The Life Interview With Magic Babe Ning Cai: Now you see her

Ning Cai, who retired from the world of magic in 2014, makes her comeback this year as an Asian dominatrix magician

Five years ago, magician Ning Cai - known as Magic Babe Ning at the time - was in Jakarta for a live broadcast of her illusion act. During the rehearsal, a safety strap broke, sending the box she was hiding in tumbling to the floor.

At the time, it did not seem serious. She carried on with the show and many more in the coming weeks. But the fall had compressed her neck and the pain lingered.

Visits to health professionals helped, but the nagging pain reminded her of a deeper problem - her dissatisfaction with how her life and career were turning out.

She was exhausted from a schedule that took her away from home for weeks at a time. The long separations had cost her a relationship.

"I realised I needed to do something for my health. I needed to pause... You are more than your work," says the 35-year-old.

Late in 2014, two years after her stage fall in Jakarta, Cai announced her retirement from magic so she could focus on writing. Her autobiography came from that hiatus, as did a teaching certification in yoga - her other passion.

My life so far: Ning Cai with her mother Vivien Lee and father Freddy. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NING CAI

But she missed performing and offers came in from here and overseas, with chances to work with artists she admired greatly, so this year, she is making a comeback.

"I thought about mentalism, which is my first love, before I went into big escapes and illusions. So, I created a character - a woman who knows, who is in charge," she says.

Thus, a new persona, Mind Magic Mistress, was born.

Building on her sensual image, she has upped the woman-in- charge factor, with a humorously kinky twist.

In publicity material, she is seen laying back, wearing three-inch heels, skin-tight latex pants and a leather corset, and holding a riding crop. A man in a whole-body rubber suit, with a gimp mask, is kneeling before her, holding a sign that says: "She knows."

She describes her new character as "an Asian dominatrix".

We are in the Ubi Crescent office of her manager Adeline Ng, also a working magician. Together, they make up 100 per cent of solo professional women magicians here, as far as they know.

It is late March and Cai has just returned from performing and holding classes at a leading event, the South Tyneside Magic Festival in Britain.

She also performs at corporate gigs and parties.

Mentalism is a performance format that includes mind-reading and exerting Jedi-style mental control over others. Famous practitioners include Derren Brown from England who, like Cai, bases the act on psychological phenomena.

Two weeks ago, on a Kiss92 FM radio show, Cai correctly predicted a couple of days earlier that host Charmaine Yee would take precisely 11 sweets from a bag.

Cai explains that she did this by planting the number in Yee's mind, through coded language and gestures, just before Yee decided what number she wanted.

In Asia at least, women magicians are expected to conform to feminine stereotypes - "dancing with parasols", as Cai calls it.

As Magic Babe Ning, she chose another image, that of a woman who enjoyed the hold her sexuality had over the audience.

If she was escaping from a straitjacket, she would make it look like a striptease, for example. Her image was also cemented by underwear shoots for lad magazine FHM.

That image was just as sexist, perhaps, but if she had to conform, she was going to do it on her own terms, she says.

"I wanted my character to reflect a modern woman, one who is an equal to men," says Cai, who has a partner who is an arts professional.

She likens her former image and former title of Magic Babe Ning to Madonna, one of her role models.

"Madonna has a sexy image, but she's a true artist. I have a quote of hers pasted on my computer: 'I'm tough, I'm ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a b****, okay.'"

When Cai is not working on her performance, she writes. She has authored a memoir, Who Is Magic Babe Ning?.

With friend Pamela Ho, she has also penned a travelogue, Adventures Of 2 Girls.

She also has a contract with publishing house Epigram to produce a young-adult fiction trilogy, with the first book to be released next year.

Writing never far behind passion for magic

Mind Magic Mistress is an Asian domina who is very confident onstage... but last week, I was giving examples of mental manipulation and a few people there thought I sold my soul to the devil. They thought it was black magic. ''

NING CAI on her post-retirement mentalism act. Domina is the Latin word for "mistress"

Writing and journalism have always run a close second to magic as a career choice as she has always loved words.

A voracious reader as a child, she became a prolific writer of fan fiction as a teenager on Web forums dedicated to the cult fantasy television series, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001).

Lately, though, she has taken up the hobby of electric unicycling.

"It's green, it's fun. I've joined a group of people with electric unicycles. We performed at the Chingay parade last year. It rained and we were drenched," she says.

The group zips around downtown on Car-Free Sundays and her one-wheeler comes in handy on trips to the supermarket.

Mentalism, however, might be one of the hardest tricks for her to pull off.

Not only is the art less known in this region than in the West, but it is also a format that relies on subtle verbal cues and body language - not easy in Singapore, given its varying cultures and degrees of English aptitude.

She says she will have to adapt what she has learnt from trainers such as Paul Brook, a mentalist from England, to this region.

"If I say to the audience, 'Think of a colour', in the US and Britain, most of the time, they will think of blue. In Singapore, it will be red," she offers as an example of the cultural difference.

"It's based on psychology and I love it," she says.

The love of magic came early for Cai.

As a child, the Methodist Girls' School student was fascinated by Princess Tenko, a Japanese illusionist who became a global star and had her own US-produced cartoon series.

Cai asked her sisters - now aged 30 and 26 - to tie her up, so she could practise escapes and tricks studied from books. Her first audience comprised her stuffed toys.

Later, she helped found an online forum for Singapore magic enthusiasts and took part in local talent and charity shows.

Her mother Vivien Lee, 59, a former nurse who works at sandwich chain Subway, was a great source of support, as was her father Freddy, 61, a retired businessman.

"I'd beg my mother to take me to the library and we'd take the bus to the branch in Jurong," she says of her frequent need for books as a child. She enjoyed not only books on magic, but also fantasy and nonfiction works about myths and religions.

As a student in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where she was in the film and media studies course, she took a part-time job greeting customers at a Marche restaurant to overcome her shyness.

Just before she turned 21, she removed a tumour from her cheek. That brush with mortality was a wake-up call to do the thing she loved - magic.

But further studies were on her mind and she went on to get a mass communications degree from RMIT University at the Singapore Institute Of Management. While a student there, she performed magic as an amateur.

It was through performing at charity and talent shows that she met the people who would help her make it a full-time job.

One was J.C. Sum, 40, whom she would work with as part of a duo act before going solo. Another was Mr John Teo, 68, president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

Teo saw her when she was a teenager taking part in magic competitions in which he and his wife were judges. He was struck by her talent and that she was female.

"Women magicians are few and far between," he says.

They recently co-authored a self- help book on creativity, Game Of Thoughts, drawing on their experience in illusions and his background in corporate training.

As for Cai's sexy image, he says people often mistake performers for the characters they play on stage.

"That sexy image - that's not her in real life," he says.

Ng, 29, a professional illusionist who owns Artful Deceptions, Cai's management agency, has known Cai for a decade, since meeting her on a Web forum.

Ng says magic can be a tough business for women because being good at performing is not enough.

Women are expected to dress in a feminine way and make the effort to look attractive, while men are judged only on their skills.

That pressure puts some women off, she says.

While Cai has leveraged her sultry image to her advantage, she paid a price because many assumed that was all she offered and she had to work hard to prove them wrong, she adds.

"Sex sells, but to sustain a career, you have to have to put on a good show. People don't consider that," says Ng.

With mentalism, Cai is returning to the things that drew her to magic as a child.

Before she became Magic Babe, she loved the high of playing a female comic-book superhero who could set things on fire with her mind.

"I was Jean Grey from X-Men. She had the power of telekinesis. I'm coming back to my first love."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline The Life Interview With Magic Babe Ning Cai: Now you see her. Subscribe