British illusionist Katherine Mills on being in a male-dominated profession

Illusionist Katherine Mills is a member of Magic Circle, a prestigious magician's society, and hosts her own TV show

British illusionist Katherine Mills, 31, was often mistaken for the pretty magician's assistant when she started out in the male-dominated profession.

She says: "I used to get that a lot. People would go, 'You mean you are an assistant.' I would say, 'No, no, I'm the magician.'"

The attractive brunette has since proven she is not just a pretty face.

Mills, who is based in London, is a member of prestigious magicians' society Magic Circle, alongside famed illusionists David Copperfield and Steven Frayne, who is better known as Dynamo.

Female magicians are a minority in the 110-year-old Magic Circle. According to an article published in The Telegraph last year, the organisation opened up its membership to women only 23 years ago. It has fewer than 100 women among its 1,400 members.

Last year, Mills went on to helm her own magic show, Katherine Mills: Mind Games, on TV. It is currently showing in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Negotiations are under way to bring the show to cable TV here.

In town recently to promote her show, she tells Life! that she explores magic with people in their everyday lives.

In one instance, she joins a book club and gets members to randomly pick a word on a page. Amazingly, she guesses the word they each pick.

Mills, a sociology and psychology graduate from Loughborough University, is grateful for her family's support for her unconventional career path.

Speaking fondly of her 62-year-old podiatrist mother, she says: "If I didn't have a mother who is so supportive, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

"My mum showed support right from the beginning, talking to me on the phone, giving me advice and letting me practise my magic tricks on her." Her father died when she was 17.

Her 33-year-old brother, who works in finance, was also a guinea pig for her magic tricks.

She says with a hint of glee in her voice: "We'd play games where I had to guess which hand he was holding an item, or I would pre-empt where he hid something. It used to frustrate him in a fun way. It was fun to realise that I could turn the tables on him."

1 What made you pursue a career that is totally unrelated to what you studied in university?

I've always been fascinated by human behaviour, I've always gravitated towards any subject that explored human behaviour. When I went into event-organising after I graduated, I watched magicians performing at these big events. I remember watching them and thinking, actually I much prefer to be doing that. That's when I decided that I wanted to become a magician.

2 What does it take to become a professional illusionist?

The Magic Circle is an institution where the members share magic secrets. They have a library that has witchcraft books from the 1500s. That's the closest thing to a magic school. You have to take an exam to get into the society. It was one of the things I worked the hardest for in my life. I went over my show hundreds of times before I went for the test.

I was so nervous performing in front of a full room of 60 magicians. It was such a daunting process. The magicians are not impressed by illusions, they are impressed by the way each is executed and your dexterity.

I got into the society on my first attempt. It was a unanimous "yes" from the magicians.

3 What does it take to be a good illusionist?

You need to have very good work ethics. I would say you would have to be gutsy, tenacious and very patient, where you don't mind repeating something again and again until it becomes flawless.

If you are doing close-up magic, you find that people are trying to catch you out all of the time. You need to be perfect at what you are doing.

4 Has anyone caught you out?

No, there hasn't been anything like that for me. But I think that you can never pre-empt what will happen, nothing is ever fool-proof. Even on the show, there are always things that don't go according to plan. Either it's a miss or it's not a perfect prediction. But I think that's what makes it feel more real for people. It's not a show where everything is going to work.

5 Have there been times when audiences cast doubts on your abilities because you are a female magician?

Not really. I found that people were more intrigued. Women have been very positive and they love what I do.

Men within the industry are perhaps more intrigued and wanted to see what I could do. I think men in general find it fun because a woman is in control and can play mind games on them.

6 Which magician do you look up to most?

One of the magicians who has been a huge inspiration to me is David Blaine. The first time I saw him was the first time I saw magic bouncing into the modern day. I don't think anyone had seen magic done close-up on the street. It was kind of cool. I think he revolutionised modern magic.

7 How realistic is the magic portrayed in magic- themed movies such as Harry Potter?

Magic that you see in the movies is partly what makes it difficult for magicians on TV to make people believe what they are doing is genuine. People are so used to seeing the most exceptional things, amazing visual effects on movie screens.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

My career means a lot to me. I have lots of things in the pipeline which I don't think have ever been seen before. I hope these things are remembered and valued.

Also, I love my family and my friends. I hope I'm remembered for that too.

nggwen@sph.com.sg