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Shin Lim is mastering his next trick: stardom

Trae Patton/NBC

A montage of Shin Lim’s winning season on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” might reel off in a series of stunned faces, dropped jaws, and baffled adults squealing in wonder.

Olivia Munn’s mouth agape as Lim appears to turn one playing card into three, two, then none. Spice Girl Mel B pounding a table with childlike glee: “No, no, no, no!” Simon Cowell muttering: “Bloody hell, Shin. That was spooky.”

The montage would end with Lim, a Waltham resident at the time, being awarded the $1 million grand prize as gold confetti is raining down, the runners-up are hoisting him into the air, and host Tyra Banks is screaming over the cheers, “Shin Lim! The sexiest magician on the planet!”


But where that 2018 montage ends, Lim’s career begins.

The Acton-Boxborough High School graduate has gone on to perform a run with “The Illusionists” on Broadway, landed a Las Vegas residency at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas, married his sweetheart, Casey Thomas, in Hawaii, and returned to compete on the first-ever international “America’s Got Talent: The Champions” against a field of 50 past winners and fan faves, from Scotland to South Africa.

He won that, too.

He’s baffled Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show," made Kelly Clarkson squawk, wowed Ellen DeGeneres, Henry Winkler, Wanda Sykes, Jay Leno.

Now on his own national tour, “LIMitless,“ Lim, 28, performs on “The Today Show” Tuesday before heading to Medford for a sold-out show Wednesday at the Chevalier Theatre.

We recently talked tricks with the mind-blower, now based in Los Angeles.

Q. You got married in August.

A. We met in Macau [China]. It was a gig I did a few years ago. She was a dancer for another magician. The theaters were next to each other, so we hung out as a family, the whole crew. So we met through work, I guess.


Q. Would you do another “AGT”-type talent show?

A. That’s a good question. Probably not.

Q. Why not?

A. I’ve competed too much already, I think. [Laughs]

Q. You’ve said you don’t believe in magic.

A. Yeah. I never say I’m doing any special powers. A lot of magicians say, “I’m actually changing this . . .” I think it’s stupid to claim that. I believe things can look magical. Things can look like magic — but there’s always an explanation. In my case, it’s all sleight-of-hand.

Q. You’ve said what you do is like playing the piano.

A. It is. It’s very little to do with the cards, and everything to do with everything but the cards — misdirection, body movement, timing, synchronization.

Q. You started out as a pianist but quit because you had carpal tunnel. What was the transition like?

A. Well, I always did magic as a hobby. I was kind of an awkward kid, so magic was a way for me to interact with people. I got a scholarship to Lee University [in Tennessee] for music, but midway through I got carpal tunnel. So I told myself, “OK, I’ll rest for a year and come back.” That was always my plan. And then all of a sudden got this job, this tour of China. This guy had seen me do some magic and he was like, “Hey, you’re pretty good. Why don’t you come on tour with a bunch of other magicians?”


I was only 21 at the time — it was pretty unheard of for a young kid. A lot of magicians on tour were my idols. It was a good experience for me. I learned so much.

I started getting gigs in China and Asia. I was like “Oh my gosh, I could make a living from this.” I kept saying, “I’ll go back to the piano,” but I kept getting more jobs and opportunities. Eventually, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” came out.

When the first one aired, it kind of went viral. [It now has more than 58 million views.] That’s when I was like, “OK, maybe magic’s pretty special.”

Q. How did you get on “Penn & Teller”?

A. They saw one of my videos on YouTube, and the producers were like, “Do you have one act that you think will fool Penn and Teller?” And that was it. It aired in 2015.

Q. So things blew up from there?

A. Big time. Right after that, “AGT" contacted me. I’d always had “AGT’ in the back of my head. When Mat Franco won, I said, “Whoa, magicians can win, too.” But I didn’t want to compete just yet because all I had one was act. So I didn’t audition.

I continued with touring, performing, getting better, getting more confident. Eventually I did “Penn & Teller” again, in 2017. At this point I was like “OK, I think I’m ready for ‘AGT.’ ”


Q. Did you think you could win?

A. I didn’t picture myself winning, I just made sure I had enough to get through to the finale, so I didn’t look like an idiot. [Laughs]

Q. What was it like when you won?

A. Oh, it was crazy. It was surreal because I was getting lifted up in the air, so that made it seem dreamlike.

Q. What will spark an idea?

A. Mostly plot. [For a recent performance on the “Ellen” show] I found out her wedding was actually close to mine [in date], and her wife was Australian, like my wife. So I based the act on similarities: Whatever happens to Ellen, happens to me with playing cards. Then I built up on that. I thought, “How do I make it so her card is the same as mine every single time, no matter what, even if she’s shuffling the deck?”

Q. Can you explain how it works?

A. A lot of messing around with concepts. Showing my friends the misdirection, like, “Hey does this work?” Recording myself on camera, doing something and saying, “Can you see it on camera?”

Q. So when you say sleight-of-hand, it’s literally that.

A. Yeah. I’m switching cards. I have to make sure they can’t see it at a certain time. Or that I’m doing it so well they can’t see it. Either one. There’s a million ways to switch cards. It’s just how you do it.


Q. But the way you do it, I mean, people comment on YouTube that they watch you in slow-motion and still can’t see what you’re doing.

A. Yeah, that’s because I record myself in slow-motion when I’m practicing. If I can see it in slow-motion, I need to improve it until I can’t see it in slow-motion. I do that on purpose because I know people on YouTube will slow-mo it. [Laughs]

Q. Growing up, what first appealed to you about sleight-of-hand?

A. It was the cheapest thing, I didn’t have much money back then [laughs], but I could buy a deck of cards. At the same time, it felt cool. It didn’t feel cheesy. Stage magic just felt cheesy. Too bombastic, too over-the-top. I like the minimalism of card tricks. Especially when David Blaine had his first magic special.

Q. So David Blaine was a game-changer for you?

A. A massive influence. At the time, no one had seen a card change in front of their eyes before. It was something special.

Q. There’s no special deck of cards you use?

A. There are types of finishes. I like to use a specific type that allows me to manipulate it to my advantage a little better. It’s almost like piano — Steinway & Sons, Yamaha.

Q. People might think, “Oh, he’s using a special rigged set of cards.”

A. I mean, there are some cards that are blank, for example. But that’s why we call that a “special card.” So then the goal is, “How do I switch this card with the blank card, and make it appear [a certain way]?”

Q. How’d you go about figuring all this out? Were there things on YouTube then?

A. So many. That’s how I learned everything: on YouTube.

Q. What was the first show you did?

A. At my parents’ church in Lexington. And I messed up big time.

Q. What was people’s reaction?

A. They didn’t react because they couldn’t see what was going on.

Q. [Laughs] Right.

A. It was crowd of 400, I was on a stage, and at the time, I only knew two tricks. No one could see the value of the cards because they were so far away. It was awkward.

Learn more at www.shinlimmagic.com.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.