The double life of David Copperfield

Even those who know nothing about magic know about David Copperfield. Born in 1956, Copperfield was teaching magic at New York University by the time he was 16 years old, and from there, it was on to the stage in Chicago's The Magic Man. Copperfield has helmed some of the most impressive, large-scale illusions in the world, collected dozens of awards, and his shows have grossed more than $3 billion in sales. There's more to this magician than meets the eye, though, and he's had his share of bumps in the road.

The questionable "Show Participation" document

Part of the act of any good magician usually involves audience participation. It's all about suspending belief, after all, and Copperfield's act is no different. But according to documents uncovered and published by TMZ, there might be more to his audience's participation than anyone wants to admit to.

According to TMZ, the documents define the difference between a regular meet-and-greet and a "special" one. Employees are instructed as to the importance of keeping audience members marked as "special" in their seats for a consultation after the show, and it specifies the theory behind the special meetings is he's picking out people he would like to be able to contact for upcoming "Ads, TV, radio and many other promotions," all centered around his islands in the Bahamas.

Contrary to being simply about headhunting for promotional events, TMZ also points out some of the wording in the document is getting into creepy territory. Employees are told how to deal with the situation if the "scorpion" is there with a husband or boyfriend, and notes that "From time to time boyfriends and husbands will give us a hard time and refuse to stay. If that is the case, try your best to get them to stay and refer to the 'What to Say' sheet for help…" Sadly, the "What to Say" sheet is missing from TMZ's documents, but they do include a letter, presumably from Copperfield's attorneys, reminding present and former employees of their confidentiality agreements.

The strange island getaway

In 2006, Copperfield announced he had bought the island of Musha Cay, along with its surrounding island chain, for $50 million. It's the island paradise mentioned in the "Show Participation" documents, and Copperfield invested another $40 million into turning it into what he called "the most magical vacation destination in the world." According to The Daily Beast's report, the group of islands are now named Copperfield Bay, and were discovered by the magician when he drew a series of lines between Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Pyramids at Giza, and the Pyramid of the Sun in the Yucatan. His vacation paradise was at the intersection of those lines, making it suitably magical.

It's open to the public for all but the 10 weeks a year Copperfield uses it for his personal vacation home. Otherwise, interested — and wealthy — vacationers can opt to spend their down time there for $37,500 a night (for up to 12 people). It promises everything from private beaches to a huge laser tag experience and fun in the Houdini Room. Forbes reported there's even a 3-hour, pirate-themed treasure hunt (for an extra $20,000) and fireworks (for an added $25,000).

All might not be well in paradise, though, as there have been reports that Copperfield only acquired the island chain after some shady dealings. Prior owner, Blockbuster founder John Melk, had originally refused to sell the property to Copperfield because of his "lack of experience in managing a resort and his personal lifestyle choices." Melk ultimately sold to the not-at-all suspicious sounding Group of Companies, Ltd., only to find out that Copperfield had been behind the purchase anyway. Not long after, Melk slapped him with a lawsuit for fraud.

Claims to have discovered the Fountain of Youth

As though the idea of a tropical paradise in the Bahamas wasn't enough to tempt potential visitors, Copperfield made a bizarre claim at the same time he bought the islands. According to his statement to Reuters, he has discovered the Fountain of Youth.

"I've discovered a true phenomenon. You can take dead leaves, they come in contact with the water, they become full of life again. [...] Bugs or insects that are near death, come in contact with the water, they'll fly away. It's an amazing thing, very, very exciting."

VICE editor Rafael Katigbak and former editor Adam Leith Gollner got an invitation to Copperfield's paradise, and reported he had hired everyone from geologists to biologists to carry out all kinds of unspecified tests to see just what was in the water, and whether or not it was safe for humans. Until everything came back all right, he was keeping the location a secret.

The sexual assault lawsuit

In 2007, Copperfield's Las Vegas locations were raided by the FBI. In addition to $2 million in cash, they also seized a hard drive and the memory chip from his warehouse's camera system. At the time, Reuters gave no more details about what was behind the raid, aside from the fact he had been named in connection with a sexual misconduct lawsuit.

It was only two years later that the details of the case came out amid an investigation that was still ongoing. The Seattle Times broke the case, and said the still-unnamed accuser claimed she had met Copperfield in 2007, when she had been picked out of the audience and invited onstage to help with an illusion. Similar to the process outlined in TMZ's leaked "Show Participation" document, the accuser claimed she had been approached by assistants, had her picture and personal information taken, and been told that Copperfield had some career opportunities waiting for her on the island. She says she made the trip to the island the same year, and once she was there he dropped her off at the beach and stole her passport. Then, she claimed Copperfield assaulted her on three separate occasions, and that she reported what had happened as soon as she returned to Seattle.

Copperfield — and his attorneys — denied the accusations from the beginning, saying she had been there with more than 40 other people and had spent much of her time with those other guests.

And how the case fell apart

The federal investigation into Copperfield was closed in 2009, and no charges were brought against him. Accusations of sexual harassment — and worse — are something no one ever completely escapes from, though, and it turned out that the story wasn't completely over yet.

In 2010, ABC News reported that Lacey Carroll, the pageant princess who had brought the charges against Copperfield, had been arrested herself. Carroll had alleged another man had lured her from a bowling alley and taken her back to a hotel room to assault her. The charges, though, were false. That was in January, and in April, TMZ said Carroll announced she wouldn't be pursuing further legal action against Copperfield.

In 2012, Copperfield opened up to Oprah about the accusations, five years after the story first broke. He said in spite of her subsequent arrest and the video proof she was making false accusations, he still hadn't managed to shake the stigma that had been attached to him. He said, "To be falsely accused of something that horrendous is a devastating thing for yourself, your friends, your family… When the truth comes out — you know she was arrested, not me — finally things you know come to light. Unfortunately, in the press, what happens is…"

"People remember the charge," Oprah finished. "They don't remember the exoneration."

Copperfield pointed out that he was the victim in the entire affair, and it was his name that had been irreparably damaged.

Denying employees overtime pay

Unfortunately for Copperfield, he was back in court in 2015. This time, he was accused of not paying employees the overtime they were due. The lawsuit was brought to the Nevada courts by a group of employees who had worked at Copperfield's Vegas show, The Wrap reported. If the suit had been settled for what the plaintiffs said they were owed, each would have received an average of $6,355.84 in overtime pay.

The lawsuit didn't go that far, though, and Copperfield — along with the other defendants — agreed to settle the case for $500,000. According to a statement issued by Copperfield's team, "There are two sides to every story, and even the settlement agreement states there was no wrongdoing. The Copperfield team settled because they prefer the employees benefit from the money rather than a three-year fight where the only people that win are the lawyers."

The Gavin Cox lawsuit

And that's not the end of Copperfield's legal troubles, either. In late 2013, a British man named Gavin Cox claimed that he and his wife were on holiday when he took part in a Copperfield performance that left him with permanent brain damage. Cox spoke with The Daily Mail in June 2016, and told the story of how he was one of 13 people chosen out of the audience to participate in the illusion. They were to be in a cage above the stage, disappearing before reappearing in another part of the set. According to Cox, "Seeing David Copperfield was the highlight of a dream trip to celebrate my 53rd birthday. Instead, it turned into a nightmare. My health has been wrecked, and I've lost my business and my life savings."

The lawsuit says Cox was injured when he was forced through a dark area of the stage that had been under construction and was filled with construction debris. As a result of his fall, he says he is now required to wear an oxygen lung at night, and that he has permanent nerve damage and no sense of smell. After the fall, he spent three months at a brain trauma center in California, and has been forced to stay in the US due to a combination of the chronic pain that keeps him from flying and the court case that has been dragging on for years.

Part of the case required Copperfield to reveal how the illusion was done, in order to help determine whether or not he was liable. According to WAtoday, the illusion simply involves the audience members being escorted from the cage, led through a secret passage, and reappearing at the back of the stage.

The potential for something to go wrong

At its heart, most of us think even Las Vegas magic is pretty harmless at the end of the day. But in 2008, one of Copperfield's assistants was so badly injured on stage it sent him to the hospital. The illusion was one where Copperfield walked through the rotating blades of a massive industrial fan, and just before the illusion was set to be performed before the live audience, one of the assistants was pulled into the fan's vortex.

The assistant spent several hours in surgery to repair the damage done to his face and arm, and The Telegraph reported Copperfield and the rest of his crew waited at the hospital the entire time he was in surgery. Copperfield was then at his bedside when he woke, and was waiting with a get-well present of a child's magic set.

He said, "Many people assume that the death-defying illusions I do on stage are not dangerous. This unfortunate accident shows that couldn't be further from the truth, and we're just thankful that Brandon's injuries weren't worse."

David Copperfield vs. Criss Angel

Copperfield has also gotten into a bit of a spat with fellow magician Criss Angel. Buzzfeed went scouring through eight month's worth of Tweets from the pair, starting with Criss Angel's May 6, 2016 post. He linked to a Bloomberg report that named him "The Biggest Name In Las Vegas Magic," and it wasn't until a few months later Copperfield shared his own Forbes link, naming him the world's highest-paid magician. Angel countered on the next day, linking to a Bloomberg quote that said he was the one that was, in fact, the highest-paid magician. After taking a shot at Copperfield and suggesting his rival had bought his Twitter followers, it was on. A couple days later, he went on a 140-character tirade, saying "The old school, tired, hokey magic shows of yesterday are done… #POOF."

According to Buzzfeed, Angel not only continued with the attack but Copperfield remained silent, only re-Tweeting what some of his fans and followers had said, including a potentially passive-aggressive re-Tweet that read, "@D_Copperfield thanks for being the CLASSIEST magician out there! Coming to your show the first chance I get. I've heard great things!"

Refinery29 picked up on another Criss Angel Tweet, sent on December 1, 2016, in which Angel seemed to claim Copperfield had ducked out of a promise to donate money to pediatric cancer research. For his part, Copperfield has mostly left Angel just talking to himself on Twitter.

His love of historical artifacts

Everyone knows Copperfield has a fascination with the magicians that have come before him, but less well-known is his love of other types of historical artifacts. In 2012, Stephen Tull was looking through some old boxes that were stored in the attic of his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. CNN reported he had made an incredible find, a reel-to-reel recording of his father interviewing Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to talking about his views on nonviolent protest, he also talks about a trip he had taken to Africa. Tull put the recording up for auction, and CNN later reported it had been purchased by David Copperfield.

Copperfield donated the tape to the National Civil Rights Museum, saying he had no doubts about what to do with the tape, and that it was just the right thing to do.

Copperfield also said, "He's certainly one of the great inspirational figures in history. So much of what I do, in my own little way, is making people dream, transporting them, making them think differently. That's what magic does. His dream was far greater than any entertainer can provide."