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Hughes blends comedy, showmanship, magic and personality into a perfect mix

The Oracle
Derek Hughes and a group of Shaler Area students during his visit to SAHS in February.

From performing to families at TGI Friday’s to performing for some of the biggest celebrities on America’s Got Talent, Derek Hughes has made a name for himself with magic and a larger than life personality. More than anything else, magic stands out as something that can be extremely tough to execute. For him, it’s natural.

Ever since Hughes received his first magic set, he wanted to be a magician. He underwent open heart surgery at 10 years old, and a magic set was gifted to him at the hospital afterwards. After picking it up, he developed a passion for magic.

“I was lucky. I mastered an easy trick first. It was putting a penny in someone’s palm and then it turns into a dime. Also, there was a certain unknown unconscious symbolism in that trick like, I could make money doing this. I saw a path,” Hughes said. “I remember talking to my friend when I was 12, like he had just gotten a bunch of money for his birthday and I was like, ‘Loan it to me so I can buy magic tricks. I guarantee I’m going to put together a show and I promise I’ll sell it and I’ll pay you back.’ He didn’t do it. He should have.”

Fast forward a few years, Derek Hughes was a name that was doing gigs everywhere nearby. While most of his peers were struggling to learn Algebra, Derek was doing the absolute most in order to get his name out there.

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“I would cold call nursing homes when I was 13, 14 years old. I’d say, ‘Can I come do a magic show?’” he recalled. “When I was 16, my buddy in high school was a busboy at a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant. He’s like, ‘You got to come in. It’s such a fun place and atmosphere.’ That led to nine years, at some stretches of time seven nights a week, at all five T.G.I. Fridays restaurants in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, where I grew up doing two hours a night, and that’s where I got 10,000 hours. That’s where I passed out business cards. That’s where I started getting private parties,” Hughes said.

I remember talking to my friend when I was 12, like he had just gotten a bunch of money for his birthday and I was like, ‘Loan it to me so I can buy magic tricks. I guarantee I’m going to put together a show and I promise I’ll sell it and I’ll pay you back.’ He didn’t do it. He should have.

— Derek Hughes

You may hear about this busy schedule at such a young age and think “how?” With a supportive family and a love for magic, nothing would stop him from becoming the performer he is today.

“I tell people my mother was supportive to the point of neglect. I didn’t have roadblocks in my life of people saying, ‘this is this is a bad idea,’ or ‘maybe you should go to plan B.’ There was never anybody in my direct circle of support that was a naysayer, which was pretty cool,” he said.

One person who wasn’t so supportive, ironically, was one of his high school teachers at a small, private performing arts school.

“The woman who was my math teacher said, ‘We need to have a serious talk.’ And she sits down and closes the door. She’s like, ‘Magician?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ She’s said, ‘Derek, you got to be real. How are you going to make a living doing magic?’ I brought up that David Copperfield is the highest paid solo entertainer in the world. She said, ‘Well, that’s David Copperfield.’ I just couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. To this day, I have fantasies of sending her my net worth statement.”

He may not have to do that if that teacher was watching season 10 of America’s Got Talent.

On season 10 of America’s Got Talent, Hughes stepped onto the stage and did a simple trick of landing a ping pong ball on the nose. Simple. Nothing mind blowing. That’s exactly where he wanted your head to be at. Any doubts were going to be hushed, and he knew it would be more fun to prove doubters wrong. He then proceeded to do a card trick, finding a card on his body in a fashion that no one could have seen coming. It didn’t take the judges’ standing ovation to convince me, as I had already been enjoying #ButtCard in the corner of my screen.

It was even more amazing to get a chance to hear about everything that goes into being on a show like AGT. The show may be great for the viewer, but it can be a nightmare for the performer as Hughes recounted. There is so much that happens that the TV audience never gets to see.

“I’ll tell you, behind the scenes, it was a madhouse. It was just chaos. The artists don’t have control. If they got an angle, or they want to expose something and they want to, you know, paint you like a doof,” Hughes commented.

Hughes explained that he got lucky in that he was not portrayed as a “doof”, but as a dad who had a brand new family at home watching.

“When I saw them paint me as a dad, I was like, okay, I got a chance to move forward on this program,” he said.

He is the only magician to ever be invited to perform at HBO’s Comedy Arts Festival, took fifth place on season 10 of America’s Got Talent, was a producer for The Carbonaro Effect on truTV,  acted as a waiter in an Adam Sandler movie (Mr. Deeds) among other roles, and the list goes on. The swagger Hughes has is evident in every performance, and it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t even there from the beginning.

“I studied acting at the University of Minnesota, then I moved to L.A.. Right after college, I self-produced a handful of performance art theater shows using magic and spoken word in Minnesota that were really fun to do and not necessarily great commercial endeavors, but it gave me a lot of confidence in the idea that I have a voice in something,” he said.

Once he got confidence, Hughes developed a bravado that just kept carrying him further and further into his career. To think he was once just a kid who liked magic feels odd, because once you see a performance of his, you’ll think he was born to do this. It feels even more crazy once you hear that he is friends with Jason Sudeikis, and that they performed magic on The Ellen DeGeneres Show before.

Hughes isn’t in it just for some fame though. With all the unbelievable encounters he’s had, you would think that his favorite would be involving some big names, but you’d be wrong. One of his favorite memories was not on some grandiose production set, but rather in a children’s hospital due to his hospital struggles at such a young age. He did not know performing at a hospital would be so touching, but in the end it was a full-circle moment for him.

“The UCLA Children’s Hospital asked me to visit, and there was this one young girl who was blind and watching a magic show. There’s this trick with sponge balls where traditionally you have to hold a ball, and I hold a ball, and my ball vanishes. Then you open your hand and now you have two balls. I walked through that trick and she experienced magic, and that was really that was pretty great,” Hughes said.

Hospital visits are not the only place where Hughes has experienced the wonder of helping others. He wrote a poem re-imagining the story of Humpty Dumpty that he eventually turned into a picture book. He started using that poem as part of his show when he was performing at colleges.

Derek Hughes’ book Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall

“I love this poem. Sometimes students would come to me afterwards and say, ‘That poem touched me, moved me, inspired me. Where do I find it?’ That’s when I was like, ‘I should make a book.’ Backstage at a college in Utah, I was doing a two-show night. In between the shows, the guy who was my tech said, ‘That poem inspired me. Between shows I signed up for improv class, which I’d been meaning to do for years, but I’m always afraid and I haven’t done it and I did it tonight.’ That that really meant a lot to me. I love that idea that somehow something I share would inspire someone to take a leap to do something because it was mentors and experiences I had that helped me cross thresholds,” Hughes said.

While performing all of these gigs for thousands and thousands of hours, Derek developed a truly impressive stage presence. He went from a nervous boy at TGI Fridays to a true showman who’s never phased by the spectacle no matter how big the moment is. His presence is so different from other performers because with him you are getting Derek Hughes magic tricks, not tricks mimicked off the internet.

He manages to work as a performer while still being personable and presentable to everyone he meets while still being unapologetically himself.

This story was originally published on The Oracle on May 14, 2024.