Justin Willman

Jason Mueller

Thanks to a failed stunt and two broken arms, Justin Willman discovered a talent he never knew he had. “One day after school, in junior high, I was riding my bike with friends, trying to impress the girls,” he recalls. “I strapped on my rollerblades and tried to ride my bike with them on. I was going down a hill when I caught my brake with my rollerblade and flipped over the handle bars, breaking both arms.” Willman’s arms were placed in casts for the next six months, and his doctor advised him to learn some card tricks as a way of gaining back his dexterity, Willman’s mom drove him to Gibbols, a magic shop on Laclede’s Landing, to learn magic, “There are a lot of magicians in St. Louis oddly enough.” he says. “I became obsessed.”

Willman, who attended Ladue Horton Watkins High School, spent much of his high school career entertaining kids with his magical gift. “I made about 20 bucks per event, and I started thinking, Wow, I can make money doing this thing I did for fun.

Following high school, Willman attended Emerson College in Boston. He kept his gig going by performing on college campuses around the country. “Colleges need their entertainers to be cool and hip, and you need to form a fan base with the students so they want you to come back.” Pretty soon, a few shows turned into booking 200 shows a year, and Willman kept it up for six or seven years. He even was honored as College Entertainer of the Year. “I was the first person to win that award four years in a row—and a magician at that! It was really cool to see that a magician can have the same fan base as, say, a musician.”

Looking to expand his career, Willman says he had always wanted to do television work. “I idolized Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. I actually went to Emerson College because I knew Jay Leno went there.” He moved to Los Angeles and hired a hosting agent. “Being a magician is sort of parallel to hosting, so that seemed like a good fit.”

The Rachael Ray Show soon came calling, and before you knew it, Willman was a regular on the show doing his magic. “I was on the show about 25 times and they gave me the opportunity to do things other than magic.”

It was around the time when The Food Network needed a host for its show, Cupcake Wars, and in Willman, the network discovered a star. “The fact that The Rachael Ray Show is a food-focused show helped me, sometimes I helped out with food segments to ‘pad my resume.’”

But the magician never lost touch with his roots. “Magic is still going strong, I don’t do 200 shows a year anymore, but I do perform 50 to 60 shows. I participate in this underground L.A. show called Magic Meltdown.”

The pinnacle of Willman’s career happened this past fall when President Obama invited him to entertain guests at the annual White House Halloween party. Willman performed before a crowd of 100, including military families and, of course, the first family. “President Obama was about two tables away from me, just glued. I had the undivided attention of the president!” Willman exclaims. “It was nerve-wracking, you get nervous for many things right before you go on stage. But at the White House, I don’t think I was able to comprehend what I was doing until after it was over.”

For Willman, it doesn’t get much better than that. “I could probably retire after doing that. It was the coolest gig I’ve ever done in my life!” Being on television was Justin Willman’s dream, but performing for the president may have been the frosting on the (cup)cake.

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