Paul Cosentino was at his family’s home on the outskirts of Melbourne watching a TV special that featured world-famous magician David Copperfield.
“I witnessed my first magic trick and I was in awe,” he recalls. “I saw David Copperfield fly and as a child I’d dream of flying, of walking through walls and of becoming invisible, and here was a guy who could do those things. He was super human. I was about 12 and from that moment I thought, ‘That’s what I need to do’.”
But performing magic and illusions in front of an audience seemed an almost impossible task for the crushingly shy schoolboy. Cosentino went to a traditional private school where he says he struggled to fit in.
“I was very shy. Everyone now looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, sure’,” he says, laughing.
“But I was that kid who always sat at the back of the classroom and who was so envious of the smart kids. Before lunchtime you had to finish a certain amount of work or you couldn’t go to lunch – and I was always the kid who never went to lunch.
“I was very shy and I was a bad reader and a bad speller and back then learning was very much based on mathematics and English. The school didn’t take into account creativity and the fact that kids don’t all learn the same way. I was in special classes but there was nothing wrong with my intellect – I just wasn’t engaged.”
Then Cosentino discovered magic and it transformed his world. The shy child who had struggled to read left high school with an Equivalent National Tertiary Entrance Rank score of 90-plus and enrolled in a business degree at Monash University.
“After I saw David Copperfield on television my mother took me to the library and I borrowed the Encyclopaedia of Magic that contained magic tricks and the history of famous magicians like Harry Houdini. Through those kinds of books, I learnt to read,” he says.
He also learnt to perform increasingly complex magic tricks and discovered a gift. The quietly spoken, modest showman remembers the first time he performed magic for his father, a structural engineer.
“I made a coin disappear and my dad said, ‘How did you do that?’ In my world my dad was the genius who made bridges stand up,” Cosentino says with a smile.
“And then I make a coin disappear and dad asks me, ‘How did you do that?’ I could do something that my very intelligent dad couldn’t do, and suddenly I had this precious skill.
‘‘Suddenly I could impress people. I might have been too shy to walk up to someone and start talking to them, but I could show them a trick. So magic got me over a lot of my shyness.”
Cosentino, 29, began performing magic at children’s birthday parties in his late teens to earn pocket money. Regular gigs helped him pay his way through his first year at university, but in 2002 he was offered a six-month contract to perform on a cruise ship travelling around the US and Canada.
“I took a leave of absence from uni and I’m still on that sabbatical,” he says, laughing.
“When I got that contract I started to make a living out of performing. You go to uni so you can get a job, right? I knew I wanted to be a magician and I had a job offer. I wasn’t interested in anything else. People ask me what are my hobbies. Well, I collect old magic memorabilia, watch movies related to magic and read books about magicians.”
Returning from overseas, Cosentino honed his craft by touring Australia with theatre groups. In 2008 he had the second-largest touring show in Australia after receiving a government grant to help finance a six-month adventure.
The shows were a sellout long before he was runner-up in Australia’s Got Talent last year, but Cosentino’s breathtaking escape act in front of a national TV audience has taken his career to another level.
This year he was the first Australian to be awarded the prestigious international Merlin Award for Most Original Magician. The Merlins are to magic what the Oscars are to movies.
“I think AGT changed people’s preconceived ideas of what magic is,” he says.
“It has been harder to break through commercially in Australia – perhaps because Australians love the boy next door. And that’s not me. The boy next door doesn’t hang upside down from his ankles on the end of a burning rope, or jump inside water tanks and hold their breath for four minutes.”
Cosentino rehearses and creates his magic in a vast studio at his parent’s home – it was once an indoor swimming pool. Outside he parks the shipping containers filled with props, many of them designed and made by his father and brothers. His beloved nonna makes his costumes.
“I have a nine-tonne truck and a four-tonne trailer and a jeep. I’ve put all my money into what I do. It’s all sitting there in those shipping containers,” he says.
“I saw David Copperfield fly and as a child I’d dream of flying, of walking through walls.”
While Cosentino makes the art of magic and illusion look seamless, it can take three to four months of relentless design, construction and practice to perfect each trick. He also follows a punishing fitness regimen to stay in peak physical and mental condition, and has the physique of a dedicated athlete.
He trained for six months to perform his escape from concrete blocks, chains and handcuffs at Melbourne Aquarium in 2010, an escape that garnered international media attention.
“A lot is involved to create the perfect piece of magic. For the aquarium I had to lose six kilos of muscle and learn to hold my breath for seven minutes under water. I spent every Friday morning from 6am in the water at the aquarium and it was freezing,” he says.
“Physically and mentally that performance was a huge challenge. My feet were in concrete and I was five metres underwater and the pressure was tremendous. Your lungs are compressed and mentally the first thing you want to do is get out as quickly as you can and to struggle and thrash about.
“But I had to do the opposite because the quicker you move the more oxygen you burn. You have to convince yourself that you are not going to die, and
Before each show, Cosentino enters “the zone”, like elite athletes before a critical contest.
“In the aquarium I got stuck on one of the locks on the right-hand side. I spent some time picking it and couldn’t and I moved on, rather than getting frustrated. I came back to it later,” he says.
“In those escapes, to not get scared, I distract myself. I do the alphabet and list everyone I know with the letter A, then B …”
Inspiration for his acts comes from classic magic and from taking a child’s perspective on the world.
“When you are a kid – everything is magical. As adults we are sceptical and cynical, but children don’t have those barriers and walls,” he says.
“I love taking classics in magic – such as sawing a person in half – and putting those classics on steroids and adding my own twist to throw the audience.”
Last month Cosentino achieved another childhood dream when Channel Seven screened a one-hour TV special that showcased his particular brand of magic.
“As a kid I dreamed of having a television special, like David Copperfield. When that project got the green light I jumped from here to the ceiling,” he says.
Cosentino will also tour Australia this year, including four shows at The Palms at Crown this month. But he admits that while he may be the consummate professional on stage, he hasn’t been able to magic away the shyness that plagued him as a schoolboy.
“I always wore a mask on stage so nobody would know who I was. I could hide behind the mask,” he says.
“Auditioning for Australia’s Got Talent was the first time I walked on stage without a mask and it was terrifying. I was waiting in the loading bay for hours to audition and I thought, ‘Cos, just go home. Why are you doing this?’ But something else told me to just follow through with it.
“And, of course, I was going on stage without a mask to be judged by the panel. I wasn’t a fresh-faced kid off the street giving something a crack. I’d been doing this for years and I had a lot riding on that audition. My family had supported me and so that audition wasn’t just about me. So the relief I felt after that audition was such a weight off my shoulders.
“But I am still very shy. I had to go to a friend’s birthday at Crown the other day and because I’m performing there, they have my posters on display. A few people recognised me and I still find that makes me nervous. But I could never do anything else. Magic is my passion. I can’t ever see myself sitting at a desk nine to five."
Watch » Cosentino the Grand Illusionist is at The Palms at Crown, October 17-21. www.ticketek.com.au or 1300 795 012