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October 20, 2014

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Criss Angel’s intense focus is something to ‘Believe’

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Tom Rutan

Criss Angel’s “Believe” on Spike TV.

Criss Angel’s ‘Believe’ on Spike TV

Criss Angel’s “Believe” on Spike TV.

Launch slideshow »

Criss Angel in Times Square for Spike TV

Criss Angel in Times Square in New York for his Spike TV series “Believe.” Launch slideshow »

Criss Angel doesn’t ask too much of himself, really.

He just wants to work 25 hours a day.

And he wants to be the best magician performing in a city teeming with internationally famous illusionists. And, just maybe, he wants to be the best magician working anywhere on the planet.

Otherwise, his self-generated expectations are quite reasonable.

“People ask me all the time, 'Criss, are you crazy? What the (heck) are you doing?’ ” Angel says during an interview at his 60,000-square-foot fortress of magic in Las Vegas. It's replete with offices housing editing bays, recording equipment, costumes, props and furniture. It is where he has established the Magic Place, a popular live webcast that has generated 200 million views, and where he spends most of his personal and professional time.

“I could stay at my house, stay at my pool, wait until 6:30, jump in the car, roll to the show, do my show, come home, watch TV,” he says. “But that’s not me.”

That is not Criss Angel today, as he has marked the fifth anniversary of “Believe” at Luxor. It’s never been Criss Angel, actually. He never stops building, creating, working and branching out far beyond the 1,600-seat theater where he opened his partnership production with Cirque du Soleil on Halloween 2008.

In those days, Angel was flying high, for real and metaphorically, with his A&E series “Mindfreak” and was the carefully chosen artist for the first onstage collaboration between Cirque and a star performer. It started poorly, as Angel weathered some potentially lethal reviews and media coverage; at one point “Believe” almost never made it out of its first incarnation.

“I had the opportunity, near the beginning, to walk,” Angel recalls, shaking his head at the memory. “And I could have very easily done that. But I’m not a quitter. I’m very competitive. I’m somebody, for my own personal satisfaction, who pushes himself. I want to take myself out of the comfort zone.”

When Angel puts in these ridiculously long, sometimes up to 20-hour days, he keeps all of those objectives at center stage. The still-youthful and powerfully built magician who turns 46 in December says “it took me 18 years to become an overnight success” and still has an engine running at maximum RPM. He has shifted gears many times, and so has his show.

“Believe” long ago shed many of the Cirque influences, though the company remains a promotional partner in the show. Angel has drawn back the acrobatic performers, focusing on his strength — slickly produced illusions — and has eagerly tapped into the comedic skills of sidekick Mateo “Maestro” Amieva, who is a hilarious counterbalance to Angel’s glam-rock approach to magic.

The formula has worked. Angel has weathered his early struggles on the Strip and is moving along with a show that is vastly improved, and getting better with each evolution, and is among the bestselling productions in the city. As a way to remind anyone, and maybe even himself, of his hard-fought success in Las Vegas, Angel verbally frames achievements.

“I’ve focused on ‘Believe’ because I was able to direct it and write and do what my vision was from the beginning — but obviously the beginning wasn’t the road I took," he says. “But, thankfully, the show is the bestselling magic show in the world. We’re killing it. … The show, what it was in the beginning, doesn’t at all represent what the show is today.”

Angel remembers the early creative tug-of-war with Cirque, which invested quite a large sum to make “Believe” a hit.

Click to enlarge photo

Criss Angel in Times Square in New York for his Spike TV series “Believe.”

“If you compared our relationship way back when to now, it’s just completely different,” Angel says. “Think about it: If you’re going to spend $100 million on a show, you want somebody to guard that safe, right? You don’t want to take that money and entrust it with one person if that person might be nuts. And, you know, I didn’t have necessarily the greatest reputation, right (laughs)? So … you wouldn’t want to give the keys to the safe to Criss Angel right away. You didn’t know Criss Angel, he hasn’t proven himself to be the person who says what he does and does what he says and not deviate from that.”

But five years later, Angel has worked to overcome concerns with his reputation (sometimes bolstered by behavior, like the time he called out gossip guru Perez Hilton from the audience during a show after Hilton posted tweets mocking Angel) as something of a loose cannon. Those close to the magician suggest that he was initially so preoccupied with fulfilling his bad-boy, rock-star image that he lost sight of the fact that he can be an inherently gracious, friendly and thoughtful person.

It is suggested that Angel is actually, simply, more relaxed in his own universe than he was five or six years ago.

“Thank you!” he says, chuckling. “I’m a very blessed man. To be able to do what I do, and to be able to go through what I’ve gone through, and to come out on top … what can I complain about? I am so grateful and so fortunate. I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I know who I am, what I am, what mistakes I have made, hopefully know the mistakes I won’t make in the future. ... I’m about love, about positivity and trying to move people into a positive place, definitely.”

• • •

Angel has seemed indestructible, with a spotless attendance record spanning more than 2,100 performances of “Believe.” But he’s not physically infallible and is taking three months off beginning in January to undergo surgery to repair a damaged right rotator cuff, an existing injury he aggravated during a recent double-straitjacket escape in New York.

Thus, the “Believe” stage show will be halted as Angel rehabs the injury, though he will help present a variety show from January through April until he’s ready to return in full form to “Believe.”

“I’ve performed through a deviated septum, a hernia, illness, and I’ve not missed one show. I remember the press was coming after me, ‘Oh, he’s going to last two months. He’s going to be out drinking, partying, not showing up and not being responsible,’" Angel says. “I remember seeing that back then. But I have not missed one show, and I’ve done more than 2,100 shows. … I am saying this because it’s been a lot of work, which is great, because the harder the work, the greater the reward.”

There is no arguing that Angel enjoys wide appeal, and there has been no ebbing of his vast fan base, the Loyals, as they have long been dubbed. He is reaching out to those fans once more in his new Spike TV series, also called “Believe,” which debuted Oct. 15. The show is reality-based, produced and — as important — edited by Angel and his manager, Dave Baram. The show focuses on Angel’s professional fiefdom, detailing how illusions are conceived, constructed and executed.

Click to enlarge photo

Criss Angel celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Cirque du Soleil show “Believe” at the Luxor on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at a party at Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Place.

Already, the show has raised eyebrows with an unsettling “raising the dead” illusion. More comically, Angel has levitated Shaquille O’Neal, no small feat as the 7-foot-1 inch former NBA superstar weighs more than 350 pounds but still seemed to hover 60 feet above Angel’s complex.

What Angel didn’t want to bring to TV was another version of “Mindfreak.”

“It’s completely different. I didn’t want to do ‘Mindfreak’ because I’ve done that, I had tremendous success from it, and since then people have tried to come back with a television series based on magic and never did it in any meaningful way,” he says. “We kind of set this bar when ‘Mindfreak’ came out in 2005, but now it’s like we’re reinventing ourselves with this amazing team in this amazing facility.”

The show is to reveal the debates about ideas for how to present magic, the artistic trial-and-error process and also is to be a launching vehicle for at least one emerging magician, Krystyn Lambert. The 22-year-old performer is Angel’s apprentice on the show.

“She is probably the premier female magician in the world. She’s 22 years old. She’s beautiful. She’s intelligent. She’s talented,” Angel says. “Krystyn will be part and parcel to a project next year where people are going to be able to see her talents onstage along with Banacheck, who is the most renowned living mentalist in the world. He’s amazing. So we’re really going to give everybody a platform in this show.”

An uncertainty is how much of Angel’s personal life he’ll reveal to the public. He is still engaged to Sandra Gonzalez, but she’s not among the members of the cast officially noted on the show’s website.

“Sandra is amazing, and she’s put up with a lot from me in the six years we’ve been together. I don’t envy her,” Angel says. “If anything, I realize and respect her greater now than ever. I think that no one can relate to the process of what you go through. Only you can understand it because you are going through it.”

Besides, with Angel the professional environment is his whole life.

“Right now the show is more focused on my art, but it certainly does embody my life,” he says. “Magic is what I do every moment of every day of my life. So, yeah, people will get to see things about me that they haven’t seen before.”

And they will understand the drive that has kept Criss Angel in prominence in Las Vegas, online, on TV, everywhere.

“I’m somebody, for my own personal selfish reasons, who pushes himself,” he says. “I want to see what I am capable of because that’s where you grow. If you do not do that, you become complacent, and there’s no growth.”

He stops and sips from a water bottle.

“I believe as an artist, and as a human being, I can grow until the day I decide not to perform anymore,” Angel says. “I can continue to grow forever, until the day I die. I believe that because I have to believe it.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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