JB Benn in Vogue Magazine
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JB Benn in Vogue Magazine

This is the kind of thing JB


This is the kind of thing JB Benn does: He takes $20, has it signed,. The bill disappears and reappears. It turns into a quarter that lights a cigarette that is pushed through the quarter. Someone chooses a lemon and, with the knife beside her plate, cuts it open. The signed $20 bill is sitting neatly rolled up inside the lemon. Wallace Shawn and Nell Campbell, sitting together at a dinner party, do not speak to eachother. Helena Christensen is at the party, more gorgeous and radiant than you can believe possible. No one notices. And yet everyone is intimate. As if they were all about eight years old and involved in the heady experience of dissecting a worm. There is a lot of the contented heavy breathing of fascinated concentration going on. A little absentminded dribbling. Everyone is in a different place. Everyone is all over this $20 bill and this 22 year old magician.

JB is a New Yorker of Dutch parentage who fell in love with magic when he was nine years old. He began learning the craft at fourteen and started performing two years later, when he went, nervous as hell, into Mareno’s restaurant in Irving Place. Paulina Porizkova and Ric Ocasek were at the first table he worked. They hired him for a party.

He still works in restaurants: You can catch him downstairs at E and O, Balthazar, or Spy bar, in between the odd benefit and the kind of party hosted by Herb Ritts on Christmas Eve or Joan Rivers uptown, the kind of party where Sean Connery happens to be sitting in the corner.

How JB learned all this is glossed over. He says he’s still learning, exercising his hands, honing his technique, developing new ideas and set pieces. He is busy studying for an exam on twentieth-century art history, his craft having more in common with, say, a Cubist painting-Picasso transforming a violin- than the special effects of David Copperfield. He is less interested in moving into television than in turning up in odd places at odd times when people least expect to be startled, which is, he tells me,” the beginning of the magic.”

He’s right. It is the intimacy of the restaurant table or the corner of the bar that makes JB’s craft all the more astonishing, for you suspend your disbelief without any of the usual cues or promptings. His performance seems entirely devoid of trickery or device or artifice. There he is, in a suit, at your table, this diminutive fellow, with nothing but a pack of cards and whatever else is at hand-a coin, a cigarette, a lemon- and there you are and all at once you are in a magic ring: a sexy one at that(all that shared thrill and delighted response) and you don’t just buy into it, you don’t really have the luxury of that choice. Forget about checking in your cynicism or rationality. You can practically hear your psyche reshuffling itself-making room for this phenomenal system of signs it now has to incorporate.

JB asks you to name a country, any country, and with the word just out, he folds your bill in four, and as he unfolds it you see it changing and you want to say,” Oh, come on, stop, no, come on”; but before you’ve finished these titillating protests, there it is, right there, only now it is the currency note of your country.

JB prefers to call himself a “close-up magician.” Time stops when you watch him. He begins and you fall like a stone, plop, into his box, and any defense, any learning, any experience folds up in front of you; instead you are flying on some magic carpet, and it really is up there with the best sex watching this guy, and you want to crawl inside this strange place, the arena he creates with his cards and his hands. “It is about lightness of hands,” he tells me. “That is what I had to learn, to perfect; is what I practice, lightness of hands; they are my tools” -and you never want to leave.

VOGUE 1997