How magician Paige Thompson flirts with ‘death’ in her illusionary stage performances

By Kamy Smelser, Echo magazine

Photo courtesy of Paige Thompson.

Editor’s note: This article is from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine.

Magician and illusionist Paige Thompson dangles upside down while squirming her way out of a straitjacket. She has 60 seconds to escape before sharp metal jaws clamp down on her entire body. 

Thompson has one goal in mind — to put you on the edge of your seat.  

“This is not an illusion. Real danger is involved,” she says, sporting ripped black tights and magenta hair, as she introduces her act to an Apollo Theater audience. “My complete focus is required.”

As Thompson is tied into a straitjacket, she declares she will upstage escape artist Harry Houdini. In 1917, he performed a similar straitjacket act, hanging from a crane 60 feet in the air.

The performance takes Thompson to a new level; this time she’s performing it on the TV show  “Showtime at the Apollo.” Host Steve Harvey is anxiously pacing the stage, as audience members gasp and cover their eyes.

When she talks later about what it’s like to perform the act, she says she was never actually worried about death, but more about getting injured.

“It’s terrifying. Just jumping down from being up in the air, I could break my legs,” she says. “How do I prevent that?”

Thompson, who has been in residency at the Chicago Magic Lounge for four years, says prevention and preparation come with learning how to jump correctly and land on supportive padding. These practices come with the comfort of many safety precautions put in place before her performance, such as practicing how to escape a straitjacket, first of all. 

“I wasn’t an escape artist in any way,” she says, looking back at her past performances of Jaws of Death. “I just had to figure it out and be like, ‘I want this to look good. I want it to look real.’”

Thompson has been performing magic since she was 11. Growing up, she relied on the sole support of her grandmother, who scheduled her first gigs, made her business cards and continually encouraged her to pursue her passion of card tricks and illusions. 

Thompson still gets nervous before performing a dangerous act like the Jaws of Death. Before she walks on stage, she sometimes watches a baseball game on her phone to distract herself from what she’s about to do.

“When you’re calm, you can escape [the straitjacket],” Thompson says. 

Thompson put herself in danger again when she joined magicians Penn and Teller on their television show “Fool Us.” While on stage, she pulls from a black box a bottle of nitric acid, a bottle of water, four empty shot glasses, a pair of safety glasses and a pair of gloves. Nitric acid, which is poisonous, is used in fertilizers and explosives. 

After pouring water into three of the shot glasses, Thompson pours nitric acid into the fourth, places them all onto a turntable and gives it a spin. She then gives Penn the honor of picking which glass to drink first. She hesitates before drinking from the first three, then drops a metal spoon in the fourth shot glass. It melts in reaction to the nitric acid she somehow avoided. 

During her close-up acts at the Chicago Magic Lounge, she shows off her talent by swallowing a needle and some thread. She then has a volunteer pull the thread out of her mouth, hoping the needle is attached to the thread. 

Thompson’s sister, Nicole Thompson, grew up watching Paige perform magic, but still has to be reassured that her sister will be safe, and that her acts, such as swallowing sharp hooks and needles, are just for show. 

“Seeing her personality and confidence come to life doing these dangerous acts is really amazing,” Nicole Thompson says. “Of course, these illusions also make me nervous, but I know she knows what she is doing.”

Of course, Thompson keeps the secrets of her tricks to herself. Magicians don’t have to sign a blood oath of silence, she explains, but once they join the community, they commit to keeping others from learning their tricks. 

“Once the rest of the world knows [our secrets], they’re not going to be entertained by us, they’re just going to think it’s stupid,” Thompson says. 

Luis Carreon, a close-up magician and a founder of the Chicago Magic Lounge, says some magicians’ tricks still baffle him — especially those that appear to put even a well-prepared performer’s life in danger. Carreon says Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) could always come into play.

“Even though the audience believes [a performance] is a trick, you’d be surprised to find they are not,” says Carreon.

Within Thompson’s pursuit  of close-up and large-scale magic, she describes herself as one of the few world-class female magicians taking the stage in a male-dominated industry. Even when she approaches a table to perform close-up magic, audience members sometimes give her their dinner order, mistakenly thinking she’s the server. 

The classic depiction of a woman in magic as merely an assistant wearing a skimpy dress was never the full story. Throughout history, Thompson says, women magicians have performed on their own. This narrative has changed, and more women are represented in the industry, with the help of social media, she adds.

“It’s just weird that we get these images [of women magicians] in our heads, and we just associate that’s what magic is. It’s not,” she says. 

Back at the Apollo Theater, Thompson dangles as she struggles her way out of the straitjacket in front of an anxious audience. With five seconds left on the clock, Thompson fights her way out of the straitjacket and lands on the pad below as the metal jaws slam shut above her. She smiles as she gets off the floor, and receives a standing ovation as she prances off the stage. 

You can read the entire 2022 issue of Echo, as well as previous issues, on our website.