Tricky  business

Tricky business

‘Cupcake Wars’ host Justin Willman works his magic at the Pasadena Playhouse

By Jana J. Monji 07/17/2013

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With the “Cirque” in town, you might want to keep your eyes open. One never knows when they will bump into a little magic, particularly with Justin Willman scheduled to perform his “Tricked Out” show at the Pasadena Playhouse Friday and Saturday as part of the Playhouse’s “Cirque-A-Palooza” summer festival.

While millions of reality TV fans may know Willman as the host of the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” the entertainer has also built up a following for his sidewalk exploits with his YouTube series “Magic Meltdown,” part of the Nerdist Network.

In a recent phone interview, Willman confessed, “I love doing that type of magic with a hidden camera and people don’t know I’m a magician. That’s magic in its most pure form. When you perform in a show, people are primed for it; their guard is up.” 

On the streets of Los Angeles, people aren’t expecting anything, and sometimes they even fail to notice, as with the quick-change he performs on his “Food Is Better with Magic” episode. Yet, he claims, even the jaded LA lunch-hour crowd is fun, because “seeing people not react is just as entertaining for the viewer.”

Willman’s also been on the TV talk show circuit, appearing on daytime’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” In the latter appearance, he sat down with Leno and Hugh Jackman, confessing that his favorite movie was director Christopher Nolan’s 2006 “The Prestige,” starring Jackman as a sophisticated magician who has a bitter rivalry with a working-class magician played by Christian Bale. Jackman based his portrayal on a real magician Channing Pollock, who was popular in the 1950s.

Willman began practicing magic when he was 12 and turned professional at 15. While some might use magic tricks to pick up girls, Willman states, “Magic was a context for me to discover my own personality and show confidence and show a sense of humor. It was what I would do to get to know people.”

In elementary school and junior high, Willman said he was a socially awkward kid. He’d go to the library and learn magic skills, and “magic became a means of discovering how to be a sociable person, make friends and get in front of a group without stuttering.”

Yet, he had a sensible career plan. The 32-year-old was a broadcast journalism major, graduating from Emerson College. At the time, he explained, “I planned to be a funny, magic weather man. I have zero knowledge of the weather at all, but it seemed like the most fun. You have that magical pointer and you crack jokes.”

During his college years, he continued to perform magic, doing eight to 10 shows a week, and ended up “kind of tuned out. I’d do my reports for the news station, but my heart was in performing.”

That broadcast journalism degree didn’t go completely to waste. Willman maintains that he learned to communicate ideas “in the clearest way possible.” His work as a magician helped his delivery and comic timing, and that is what eventually got him on the Food Network.

On his eight seasons as the host of “Cupcake Wars,” Willman learned that the TV business is not a “fluffy job.” There is a lot of hard work involved. Of course, he’s also learned a lot about cupcakes. Willman does get to taste some of the products. The really good ones are hard to remember “because for me, I don’t have the refined palates the judges have.”

The really bad ones, however, are easier to recall. The all-time worst cupcake, in his opinion? The baked tuna with mayonnaise frosting cupcake was “a stomach churner,” he said. 

In his “Food Is Better with Magic” segment, Willman does some cupcake magic, but he prefers not to use the typical magic props. “I like to use objects that are ordinary things, stuff I can buy anywhere: soda cans, cupcakes and bananas,” he says.

 At his Pasadena Playhouse performance, expect a few cupcakes to appear and, just as quickly, disappear. 

“Justin Willman — Tricked Out,” part of “Cirque-A-Palooza,” will be at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $30. Full festival passes are $99 to $150. For more information about this and other festival performances, call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org

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