Every exceptional magic trick is said to have three acts: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. And Derek Hughes has already taken care of the first two.
He vowed to wow audiences as a contestant on “America’s Got Talent,” and he’s been able to turn heads with his blend of stand-up humor and engaging magic.
The locally based performer is now in the hunt for prestige as he enters the NBC talent show’s finals, which begin Tuesday, Sept. 15, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Answering his phone as he rode a shuttle from the airport to his hotel in Manhattan, Hughes marveled at the months-long journey that will soon put him on stage with the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “It starts with thousands of people throwing their names in a virtual hat. … It’s kind of a whirlwind. You really feel the pressure of that venue. And that’s just the live audience.”
Hughes knows millions more people will be tuning in on their television sets, and he’s hoping they will vote for him to win the grand prize of $1 million and a headline gig in Las Vegas.
As Hughes has advanced on the show, from the first rounds of auditions in April through judge cuts and live performances, he has met with producers to pitch ideas for what he’ll do in the next rounds.
In his first audition, he performed the closing segment of his act. Over the course of the competition, he’s worked backwards through the routine he’s been developing over the last decade.
“My final performance will be my opener,” he said. “When I introduce it, I’ll say ‘I’m not going to close with my closer. I’m going to show you my opener,’ and it’ll be be of closer quality, hopefully. It’s kind of amazing how it’s gone full circle.”
Born in Minnesota, Hughes became interested in magic as a 10-year-old after trading his chemistry set for a friend’s magic kit.
He has since forged a career as an entertainer, landing a variety of acting gigs and performing at corporate events and colleges across the country.
Hughes moved from New York to Southern California in 2001 to pursue opportunities in the entertainment industry, living in Venice for 10 years before settling with his family in Playa del Rey.
Hughes has spent ample time in Santa Monica, where he has performed a recurring show, “Insomnia,” at Hotel Casa Del Mar.
A self-described stand-up magician, Hughes uses comedy to complement the drama of his magic tricks.
“Audiences really enjoy that flow,” he said. “You need the moments of comic relief in between because you can’t have too many miracles happening in one hour. These jokes kind of work, intentionally, like a sorbet in between courses to cleanse the mental palate. Magic can create psychic tension, and seeing something impossible isn’t always the most comfortable. So that stand-up material works twofold. It helps prepare them for the next moment of magic, and it allows them a glimpse into my world and my thinking.
Magicians are often distant and mysterious. I’m admitting that I’m not completely in control. I like the idea that a magician isn’t a person who’s in control, but a conduit. You have powers, but you don’t quite know how to control them.”
For Hughes, the biggest challenge of competing on “America’s Got Talent” is making sure his performances aren’t compromised by the show’s cameras.
“As a magician, one of my greatest concerns is not having control over camera angles,” he said. “They’ve got 20 camera angles working simultaneously, so I’ve spent time talking with the director and making sure they understand what part of the story needs to be told.
“My greatest fear is exposing magic in any way, shape or form on live television. When it’s live, it’s hard to protect yourself completely. It’s a little bit of a leap of faith that I’m going to do it right, that they’re going to capture it right. There’s a lot of stress because secrets are such a foundational part of the craft.”