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Illusionist Steps Out of Box, Into Talk of Britain

As a shaky David Blaine ends his fasting stunt, the crowd cheers but remains skeptical.

October 20, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Shaky and sobbing, American illusionist David Blaine emerged Sunday from 44 days of self-imposed deprivation in a plexiglass box, concluding a stunt that tested his physical and emotional limits but never managed to win the hearts of a skeptical British public.

Blaine had been suspended in his narrow glass cocoon 60 feet above the banks of the River Thames in London since Sept. 5, claiming to be living on nothing but plain water. Having achieved his aim of surviving for 44 days, Blaine was lowered to the ground by assistants and the box gently tipped so he was able to walk out onto a stage to cheers from some of the estimated 10,000 people bunched in front of Tower Bridge.

"I've learned more in that little box than I have in years," a drawn Blaine told the crowd after being helped to a microphone. "I've learned how to appreciate all the simple things in life: a smile from a strange one or a loved one, the sunrise, the sunset."

Blaine stepped onto scales that showed he had lost nearly 60 pounds since beginning his stunt. He was then taken to a hospital by ambulance to begin a controlled recovery.

His exit was broadcast live on Britain's Sky Television, which had paid Blaine to put a round-the-clock camera inside the box. Sky reminded viewers that Blaine's body would have begun "digesting itself" as the starvation period lengthened.

But Blaine's bravado never really impressed a wide audience in a country that loves to mock a showoff. Instead of applause and encouragement, Blaine often faced taunts and tossed eggs while suspended in his box. His feat of endurance became a strange public spectacle in which the spectators stayed ornery to the end.

At the heart of the conflict was the fundamental irony of a man who bills himself as the world's greatest illusionist asking people known for their cynicism to trust that what they saw in the box was real.

Even as Blaine grew visibly weaker and began to attract some sympathy near the end of the 44 days, many people continued to believe he was cheating, either by hiding nutritional tablets in his box or spiking his water with glucose.

Blaine offered updates on his physical condition via his Web site. He said he suffered from constant headaches and an irregular heartbeat, and noted that "when I stand up everything goes black and sometimes my hearing goes out." He described his mouth as "always dry" and said the water tasted like sulfur, making it "disgusting to drink."

Many Britons weren't buying it.

"He looks too healthy. He should be much, much sicker," said Sheila Walton, 63, who watched as Blaine's box was buffeted by winds off the river in its final hour. "He should be losing his mind and instead he's up there, waving at us and loving it."

Nearby, Jo Dainton and her brother Robin speculated on how Blaine might have cheated. "We think he's peeling thin pieces of ham off the floor of the box," she said.

Yet even cynics joined a smaller band of the Blaine faithful at Tower Bridge for the Brooklyn-born showman's last night. Families and beer-swilling teens, street performers and tourists jammed the area under Blaine's box. There were anti-Blaine die-hards who threw eggs and firecrackers at him until the last hour, as well as those fans like Charlotte Garrard, an Oxford student who described the stunt as an amazing feat.

"I think he's very brave," said 16-year-old Laurie Siddell. "I know he's getting a lot of money from TV, but I think he's doing it for art."

Whether his deprivation stunt proves to be real or an illusion, Blaine clearly managed to impose himself on the national conversation in Britain. Radio talk shows were spiced with discussions on the best way to break his will and bring him down. He drew celebrities, including Paul McCartney, whose companions ended up in a post-midnight fracas with two photographers right beneath a sleepy Blaine.

And he drew some who saw a business opportunity, such as magician Alan Potter, who figured people who came to see Blaine on the last night might be inclined to buy a magician's special deck of cards. "I'm not really much interested in what he's doing up there," Potter said. "It's not magic."

Potter pulled out a deck of cards and demonstrated a quick trick. "Now card tricks, that's the sort of thing that leaves people entertained and amazed," he said. "And you know what? They only take a minute."


Janet Stobart of The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.

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