and told them I wanted to do it for a living, my mother said no. But her negative reinforcement worked for me, and eventually I showed them I could do it. They traveled the world with me and met presidents and kings.
Who taught you your tricks?
I taught myself from magic books in the library. I’d read the magic effect and make myself invent my own method of how to do it. As a teenager, I sometimes ended up inventing things better than in the book.
What do I call you? An illusionist? A magician? A creator? An Artist?
Illusionist is pretty accurate, because I create illusions. I hope people think of me as a magician. I’ve tried to lift the art form up and make people respect it, like dancing or theater or music. I am also a creator and I produce and direct and write. I’m on a constant quest to try to get it right.
What does the word “magic” mean to you?
Magic is a state of mind, a state of being transported, a state of being inspired. We have so much unhappiness in the world and people need to dream and be transported. Music does that, movies do that, and magic does that. It’s forgetting about reality—let’s just go for a ride, and I’ll tell you some stories that can hopefully inspire and engage you and make you laugh.
What do you want people to take away from your show?
I hope the takeaway is passion, preparation and persistence. You have to be passionate about something you really love and persistent because people are going to tell you “no” and you’re going to make mistakes and do goofy magic stuff.
What do you consider your most successful illusion?
I flew. People in the audience cried and got really emotionally involved. Some saw Peter Pan and some saw Christopher Reeve, but seeing it live on stage without any wires or camera tricks..there was something very emotional about that for the audience.
Have you ever been injured while performing?
I was doing a rope trick and I cut my finger off. Mike Tyson’s cut man reattached it and it grew back. That’s magic.
You were robbed in 2006 at gunpoint?
I was walking with a group of people after a show when a car drove up and some guys got out. I thought they were stopping to get an autograph but they pointed a gun in my face and said, “Give us your money.” Everyone gave their money. Like an idiot, I showed them my pockets were empty, but they weren’t. I didn’t want to give my wallet away. Luckily, the guys believed it. The police caught them and the robbers went to jail.
You do more than 600 shows a year. Do you ever get burned out?
I get tired sometimes, but I take 10 weeks off a year and go to my islands in the Bahamas. That’s a great place to recharge and create. I have a place in New York, too.
Does flying privately facilitate your career?
You can’t beat the convenience of flying privately—it saves a lot of time. I’ve got my own airstrip on my islands and I can’t land a big plane but I can land smaller planes.
How do you fly privately?
I charter. I’ve never owned my own plane. I spent a lot of time researching my own plane and at Airbus and Boeing and we started designing planes together, but I like having other people do the worrying about the pilots and all. It becomes another business when you own your own plane.
What aircraft do you use?
I like the [Bombardier] Challenger 300 and Challenger 604. We can fly from here to Georgetown [in the Bahamas] in four hours, and then another 15 minutes on a [Cessna] Caravan or a Pilatus to my airstrip.
What is Musha Cay?
It’s one of the Islands of Copperfield Bay, which also includes 10 pristine and undeveloped islands. Musha Cay is a private resort with a staff of 40 where I’ve created some amazing experiences, kind of like Fantasy Island. It’s a big, beautiful place where adults become kids, and movies and theater appear on the beach out of nowhere.
I know you consider the rehabilitation program, Project Magic, your most important work. How did that begin?
I was corresponding with a young magician who was disabled and didn’t reveal that until he sent me a picture of himself in a wheelchair. I realized he had amazing self-esteem because he had a skill that an able-bodied person didn’t, and that gave me the idea to work with medical professionals and create a program using magic as a form of therapy. It would motivate people to move muscles or think about mathematics or socialization skills or speech. I was very shy [when I was young] and magic helped me learn certain things. I thought it would be good if I could give that same kind of help to people with disabilities. The program gives people hope through magic.
Do you have any other projects like that?
We’re starting a project called RedSafe, where I’ll create a huge safe that transports objects magically around the world, such as educational items to inner-city schools or water and drilling supplies to Africa. It will use magic to raise awareness for really important items. Magic is obviously illusion, but giving is a real thing.
What is your goal now?
To do what I can to make a difference, to encourage others to fight for their dreams. The best compliment is if someone comes away from the show inspired to do something he would not have done otherwise. That’s the goal. I’m a dreamer and maybe I can inspire future generation of dreamers.
NAME: David Copperfield
BIRTHDATE: Sept. 16, 1956 (age 57)
NAME: David Copperfield
EDUCATION: Dropped out of New York's Fordham University after three weeks, when he was cast in the lead of the Chicago musical The Magic Man.
CHARITY: Project Magic, a program he developed, uses magic as physical therapy is hospitals in 30 countries to help patients regain dexterity, coordination and cognitive skills.
PERSONAL: Single. Three children. Lives in Las Vegas and New York and on Musha Cay in Copperfield Bay in the Bahamas.