News, Culture & Society

Mahdi Gilbert: No smoke, no mirrors; no hands, no feet

Mahdi Gilbert                                           The Vaults, London, Wed–Sun 

The minimum requirement for a sleight-of-hand magician, you would have thought, is a pair of hands. The clue is in the name. 

Yet Mahdi Gilbert, born 28 years ago without hands or feet, hasn’t let such daunting obstacles prevent him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional close-up magician. 

His mantra – ‘No smoke, no mirrors; no hands, no feet; no excuses, no limits’ – tells you every­thing you need to know about this extraordinary performer.

Mahdi Gilbert. I use my arms and my body, but I also use the spectators to hold things. The magic happens in their hands, and that makes it stronger.’

‘Growing up in Toronto, many things were impossible for me. So with childhood logic I thought, “If I become a magician I’ll be able to do anything.” It was nothing to do with the tricks. 

I was six or seven but everybody was telling me you need to have fingers, so I felt intimidated by it. But when I was 13 I saw Derren Brown on the internet performing mind magic. 

I thought, “I don’t have hands but I have a brain and a mouth, maybe I can learn some of this stuff.” And that’s how I began, by learning mind-reading and tricks to do with memory and psychology.’

Then, on his 17th birthday, he started teaching himself sleight of hand. 

Unable even to pick up a deck of cards, let alone shuffle or perform tricks, he would wait until everyone had gone to bed and then practise all night in the dark. ‘The cards were a complete mess. 

They’d end up all over the floor. I practised in secret as I didn’t want my family feeling sorry for me. I wanted to master it first. Now the cards sort themselves out. 


 Although relatively unknown here, when Mahdi Gilbert appeared on a magic show on Chinese television he was watched by 550 million people.

I use my arms and my body, but I also use the spectators to hold things. The magic happens in their hands, and that makes it stronger.’

From being unable to cut a deck of cards, it took Mahdi nine years to reach the stage where he was able to trick world-renowned magicians Penn & Teller on their show Fool Us. ‘All magic books are written for people with two hands so my tricks are totally different technically to anyone else’s. I’m self-taught.

I knew Penn & Teller would think they were special cards. They didn’t really stand a chance. It’s like a different language.’

Without Derren Brown, Mahdi would never have found a window into magic. ‘He seemed so genuine and relatable to the audience, and that’s how I try to be. 

I don’t want to be a superman or come across in a phoney way. I want to make people forget that I don’t have hands and suddenly there’s this wow moment. 

Oh my God, he just did that with no hands.’ 


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