David Blaine Is Not a Magician, but He Did Change the Way Magic Works

It’s kind of ironic that the man whose name is synonymous with magic isn’t even a magician. David Blaine is actually an illusionist, endurance artist, and extreme performer – all in one. It’s just that we tend to lump all those crazy stunts into one big category we call “magic.” But the truth is, he relies on genuine, good old fashioned awe.

David Blaine wearing all metal with his hand extended
Photo by Erik Pendzich, Shutterstock

Unlike magicians, he despises the use of trickery with TV camera angles and CGI fakery. What’s worth mentioning is that although he’s not an actual magician, he did innovate the way magic is seen on television. How? He made it so that the focus was on the spectators’ reactions. Blaine’s idea was to turn the camera around to focus on those watching, instead of on him, the performer. The result: the audience watches the audience. It’s pretty cool when you think about it.

Let’s look at his stunts over the years, shall we?

His Latest Stunt: Ascension

Ascension is Blaine’s first major live stunt since 2012. Just in case you missed it, the whole thing was aired live on YouTube, and the live feed of him flying over the Arizona desert using helium balloons, shattered a YouTube record, becoming the most-watched YouTube Original Live Event to date. There were over 770,000 peak concurrent viewers.

David Blaine holding on to the balloons while checking his pulse
Source: YouTube

Blaine said this “groundbreaking flight will be done for the first time right here in Arizona, which is the most beautiful backdrop that I’ve ever seen in my life.” His goal: to grab a bunch of balloons and float all the way up into the sky. His original plan was to fly above the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City, but weather concerns and logistical issues came into effect.

He Pulled It Off

And, yes, everyone was thinking about what you’re thinking right now. “If there’s a catastrophic balloon failure partway up, David comes crashing down to Earth,” a narrator said in a YouTube video for the event. His goal was to reach 18,000 feet above the ground, and in mid-air, he had the challenge of actually putting on his parachute pack.

David Blaine holding one small helium balloon in the air
Source: Instagram / @davidblaine

Within 40 minutes, he had risen to over 19,000 feet, eventually reaching a height of 24,900 feet. He then put the parachute on successfully and landed safely. He completed the whole event within an hour. Sure, he successfully pulled it off, but here are a few things that could have gone wrong with the balloon flight…

He could have experienced oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) and hypothermia. There was also a chance he could have catapulted back down to Earth if he either didn’t manage to put his parachute on or if it failed to open. Then, there’s the possibility of “catastrophic balloon failure.”

Does It Remind You of Up?

Blaine’s latest stunt might remind you of the adorable 2009 Pixar film Up. You know, the one with the old man who ties a bunch of helium balloons to his home and floats across the sky. Well, most people don’t know this, but Up was inspired by a real-life story about a real person who did basically just that.

David Blaine hooked up to helium balloons above a beautiful desert view of mountains, sand, and water
Source: YouTube

There was a real estate holdout named Edith Macefield, who stayed in her little house during extensive commercial development. But long before Edith, there was another inspiration: “Lawnchair Larry.” In 1982, Larry Walters flew to 15,000 feet in, yes, a lawn chair attached to helium balloons. His flight almost ended really badly, but after struggling with power lines, he made it down safely. He was in the air for 14 hours.

Inspired by His Daughter

As far as we know, Blaine wasn’t inspired by Lawnchair Larry, but rather by his young daughter, Dessa. He admitted on the Joe Rogan podcast when speaking about this latest stunt that his daughter is starting to ask him questions about the safety of his stunts, especially this latest one. She’s no longer just a pure admirer – she’s his daughter who wants him to stay alive!

David Blaine and his daughter looking at the balloons in the distance which he will use later
Source: YouTube

Blaine actually had to do a whole lot of planning and endurance training to pull this stunt off. And you’ll see soon (after we list his previous stunts) that this one was like no other he’s ever done. First, he needed to get a hot air balloon pilot certificate as well as a skydiving license, on top of learning how to read the wind.

To get a full picture of where this guy gets his inspiration from, let’s take a look back…

Mom, Look!

David Blaine was born on April 4, 1973, and raised in Brooklyn. His mother, Patrice White, was a teacher from a Russian-Jewish background; his father, a Vietnam War veteran, was of Puerto Rican and Italian descent. Blaine became fascinated with magic when he was four years old and saw someone performing magic on the subway.

David Blaine as a young boy being held by his mother
Source: Instagram / @davidblaine

He was raised by his single mother, who was the foundation for his future career. On The Joe Rogan Experience, Blaine explained that his deepest instinct was to amaze his mother. All of his early card tricks and magic were done simply to get his mother’s attention. And it worked. Soon, his mother wasn’t his only admirer.

Becoming the Hottest Name in Magic

Blaine’s first television special in 1997 was called David Blaine: Street Magic. Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) said at the time that it “really, really does break new ground.” It was Blaine’s first time showing the world his magic, saying, “I’d like to bring magic back to the place it used to be 100 years ago.”

David Blaine performing a trick on stage with Paris Hilton
Photo by David Buchan / Variety / Shutterstock

In Magic Man, Blaine is seen traveling across the country, entertaining pedestrians in Atlantic City, Compton, Dallas, the Mojave Desert, New York City, and San Francisco. It was in this special that Blaine changed the way we look at magic. The focus of the show wasn’t Blaine; it was the show-within-a-show and the spontaneous and very real reactions of people in awe. According to The Today Show, after this special, Blaine became the “hottest name in magic right now.”

Buried Alive (1999)

After his early TV specials, Blaine moved on to some extreme stunts. His first was Buried Alive, and it was terrifying for people to comprehend, let alone watch, on TV. On April 5, 1999, Blaine was placed in an underground plastic box beneath a 3-ton water-filled tank… for seven days! His only communication with the outside world was through a hand buzzer, which would alert an emergency crew standing by.

David Blaine buried alive while people film and watch him
Photo by Erik Pendzich, Shutterstock

The coffin had six inches of headroom and two inches on each side. Talk about cramped! About 75,000 people came to watch in person, including Marie Blood, Harry Houdini’s niece. Blood said, “My uncle did some amazing things, but he could not have done this.” For the record, Blaine has been a huge fan of Houdini’s since he was a young boy.

Outdoing His Hero

On the final day of the stunt, hundreds of news crews waited at the site for the coffin-opening. Construction workers then removed some of the 75 cubic feet of gravel surrounding the 6-foot-deep coffin before a crane finally lifted the water tank. That’s when Blaine, alive and well, emerged and announced the crowd…

David Blaine sitting inside of the tank talking to the crowd after being buried for a week / David Blaine walking with help from others after emerging from his week of being buried alive
Source: Shutterstock

“I saw something very prophetic … a vision of every race, every religion, every age group banding together, and that made all this worthwhile.” Blaine was 26 years old at the time, and he had just outdone his hero, Houdini, who had actually planned a similar stunt, but died in 1926 before he could ever perform it.

Frozen in Time (2000)

A year later, on November 27, 2000, Blaine performed his next stunt, Frozen in Time. It was his first public failure when performing a stunt. The goal: to stand in a large block of ice in Times Square for 72 hours. He was only lightly dressed and seemed to be shivering even before the blocks of ice were placed around him. He had a tube with a supply of air and water (his urine was removed with another tube).

David Blaine being released from the six-ton ice chunk
Photo by Erik Pendzich, Shutterstock

He was in the icebox for 63 hours, 42 minutes, and 15 seconds before they removed him by cutting through the ice with chain saws. He was removed from the box and taken to a hospital, just in case his body went into shock. Blaine said it took a month to fully recover from the stunt, and he didn’t plan to try it again. (If you’re curious: in 2010, an Israeli magician named Hezi Dean broke Blaine’s record when he was placed in a block of ice for 66 hours.)

Vertigo (2002)

On May 22, 2002, Blaine was lifted by a crane onto a 100-foot-high and 22-inches-wide pillar in Bryant Park, New York City. You should know that he wasn’t harnessed to the pillar at all. There were, however, two retractable handles on both sides of him to grasp in case the weather got harsh.

David Blaine on the lip of a building ledge seven floors above ground in New York / David Blaine standing on the pillar seven floors above ground with Times Square visible in the background
Source: Shutterstock

He stayed up there for 35 hours. He ended the stunt by jumping down onto a landing platform that was made of a 12-foot-high pile of cardboard boxes. The fall resulted in a mild concussion. He later said, in his 2010 TED Talk, that he suffered from severe hallucinations during the final hours of that stunt. He said the buildings and structures around him started to look like animal heads.

Above the Below (2003)

Blaine’s stunts got more and more extreme over the years. On September 5, 2003, he was sealed inside a clear Plexiglas case which was suspended 30 feet in the air near Potters Fields Park in London. The box was 3 feet by 7 feet by 7 feet. With this stunt, a webcam was installed so viewers could observe his progress while inside the case.

David Blaine standing up in a large box while suspended mid-air / A view from farther away of David Blaine in a large box suspended above the city with a Ferris wheel and buildings in the background
Photo by Alisdair Macdonald, Shutterstock / Alan Davidson, Shutterstock

Believe it or not, he was there for 44 days. He drank 1.2 gallons of water per day but didn’t even eat. As you can imagine, the stunt got a lot of media attention. Some spectators threw food and other things towards the box, like eggs, paint-filled balloons, and golf balls.

Real Signs of Starvation

The attention this stunt received wasn’t all positive. Someone sent Blaine a hamburger via a remote-controlled helicopter as a way to taunt him. One man was even arrested for trying to cut Blaine’s water supply cable. Three weeks into his stunt, Blaine claimed that he had the taste of pear drops in his mouth. On September 25, BBC News reported: “If his endurance test is real rather than an elaborate illusion,” then his claim of tasting pear drops means that he’s advancing through the first stage of starvation.

David Blaine sitting in the box mid-air, looking stressed
Photo by Alisdair Macdonald Shutterstock

The stunt ended on October 19. Blaine yelled out, “I love you all!” before being taken to the hospital. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, his 44-day fast meant that re-feeding him was likely the most dangerous part of the stunt. He lost 54 lb. – 25 percent of his original body weight. ‍

Drowned Alive (2006)

Blaine moved on to his next endurance stunt: Drowned Alive. (It looks like being buried alive just wasn’t enough for this daredevil.) On May 1, 2006, he was submerged in a water-filled sphere eight feet in diameter filled with isotonic saline in front of NYC’s Lincoln Center. The stunt lasted seven days. At the end of it, Blaine freed himself from handcuffs and chains after he exited the sphere.

David Blaine inside of a glass bubble filled with water wearing goggles
Photo by Charles Sykes, Shutterstock

After the stunt, Blaine entered into an agreement with Yale University. Researchers from the prestigious university asked if they could monitor him to further study the human physiological reaction to prolonged submersion. I would agree that David Blaine is a human that needs to be studied!

Revolution (2006)

On November 21, 2006, Blaine performed his Revolution stunt, which involved him being shackled to a rotating gyroscope. He was left without food or water, and the goal was to escape within 16 hours. It ended up taking Blaine 52 hours to complete the stunt. It wasn’t necessarily a failure, since he got out, but it did take a lot longer than he expected. But hey, he’s only human (although it may be easy to forget).

David Blaine mid-air in a three-ringed gyroscope above Times Square
Photo by Erik Pendzich, Shutterstock

Fun Fact: Blaine initially wanted to be an actor. He even went to NYC’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse’s acting school. He scored a few commercials and soap opera roles. It was around this time that he started doing his patented brand of street magic. Blaine soon started performing private parties for celebrities like Al Pacino and David Geffen.

Holding His Breath under Water (2008)

Blaine was on the April 30, 2008 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, to try and break the Guinness World Record for oxygen-assisted static apnea – holding his breath underwater. It was following his failure to break the record (at the time) of unassisted static apnea in his Drowned Alive stunt.

David Blaine sitting at the top of the tank with the screen stating a time of 17:04.4
Source: davidblaine.com

Before entering the 1,800-gallon water tank, Blaine spent 23 minutes inhaling nothing but pure oxygen. He then held his breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds, surpassing Peter Colat’s previous mark of 16 minutes 32 seconds. Blaine held the record for about four and a half months until German freediver Tom Sietas beat him.

One Man’s Fear, Another Man’s Challenge

Blaine claimed that he was able to perform the record-breaking stunt through rigorous training. He gradually lengthened the amount of time he spent underwater and essentially pushed his body to previously unexplored limits. In his TED talk, he explained the method behind it. He said he met with a top neurosurgeon and asked him, “How long is it possible to go without breathing, like how long could I go without air?”

David Blaine flicking playing cards around
Photo by Carolyn Contino / BEI / Shutterstock

The neurosurgeon told him, “anything over six minutes, you have a serious risk of hypoxic brain damage.” And so, David Blaine being David Blaine, he “took that as a challenge, basically.” He then began training, experimenting with weight loss and other different methods.

A Thorough Process

He described how he would sleep in a hypoxic tent every night. It’s a tent that simulates altitude at 15,000 feet. “So, it’s like base camp, Everest,” Blaine explained. “What that does is, you start building up the red blood cell count in your body, which helps you carry oxygen better. Every morning, again, after getting out of that tent, your brain is completely wiped out.”

A man lying on a bed with his laptop inside of a hypoxic tent
Source: Pinterest

His first attempt “on pure O2,” he was able to go up to 15 minutes. “So, it was a pretty big success.” Finally, he was able to perform the stunt, holding his breath in ice-cold water for 17 minutes and four-and-a-half seconds. But his world-breaking record only lasted for so long… until the free diver came along.

Dive of Death/The Upside Down Man (2008)

The Upside Down Man was another stunt. This time, the goal was to hang upside down, without a safety net, for 60 hours. On September 22, he started hanging over Wollman Rink in Central Park. He was even interacting with fans watching him as he lowered himself upside down. He would occasionally pull himself up to drink water and restore normal circulation.

David Blaine hanging upside down with the cameraman hanging next to him
Photo by Dan Callister, Shutterstock

He pulled it off, but not without the necessary risks involved, of course. Reportedly, he risked blindness and other possible injuries. He was criticized for this stunt since only hours into the challenge, he was seen standing on a crane platform, not being upside down as expected. But during the stunt, Blaine had to come down once an hour for a medical check as well as to use the bathroom.

A Bullet in the Mouth (2010)

This was part of a TV special called What is Magic? in which Blaine performed an illusion involving catching a .22 caliber bullet from a rifle into a metal cup in his mouth. There were a number of attempts with this stunt, and, during one of them, Blaine apparently thought he had died when a part of the trick went wrong. He was 43 when he performed this stunt at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

David Blaine catching a bullet with his mouth
Source: Pinterest

He was holding a metal cup between his teeth, protected by a gum shield, and he pulled a cord to set off the rifle that was positioned in front of him. The trick went wrong when the gum shield shattered on impact, and the metal cup slammed into the back of his throat. Luckily, he was fine. “When the bullet struck the cup, there was a high-pitched ringing in my ears, and I felt an impact on the back of my throat… I was sure the bullet went right through my head and that I was dead.” (And he said it in typical nonchalant David Blaine style).

Electrified: One Million Volts Always On (2012)

On October 5, 2012, Blaine performed a 72-hour endurance stunt atop a 22-foot high pillar on NYC’s Pier 5. It was streamed live on YouTube. Blaine stood on the pillar, which was surrounded by seven Tesla coils that were continually producing an electric discharge of one million volts or more. The coils were directed toward Blaine for the entirety of the stunt.

David Blaine in a full metal suit with electricity beams visible around him
Photo by Charles Sykes, Shutterstock

He didn’t eat or sleep. He also wore 34 lbs. of gear, most of which was a chainmail Faraday suit that was designed to prevent electrical current from traveling through his body. At night, Blaine was shivering uncontrollably from the extreme weather. The event ended on October 8, 2012, at 8:44 pm. He was able to walk away, but only with assistance, and was taken straight to a hospital for a medical check – a procedure he knows all too well.

What’s That About Swallowing Frogs?

If you happened to watch The Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode with David Blaine, then you saw him swallow a live frog… only to regurgitate it several minutes later. And, yes, the frog was still alive. But first, he drank an insane amount of water – about 16 500 ml water bottles.

David Blaine with a frog sticking out of his mouth
Source: YouTube

He basically created a little pool inside his stomach esophagus for the little guy to hang out in for a short period. Blaine said this trick was originally inspired by the famous 1930s “regurgitator” Hadji Ali. Apparently, it’s all got to do with learning how to master control of your stomach muscles. (All I have to say is, poor little frogs).

Speaking of magic, the following are popular magic tricks explained!