The magician, hypnotist and illusionist talks about trickery and mindgames – and keeping an audience entertained

Derren Brown: ‘I’m being honest about my dishonesty’

(Interview by Decca Aitkenhead for the Guardian)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book by Derren Brown, but it certainly wasn’t the great waves of self-loathing that roll out of its pages. Opening with the line, “I loathed myself again,” Confessions of a Conjuror expands into a merciless prosecution of the author’s shortcomings – “my own excruciating personality as a young magician,” the occasional “revolting burst of intellectual smugness”, and his “hateful” failure to sparkle socially in the presence of larger personalities. He recalls taking stock of himself at 30, and finding himself “full of nonsense, preposterous in many ways”. To this day, he admits that something as simple as mislaying a pen in his “monstrous London uber-pad” can trigger a whole new wave of furious self-hatred.

Brown is also, his book reveals, prone to a strange affliction of tics, rituals and other patterns of obsessive behaviour, which began in childhood with a compulsion to knock his knees together, and didn’t end there. He spent his teenage years sniffing loudly and violently, bound by a self-imposed injunction to avoid the top step of any flight of stairs, and recalls experiencing the irresistible urge, while learning to drive at 18, to “close my eyes for as long as I could get away with it”. At 39, the problem is now pretty much under control, confined to just the one tic – an occasional urge to nod his head repeatedly – although lately he has noticed that, when no one is looking, he likes to swipe a credit card down the crack in lift doors.

The author doesn’t sound at all like the coolly omnipotent, slightly cocky character we have grown used to. For a decade now, Brown has been entertaining audiences with a blend of hypnotism, magic, illusion, mind games and elaborately ambitious stunts. In 2003 he memorably appeared to play russian roulette on live TV, and last year caused even more consternation by appearing to guess the winning lottery numbers. Critics call him a fraud – an old-fashioned illusionist masquerading as a master of psychology, who passes off trickery as mind reading – but the televised stunts attract viewers in their millions, while his live stage shows sell out nationwide to fans thrilled by the audacity of his intrigue.

I wonder which Brown I’m about to meet when I arrive at his central London apartment. The answer, it turns out, is neither of them.

The man who opens the door doesn’t even look like Derren Brown. He is much more casually scruffy and unremarkable than his stage persona – less ginger, less theatrical, less pointy-looking – with the innocuous sort of face that blends effortlessly into crowds. But there is no trace of the self-loathing oddball either; on the contrary, he seems like someone unusually at ease with himself, light-footed and comfortable, quick to laugh and instantly likable, to all appearances blithely untroubled by anything.

“I don’t play up to that guy off the TV,” he readily agrees, “because I wouldn’t particularly want to meet him in real life. That rather controlling sort of thing – I don’t think that’s a nice way of being with people, so I never for a second want to be that person. I think it’s important to be sort of nice.” He’s not very nice about himself, though, I say – not in his book, anyway. To my surprise, he looks taken aback.

“Really? Oh. That must just be my tone. In terms of self-esteem and confidence I think I’m generally quite healthy.” He pauses for a moment to consider. The book, he ponders – which is not so much an autobiography as a “semi autobiographical whimsy” – is loosely structured around a time in the 90s when he worked as a performing magician in a restaurant. “Which is an absolutely excruciating job. You’re going up to a group of people at the table who are happily eating, and going ‘I’m the magician!’. I mean, you couldn’t sound like more of a wanker. And you’ve got to do it 50 times a night. So maybe the book is rooted in that feeling.”

Even so, I say, the self-criticism seems more pervasive than that. “But it’s nicer to read that than read someone being flattering about themselves, isn’t it?” he smiles. “I always look back on myself and cringe. Maybe it comes down to that . . . I feel I’ve learned so much about how to behave in the last 10 years, and I view everything before that as . . .” He tails off into a wince.

“As I started to become known, well you learn a way of behaving. I think people either go one route of becoming real wankers [when they become famous], or they go another route that Stephen Fry and David Tennant embody, just being incredibly lovely. I think it comes down to whether you like to be liked or not. Because you suddenly become aware that what everybody asks when someone meets someone famous is, ‘What were they like?'”

“So for me, if I meet someone in the back of a cab, or chat to someone in a shop for a minute, and I’m in a bad mood – well that’s it for the rest of their life, they’ll say ‘Oh I’ve met him and he’s horrible.’ And that’s horrible!” Any sort of criticism upsets him terribly; it only takes a negative tweet or blog to ruin his whole weekend. “And it’s easy for other people to go, ‘Oh fuck ’em, what do they know, they’re probably just morbidly obese 15-year-olds with nothing better to do.’ But it feels like becoming well-known has been like a little self-improvement course for me.”

By Brown’s own account, before he became famous he used to be an awful show-off. “In my 20s, I just had to be the centre of attention all the time. I was quite eccentric.” The son of a swimming coach and a model, and an only child until the age of nine, he describes his childhood self as rather precocious, but not very good at fitting into the sporty private school he attended in Croydon. Largely ostracised by his peers, he became, of all things, a teenage evangelical Christian, and it wasn’t until university in Bristol that he discovered a personality of sorts, through learning hypnotism.

“I thought it was fascinating, and I enjoyed the attention I was getting – and yes, the power. And the posturing of it, I quite enjoyed being that guy. Then after that my drive and focus and love shifted to magic; the love was in coming up with new tricks and perfecting them. But I had no ambition, really; my life was doing nothing, maybe a couple of magic gigs a week at most, and then just pottering around in Bristol. I had no sense of ‘Gotta work hard to be famous.’ Never have done, and still don’t.”

Left to his own devices, he thinks he could quite easily still be doing card tricks in Bristol. But out of the blue in 1999 he got a call from a television producer interested in making a new kind of show. His early programmes on Channel 4 – Mind Control – were well received, but it was the televised russian roulette in 2003 that turned him into a national phenomenon. Since then he has worked non-stop, become a household name, and although he won’t discuss money, he must by now be a very rich man.

Yet everything about his manner is so soothingly sweet and self-effacingly normal that if we hadn’t met at his home I’d scarcely have believed he was really Brown. His flat, however, is sensationally weird – part Mayfair gentleman’s club, part Victorian freak show, with every room a freaky spectacle crammed with taxidermy and esoterica, lined with portraits and heavily bound books. There’s no sign of his boyfriend, a graphic designer with whom he lives, but in the loo I come across a life-size model of Matt Lucas’s severed head in a glass case.

Surrounded by all his stuffed giraffes and snakes’ skeletons, Brown looks hilariously incongruous. He talks easily and unselfconsciously, is never defensive but always relaxed and engaged, and seems as unlike the spooky manipulator we see on TV as the ruthless self-critic in his book. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t get him to say why he does what he does, or what he loves about it. “It’s just sort of what I’m doing, I suppose,” he offers vaguely. “I have no ambition. And I’m not a workaholic. The job is now just sort of what I do.”

Before meeting Brown, I’d had an idea about where all the cringing in Confessions of a Conjuror might come from. In it he writes, “The potential for self-loathing comes from the unavoidable problem that one is engaging in a childish, fraudulent activity.” He goes on, “Magic has both feet planted in cheap vaudeville and childish posturing; in dishonesty and therefore not in art. The magician cheats and this truth runs cold through the craft’s bloodless veins.” The job of a performing magician is, “after all, just tricks”.

Brown is talking here about traditional magic – the smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand of a performer whose audience are willingly complicit in their own deception. It’s what he used to do for a living, and is why, he tells me, he tends to wince whenever he looks back on his earlier career. His genius has been to reinvent stage magic as a form of advanced psychology, in which he can just about plausibly claim to be drawing on genuine psychological techniques – the study of body language, the power of suggestion – rather than relying entirely on tricks, leaving the audience to try to work out which is which. As he says, “I like to engage people’s belief as well as ask them to suspend their disbelief.”

But I would guess that, in fact, most of what he does depends more on trickery than clever psychology. Only three people know how he does his stunts; Channel 4, he grins, “have no idea”. The controversy around his russian roulette stunt focused on whether or not he was using live bullets – but I suspect this was neither here nor there, as he knew perfectly well which chamber was loaded. “Well, at the end of the day it was a piece of live entertainment and I knew what I was doing,” is all he will say. “But you know, the reality is that I don’t like saying how it was done, any more than saying how anything else is done. If I was utterly honest about everything then it wouldn’t be very entertaining. Part of what keeps it fresh and interesting to me is finding new ways to have your cake and eat it at times.”

He’s right, of course; it wouldn’t be very entertaining. But it’s not clear to me that what he does is really so different from the old conjuring tricks that now make him cringe, and I wonder if that’s why, when he writes about himself, he still sounds so prone to self-disgust – even if he doesn’t intend to, or even perhaps realise. In the end, I ask, what is really the difference between old-fashioned magic and what he does now?

“That is a really valid and good question. With all the stuff I do it’s always about getting the balance right. The big difference is, I’m being honest about my dishonesty and saying don’t take what I do as gospel, I am dishonest.” Science writer Simon Singh accused him of dishonesty by overselling his psychological powers when he first started out, and Brown concedes that Singh might have had a point.

“I did find it a little bit of a joyless response at the time. He focused on the stuff that was tricks, but there was plenty of other stuff in the area of suggestion and hypnosis, and it would be wrong to say that was just a conjuring trick. To me, it’s not about, ‘Yes I have this skill or that skill’, it’s just about a form of entertainment that’s hopefully engaging and gets people asking questions. Some of it’s real, and some of it’s not, some of it looks like a magic trick and it’s using genuine psychological techniques, and vice versa.

“But I think, though, that when I started off my TV career I was overstating the case, overstating my skills. I thought there’ll only be one show, there’ll never be a repeat, so I might as well go for it. But as I became better-known, I felt there were two things really. One is a moral responsibility to the public to be honest, and to find out what level of honesty is right for me as an entertainer, when I’m kind of a magician, so there’s a licence to deceive but at the same time – well, it’s complicated. And the other thing was I didn’t want to give myself an ulcer. Psychics who spend their careers being ‘psychic’, well they’re living a lie, and I didn’t want to be that guy doing that. I didn’t want to be constantly being a fraud. I just didn’t want to be that guy, it’s not me.”

It’s only afterwards that I realise how often he chooses to draw the distinction between himself and bogus psychics – when that’s not really the point at issue. The better comparison would be with old-fashioned magicians, who make no more claim to bogus supernatural powers than Brown does, but never seriously suggest that they aren’t using tricks. Could he, I ask, have created a successful TV career deploying no trickery at all, relying on psychological skills alone? He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “Er, I think it would be just less entertaining.”

The really odd thing is that in all the time I was with him, not one of his answers seemed less than satisfactory. Something about his voice is extra- ordinarily persuasive, and in his presence his whole manner is so beguilingly lovely that it’s not until I listen to the tape afterwards that I realise, to my surprise, how often he sidesteps a question, while never giving the impression of being evasive. I still have no idea if he’s really riddled with self-contempt, or secretly rather pleased with himself, and have even less of a clue as to what drives him. And yet, in his company he had seemed like the most forthcoming of interviewees.

I’m still not quite sure why that happened. But when Brown claims, as he does, to draw more on his power to inspire suggestibility in others than on old-fashioned trickery, I’m now rather more inclined to believe him.

*Bonus: Times interview available to read here*