The magician’s assistant—often a glamorously dressed woman—is an iconic and essential aspect of any magic act. But why do magicians need assistants? What do they actually do?
While there are plenty of tricks that can be performed solo, having a partner increases both the number and scale of illusions a magician can pull off. A good assistant can buy a magician time and re-direct the audience’s attention. For that reason, most assistants are professional performers, and many are highly trained dancers. They know how to hold an audience’s attention, giving the magician time to complete the mechanics of a trick.
Most audiences expect assistants to act as a distraction, but they don't necessarily expect them to operate illusions themselves. Yet, frequently, that's exactly what they do. In fact, there are plenty of tricks where the magician acts as the distraction, while the assistant runs the trick.
The Zig Zag Girl, which can be viewed below, is a perfect example of one such trick. The classic illusion, created by Robert Hardin in the 1960s, is a variation on sawing a woman in half. Hardin would put his assistant into a cabinet and divide her into thirds, sliding the box’s midsection away from the rest, so there appears to be empty space where the woman’s torso once was.
The trick makes it look like Hardin is doing all the work—putting the assistant into the cabinet, moving the segments around, and operating the saws—but, in fact, all of the magic is happening inside the box. Hardin’s assistant, a professional contortionist, twists her body to fit into each segment of the cabinet. Sabotage Times explains, “Here the woman does all the work while the man simply distracts the audience, contributing to the misdirection that makes the illusion possible.”
Other magicians use confederates rather than assistants. While the role of the confederate is similar to that of the assistant—helping the magician perform a trick—the confederate operates in secret instead of performing as an overt part of the act. For instance, in the clip below, magician David Blaine appears to make an audience member’s card appear on the opposite side of a restaurant’s window.
When the volunteer shows his card to the rest of the audience, Blaine’s secret confederate inside the restaurant can see it. When Blaine throws the deck of the cards at the window, she simply slaps up the right card while everyone’s distracted.
In the last few decades, the often unequal gender dynamics of the magician-assistant relationship have come under increasing scrutiny. While both magicians and their assistants are often highly skilled performers, it's typically only the magician who receives top billing. "They're playing these victims on stage yet they ended up being the brains behind the magic—the actual magician," professional assistant Sophie Evans explained to Weekend America.
While magic remains a world demarcated by gender, some magicians have opted to work as partners, laying to rest the magician-assistant hierarchy. The Pendragons—a husband-and-wife team of illusionists—are one such example. During their signature Metamorphosis illusion, Charlotte and Jonathan Pendragon each play a key role in operating the trick, which depends on the Pendragons' ability to switch places at lightning speed (see how it's accomplished here):
Having an assistant, confederate, or partner allows magicians to divide the audience's attention, and increases the range of illusions they can perform. In the case of the Zig Zag Girl and the card through the window trick, the audience is completely focused on the actions of the magician, while the assistant or confederate secretly performs the work. Teamwork, it seems, is what really makes the magic happen.