The Cool Magician: Justin Willman ’02
When Justin Willman ’02 was 12 years old, he attempted to ride a bicycle while wearing rollerblades.
It did not end well.
Two broken arms later, he found himself learning card tricks as an alternative to traditional physical therapy. Card tricks led to magic lessons and before long, he had developed a stage act and was performing at children’s birthday parties in his hometown of St. Louis. Magic, he quickly learned, “is an astounding subculture.” St. Louis had two magic clubs, where Willman befriended magicians of all ages, many of whom became mentors to him.
Today, Willman is “a new breed of comic who’s making magic cool again for grown-ups,” as the Los Angeles Times described him.
He’s had appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and @Midnight, and he has performed at the White House. He was a correspondent for the Rachael Ray Show; hosted the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars; and hosted Win, Lose, or Draw on the Disney Channel. More recently, he secured a magic/comedy special on Comedy Central called Sleight of Mouth, using magic and comedy to address issues such as medical marijuana and transgender bathrooms.
When Willman and his wife, Jillian Sipkins, got married in September 2015, their first dance included a stunt in which Willman appeared to levitate above the dance floor. That video now has more than 17 million views on YouTube.
The Emerson alum has always leaned toward dramatic, jaw-dropping tricks.
As a teenager in St. Louis, his favorite tricks to perform included making a bowling ball appear from a sheet of paper or swallowing a 4-foot-long balloon animal. As his skills developed, he began incorporating some drama into his routine by implying that something might go wrong during a trick. His interest in mentalism, the practice of demonstrating highly developed intuitive or mental abilities, has also grown over the years. After all, who wouldn’t want to “blow people’s minds” during a show?
Willman said he found his way to Emerson through Jay Leno ’73, H’14, whom he watched religiously as a kid. “I first heard about Emerson when I read his autobiography,” Willman said. “So when it came time to look at colleges, Emerson was naturally at the top of my list.”
A Broadcast Journalism major, Willman was involved in the EVVYs and Emerson Independent Video. He also hosted a reggae show and a sports radio show without, admittedly, having any prior knowledge of reggae or sports. “What I loved about Emerson was how easy it was to get involved in anything that struck your fancy,” he said.
While at Emerson, Willman was introduced to the Boston comedy scene when he accompanied his friends to open mic nights at the Hong Kong in Cambridge and the Comedy Vault in Boston. His friends would do standup; he would perform magic tricks with a dash of comedy.
Influenced by Johnny Carson, Steve Martin, and Jay Leno, Willman said he found his comedic voice a few years after graduating from Emerson, when he was performing magic on the college tour circuit. Between 2005 and 2010, he visited 150–250 colleges each year. In January 2016, he kicked off his tour “Fake Believe” and confessed, “I’ve been on a perpetual tour since I graduated.”
Willman hopes to continue keeping many irons in the fire. “I am working hard to create a body of work that I’m proud of.”
– Charna Westervelt
This post was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Expression, the Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Emerson College. Photos: Jillian Sipkins