A few years ago, in 2014, I received The Merlin Award for “Best Cabaret Act of the Decade”. I got the award against my will. Originally, I had no intention of ever talking about it, but recently I discovered that Tony Hassini, the originator of the fake award, had posted a photo of the incident on his website, so in pure self-defense I now feel compelled to say something about it.
But let’s start with magic awards in general. The authentic awards. Usually they are awarded in connection with magic competitions. The main purpose of magic competitions has never really been about the actual competitions, but more about encouraging artistic development. Magic is a fairly narrow field of entertainment and the general public is generally not very well informed about what modern conjuring consists of. So you could easily build an entire career on performing traditional Public Domain material – without anyone ever noticing. To be crass, you can make a good living as a conjurer without adding a single artistic thought of your own.
So to battle stagnation, “competition magic” has been created – the only forum that exists for a magician where innovation and originality are rewarded and encouraged. These competitions take place at different levels. The club championships are usually small, playful and without much prestige, while other competitions can be more strict in their form.
Our Swedish championships have previously varied a lot in quality and level from year to year, depending on the organizer. Some years it has been world class and other years it has been like a bad joke. For a long time, the outcome of the competitions was equally unpredictable, since the competence of the jury could vary enormously from year to year. Sometimes people who just happened to be standing nearby were recruited as judges, minutes before the start of the competition. It has become much better and smoother since it was decided that the competitions would follow FISM rules and since Gay Ljungberg began arranging courses and training for judges. Today, it is usually a genuine merit to win a Swedish Championship.
On the international level, it is all about FISM. The acronym FISM stands for “Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques” and is an international umbrella organization for all major magic societies around the world. They consist of 111 member associations from a total of 50 different countries, and represent approx. 90,000 magicians and amateur magicians. Every three years they organize the World Magic Championships. A FISM award is the biggest a magician can win. There is nothing else that even comes close.
To be completely honest, I have never been particularly interested in awards and honors. The work is its own reward. While I’m a big proponent of competitive magic and its benefits, it’s always been more about the actual work – the process of coming up with creative solutions with a strict deadline, rather than being judged and given points and prizes. I’ve competed a bit myself through the years, but even though there are some trophies gathering dust on my bookshelf, I don’t remember where, when or why I got them. The work I did was important, the trophies less so.
That said, no matter how much or how little prestige one consider there to be in winning a magic award, there has always been a serious and honest intent behind it. It is not possible to buy an award. It is not possible to get an award through fraudulent means, the motivations for the awards are always transparent, documented and can withstand scrutiny… with one distinct exception. So, just for fun, let’s examine the background to the so-called Merlin Award. Let’s start with its originator.
It’s not easy to find info on Hassini, as he goes by several different names: Tony Hassini, Hassan Emin, Anthony Hassini, Hassim Emin, Anthony H Emin, Emin Hassini… so this review will contain some gaps – but apparently Hassini was born in Cyprus in 1941. As a 16-year-old he moved to London where he took all kinds of small jobs; dishwasher etc. At one point he became completely sold on magic after seeing a magic demonstration at Hamley’s toy store on Regent Street. It was Tony Corinda who had the commission there – in the late 50’s and early 60’s Corinda employed around 40 people, spread over a number of shops in London (ref.).
Around 1960, the now 19-year-old Hassini sought out Tony Corinda, and managed to get hired for four years to assemble the various magic and prank items sold in Corinda’s stores.
In contemporary interviews, Hassini claims that he also had a longer engagement at the London Palladium at this time, but there is no evidence that this is accurate.
Around 1964, Hassini moved to New York, where he found the magic dealer Louis Tannen, and within soon he began making props for Tannen’s.
Around the same time, he was joined by his 17-year-old brother Marc Emin, who in 1965 moved from Cyprus to New York to study. The brother was interested in music, so Hassini got the idea that he should try out a career as a music producer. In 1971 he rented a music studio and some skilled studio musicians (including bassist Jim Pons who would later play with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) and recorded a LP-record with his brother, who now went by the stage name Marc Mundy. The record was pressed in 500 copies. Someone recently uploaded the record to YouTube if you want to listen:
The site The Worlds Worst Records comments: ”The playing on the record is mediocre at best, so I’d guess that the boys – clearly seasoned musicians – had very little rehearsal time.”
After hearing the results, Hassini gave up his ambition to become a music producer, and a few years later his brother moved back to Cyprus and pursued a career as a mathematics teacher.
Magic props with an artistic touch
Between 1971 and 1980, you could regularly see the name Hassini in Tannen’s advertisements in the trade journals.
Something that is puzzling about the props that were advertised is that are artistic aesthetics involved, especially in the sculpted details. For example. the false hand in Hassini’s version of Daylight Seance was quite realistic. In Genii May, 1973, Ed Mishell writes in the product reviews that Hassini’s rubber doves are so realistic they look alive.
The reason why I find it puzzling is simple – if you’ve ever seen Tony Hassini’s videos, photoshopped images or websites, it is evident that he himself have no aesthetic sense at all for image and form. So it’s a good guess to assume that he hired an artist for the sculpted details… or perhaps even more likely, to save money; an art student?
On his information page for the Merlin Award, Tony Hassini writes that the prize was designed in 1968 by a young art student named Carol Michaud. How likely is it that Hassini collaborated with two different artists during the same time period? Maybe it’s the same person who designed both the Merlin figurine and Hassini’s other props; fake hands, rubber doves, et cetera?
Finding no answers online, I wrote Hassini an email saying I was researching rubber doves and asked who had designed the mold for his model. He replied that, yes, it was the same art student who made both the doves and the Merlin figurine!
To be honest, I believe that the Merlin Award originally was a failed magic product. That it probably was meant to be cast in latex, just like the rubber pigeons and other props that he made during that time period. That it probably was intended to be produced as a sight gag every time the audience applauded, a bit like when Johnny Lonn showed off his hidden medal whenever he had made something extra clever.
I just discovered something interesting. Since this art student, Miss Michaud, was doing some pretty cool stuff back in the 60’s and 70’s, I thought it might be fun to see her later work, see how she developed artistically over the years… but my searches led me unexpectedly to The NYC Marriage Index. There I found that a Carole Michaud married a Hassan Emin (a.k.a. Tony Hassini) in Manhattan 1965! The sculptor was his wife!
That hundreds of art students had to compete for the task of designing the award can probably be considered utter fiction. Why else would Hassini pretend that his own wife was an unknown person?
In fact, there are oddities abounds everywhere in Hassini’s proximity. For example, in the American trade journal M-U-M from February 1978 you can find the claim that Hassini with his wife Carole, together with a crew of 9 people, did a big European tour with an illusion show in 1967. But in European sources there is no indication that any of that ever happened. In the same article, it is also claimed that Hassini ran one of America’s leading prop factories, which is also an exaggeration. Hassini may be well versed in both Greek and English, but it is clear that his real mother tongue is Hyperbole.
Marvelous Magical Burger King
In 1976, the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson took over the marketing for the fast food chain Burger King, and quickly introduced a new mascot to directly compete with McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald.
The newcomer went by the name “Marvelous Magical Burger King” and was a figure dressed as a king from 16th century England who performed magic tricks together with various bizarre sidekicks – “Sir Shake-a-Lot”, “Burger Thing”, “The Duke of Doubt”, “Wizard of Fries”, etc.
Somehow, Hassini got the job as the magic consultant, which involved contributing conjuring tricks to the commercials, as well as being a “body double” for the king when sleight-of-hand tricks were to be performed. As an additional gimmick, about 20 actors were hired to travel around doing parking lot shows as magic performing kings outside Burger King restaurants, so Hassini along with Mark Wilson were tasked with teaching and training these actors in how to do a simple magic show.
Of course, today Hassini claim that he himself was the sole creator of both the concept and the character, and that it was he himself who pitched everything to board of Burger King. That is obviously not true, but what is true is that the consulting gig was a huge career step for him.
Over the next six years, Hassini contributed magic effects to around a hundred commercials. A golden gig that lasted until 1988 when the rug was pulled from under his feet, when Burger King without warning discontinued the whole concept of the magical king.
Distron Video Corporation
While working on Burger King’s commercials, Hassini become interested in filmmaking. It can’t be said that he had any inherent talent for the field, but he had willpower and enthusiasm – so when the magic consulting job disappeared, he quickly acquired a video camera, and between 1988 and 1994 he produced around thirty instructional videos under the title Distron Video Corporation. The titles were a strange mix. He made instructional videos about dog training, health food, first aid, various health diets and vitamins, allergies, and magic tricks. Let’s look at an example of Hassini’s video production. As you notice, he is very fond of zooming and to film with a camera crane.
Note the slogan that ends the film above. “Recognized worldwide as innovators on the leading edge of excellence in video productions”. Almost every word in that sentence can be questioned. Let’s see more of this “leading edge” stuff! If you skip to 1:13 in the following video, you can clearly see Hassini’s innovations in the useage of Greenscreen, provided we count “terrible” as an innovation.
I mean, what is the purpose? All these fake microphones from the BBC, CNN, MTV…?
Parallel to the production of strange diet and dog videos, Hassini tried to start up something called “Video Teaching Easy Method Library” – a simpler predecessor to the International Magicians Society (IMS), but aimed at the general public.
In 1990 he made the first video “Beginner’s Magic“. The adjacent image is one of his advertisements for the public – published on May 31, 1992, in “The News Journal” of Wilmington, Delaware. It is not possible to find much more information about “Video Teaching Easy Method Library”, so we can guess that it probably wasn’t a great success.
Anyway, it seems that in 1994, Hassini got tired of making odd instructional videos, and instead turned the page to the next chapter of his life.
IMS – International Magicians Society
In June 1994, the following 2-page ad appeared in the trade journal Genii.
In other words; a video club. Adjusted for inflation; for the handy initial sum of $50, you was granted the privilege of buying additional videos for $20 each. In the beginning, Hassini sent out a welcome package with a membership card, membership pin, diploma and a folder for extra member mailings… but that package quickly got thinner and thinner.
Hassini often and happily backdates the start of the video club to 1968. No idea why, because there is no sign that IMS existed before May 27, 1994 – which is when Anthony Emin (Tony Hassini) registred the company “International Magicians Society Inc” in Nassau county, New York. He didn’t even register the trademark until March 1996. Why 1968? The sculpture he used as a logo for the business had been gathering dust for 26 years, so maybe he says 1968 because that’s when his then-wife created it?
It is difficult to say anything concrete about anything at all from this point, because here Hassini lets go of the ambition to stay near reality.
In 1998 he makes a website for the business with the domain name “Learnmagic.com”, and in 2001 he moves over to the domain name “magicims.com”. It’s quite informative and entertaining to step forward and follow the early years’ updates via the archived pages at the Wayback Machine. The archived pages can be viewed here: LearnMagic and MagicIMS.
The first thing one notice is how exaggerated the membership number is – or the customer list rather, since it is not a membership organization. If you bought a single Hassini video 25 years ago, you are still counted as one of today’s active members. You are not taken off the membership list even when you die. In 1998, Hassini claimed that he had 20 000 new customers since the start 4 years earlier. Let’s put that number in perspective – Hassini and IMS are just one person. And the process is that the prospective member sends a letter of interest. Hassini receives and opens the letter. Copies the personal data into a reply letter with payment information. When the payment comes in, the starter package is collected (binder, two videos, membership card filled out and laminated, diploma filled in), and wrapped and taped together, and left at the post office. We can calculate that the whole process takes at least half an hour per “member”. For 20,000 members, it takes 10,000 hours. If you calculate with the assumption that he works 12 hours a day, every day of the week, without a break, then it will be uninterrupted work for 30 months, or 2.5 years. The claim is completely unrealistic.
Compare with “The International Brotherhood of Magic“, the world’s largest membership organization for those interested in magic, which has existed since 1922 and has 88 sub-divisions around the world – they have a total of about 15,000 members – that actually exist.
Since there is no end to the stupidity, Hassini also claim that IMS also has a “Magic Academy”, a building where magicians can come and study to get the academic title “Doctor of Magic”. One might wonder, if such a building actually exists, why does Hassini need to put his logo on the house via a bad photoshop montage? And has he completely missed that Google Streetview exists? If you look up the two addresses listed on the IMS website, what are the chances that you will see an elegant Magic Academy building?
The Las Vegas address (Streetview):
The New York address (Streetview):
Pure fiction… As far as I can see, the whole “Magic Academy” was just a ploy to get people to commit to buying 50 videos.
Jumping back to membership numbers – today, Hassini claims that IMS has over 57,000 members, four times as many as the International Brotherhood of Magic – the world’s largest authentic magic society. Funnily enough, IMS social media tell a completely different tale! (The numbers are from July 21, 2022)
I’m no genius on social media, and definitely don’t have 57k supporters. But when compared to my own relatively low numbers of followers and subscribers, it becomes embarrassingly obvious how much Hassini is exaggerating.
|Tom Stone||3 430||2 306||1 775||654|
Now, social media is perhaps not the best gauge, so let’s instead examine a better metric – number of “backlinks” on the internet. A “backlink” is a link from someone else’s web page to one’s own web page, and is a reference that can be compared to a citation. A large and important organization automatically receives many “citations”. And we can extend the comparison to include The Magic Castle in Hollywood, International Brotherhood of Magic (IBM), Society of American Magicians (SAM), The Magic Circle in London, and the trade journal Genii.
|IMS||Magic Castle||IBM||SAM||Magic Circle||Genii||Tom Stone|
|Backlinks||1 100||76 100||116 000||69 200||8 700||690 000||5 800|
|Refering domains||248||3 300||1 600||1 300||1 300||2 500||111|
The tool used for the data above is Semrush Backlink Analytics.
The comparison shows the scope of Hassini’s exaggerations. For example. IMS has only 0.9% of the backlinks that IBM has. Genii has 627 times more links than IMS. Even I myself have more than five times as many backlinks as IMS – even though IMS’s website has been around for many more years than mine.
The IMS is “the world’s largest magic society as recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records”, according to Hassini. Not surprisingly, you can’t find a single word about that when using Guinness own search function.
The only thing that impresses about IMS is how many skilled and well-known magicians Hassini has managed to make instructional videos with. Paul Gertner, Lennart Green, Tabary, Paul Wilson, Kevin James…etc. However, most of the videos seem to be quite primitive, filmed in one take with a single fixed camera, dreary environments in existing light, slightly stressed atmosphere. Since I know some of the artists, I asked around a bit. Turns out it was often recorded in a hurry at magic conferences, between program points. Some have been paid, in few cases quite well paid. Others have been promised compensation, but never received it.
The gigantic list of “IMS Officers” also looks impressive at first glance… provided you don’t look too closely.
If you look closer, you notice that some names on the list are people who are no longer alive. For example. William H. McIlhany who is listed as the IMS “Magic Historian” – he died 5 years ago. Max Toth died 11 years ago, in 2011, but death didn’t stop him from continuing to sign Hassini’s letters (example from 2016).
Others are listed multiple times. Cathy Edwards & Cathy Emin who are listed as “World President”, “Treasurer” and “Director”… it is the same person; Hassini’s current wife.
Still others don’t even seem to exist – Mark Ziaian who is listed as the contact person for Finland is impossible to find. It says that there is an IMS branch in Germany, but neither website nor email works.
And in the middle of the list we find a Swede! As far as I can remember, I have never met any Frank Anders. Does he even exist? And how did a Swede end up in the middle of this kind of nonsense? Strange surname, maybe misspelled… Andersson?
The phone number didn’t work, and the search combinations of name and address returned absolutely nothing. But then by chance I saw the name “Anders Frank” as a friend of a friend on Facebook… Could it be him?
I got in touch and yes, it was the right person. I thought I recognized the voice and it turned out that we had actually met a couple of times, in passing, at various conventions. At the beginning of the conversation, Anders was friendly, collected, correct and “official”… but after a while it began to seep through that he was not particularly satisfied with the role he had been given, and that he did not quite understand why his name was still on the list. Since he first was listed as a contact person 27 years ago, he has moved and changed both address and phone number several times, and each time he had sent a change of address to Hassini, plus asked him to change the misspelled name – without it ever being updated.
Finally, Anders asked to have his name and outdated information removed from Hassini’s website – but that too has been ignored.
I asked Anders how he ended up in this role to begin with. It turned out that Anders worked with youths in the mid-90s. When he saw Hassini’s large ads in the trade press, he thought it might be a fun leisure activity for the youngsters to learn a little about magic, so he answered the ad with the aim of buying 2-3 suitable beginner videos. Hassini had quickly responded with an “offer” to invest in the business. He said that Anders himself should buy a number of “Master tapes” that he could copy and sell himself, with a small royalty to Hassini per copy sold.
Hassini proved to have answers to every objection. When Anders said that Sweden was too small a market for it to be profitable for him, Hassini replied that Anders could also be general agent with exclusive rights for all of Scandinavia; Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The persuasion continued, and finally Anders paid a fortune for a few “master tapes”. A slight whiff of a pyramid scheme here.
While Anders was still trying to find suitable machines to duplicate the master tapes on, he discovered that Hassini had made an identical deal with a person in Finland, completely contrary to the agreement they had made. Then he discovered that Hassini had continued to sell videos directly to Scandinavian magic hobbyists, even though the deal was that these would be referred to Anders. Within soon, it became clear to Anders that it would be impossible for him to recover the invested money by selling videos. Paying for professional video duplication would just add to the losses, so the master tapes ended up in a box in the basement, untouched and unused. It later emerged that by the time Hassini sold the master tapes, he himself had already began the transition to DVD, well aware that VHS was a dying format.
In short, Anders felt taken advantage of and cheated. That he felt painted into a corner by being listed as the official representative of a business he himself did not believe in.
During the conversation with Anders, a couple of other missing pieces of the puzzle emerged regarding how the sculpture by Hassini’s first wife came to be such an iconic symbol of deceit.
The Merlin Award – the Swedish catalyst
Producing new videos for a video club is a pretty specific job that has nothing in common with the job of traveling the world handing out fake awards, so one wonders how that transition happened.
If you look at the back cover of Hassini’s “Beginner’s Magic” video (ref.), you will see that all the pieces of the puzzle were already in place in 1990. The bullshitting is in full bloom – These days it is quite easy to look up who has been a guest on various TV shows, and Hassini, of course, has never been a guest on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin or the Ed Sullivan Show. Obviously, he hasn’t performed at the London Palladium or Radio City Music Hall either. In the photo, he happily poses with the statuette that his first wife carved for him. The statuette has yet to be named, so when he nominates himself as the Best Magician of the Year, he simply calls it “The Best Magician of the Year Award”. And it is here, on the back of the video cover, that the “International Magician’s Society” is mentioned for the very first time ever – which then still is a figment of the imagination, as it will take yet another four years before he decide to use it as the name of his video club.
The thing is, at this point, he’s still using his wife’s statuette to boost himself up. How did it change into boosting others? To get an answer to that, we need to take a closer look at how the world looked at that time.
In the mid-90s, the Internet was still a fairly new thing, and it was a bit of the “wild west”. Neither Google nor PageRank existed until 1998, so there was only one metric that search engines of the time followed; backlinks. And less discerning people didn’t hesitate to manipulate the search engines through various dirty tricks.
A popular “Black Hat SEO” trick at the time was to hand out various “Web Awards”. The procedure was to create a small image designed to look impressive and “official”. Then they contacted a couple of hundred randomly selected websites and said “We have had a vote about the best sites on the web, and your site has won the award for ‘Excellence in Design’. Please place the attached price picture on your site and link it to our site!”. Those contacted were of course delighted and flattered, and followed the instructions with pride. The result was that you quickly got hundreds of backlinks, and ended up at the top of the search engines of the time – without having to do anything other than make a single spam email and rely on the vanity of others.
It’s quite easy to imagine how Hassini, in the mid-90s, hears about the dirty trick of bringing attention to yourself by giving out awards to others, and sees the statuette his wife carved, and then puts one and one together. As a former prop maker, it is no problem for him to make a new mold to duplicate the figurine and then spray paint it with gold paint. In 1996 he does a few careful tests, he gives his “prize” to Harry Blackstone Jr. and Tony Clark. They react as naively as the recipients of the various “web awards” did – they are surprised, happy and gladly tell the outside world about the “award” they received… and the result is that there is a small boost in Hassini’s video sales.
Hassini gets a taste for it, and casts more copies of his first wife’s sculpture. The fumes from the gold spray lie thick in his basement. He also contacts those around the world whom he tricked into buying “master tapes”, and advises them that they can also generate attention for videos by giving out “prizes”, and that he can provide them with gold-painted statuettes that they can distribute.
Here in Sweden, Anders Frank was still pondering how he would ever be able to get a return on the video tapes he was persuaded to buy, so he took up the offer. If he could get a notice in the press where his video club for beginners gave a “prize” to a famous magician, that would probably help to sell a few videos. So he suggests the Swedish illusionist Joe Labero as a suitable recipient.
Joe Labero and his team were just then preparing, for the fall of 1998, a premiere of a big illusion show at the Rondo stage in Gothenburg. Labero and his team were sharp enough to understand what it was all about. They immediately realized the intrinsic PR value of being given a gold-painted statuette in connection with the premiere… on the other hand, they some doubts regarding the presenter – receiving a “prize” from an unknown amateur magician from some backwaters area of Sweden was difficult to portray as exclusive and prestigious. It would undeniably be more exotic and exciting if instead an American person came to present the award. All said and done – they contacted Hassini, flew him over and on the opening night he rolled up to the entrance, in a limousine, right in front of the entertainment press, which completely sold the illusion that Hassini was some VIP from the USA.
The whole thing with flights, luxury hotels, limousines, VIP treatment, etc. really fueled Hassini’s appetite for attention. In many ways, this visit to Sweden was the main catalyst that caused Hassini to, from this point on, focus more on handing out fake awards and less on selling videos.
Anders Frank himself felt ignored by both Hassini and Labero. None of them said a word about the video club that was the real reason for the whole thing, so when he saw a couple of old friends in the audience, he joined them instead.
Since 1998, Joe Labero has paid for at least three more statuettes, all accompanied by fanciful stories. You could almost say that he have turned mythomania into a business idea. During one period he made up a story that he would be acting in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”, which our Swedish entertainment journalists uncritically wrote articles about, without doing any fact-checking at all.
Fake awards – harmless or harmful?
There are a variety of opinions about the propagation of fake awards. Many colleagues look down on the phenomenon, but almost as many find it a highly practical and legitimate marketing method. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, I’d probably be pretty neutral myself – but the problem is that it actually does hurt people.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the FISM – the World Championships of Magic. It has been quite unusual to have Swedes on the podium. Johnny Lonn came in 3rd place in 1967. Topper Martyn won his class in 1970, and came 2nd in 1973 and 1982. Lennart Green won gold in 1991 and after Lennart’s win it would be a full eighteen years without a single Swede on the podium…
So it was a gigantic achievement when as many as four Swedes ended up in the prize place at FISM 2009 in Beijing, China:
Brynolf & Ljung won Silver in Comedy Magic.
Charlie Caper took Silver in Parlor Magic.
And Johan Ståhl took Bronze in Micro Magic.
…Imagine their surprise when they came home with their well merited authentic awards, and found that it was impossible to get any media coverage for the feat, because “We’ve already written about it. Joe Labero got the biggest prize there, so Bronze and Silver are rather uninteresting”. Yep, Joe Labero nicked the limelight from their great accomplishment by paying for yet another bogus award, claiming it had been awarded to him at the FISM in China.
In reality, Labero was never even there, and neither was Hassini. The Swedes who were in China and blogged about the competitions were quite puzzled by the news from home. Peter Gröning wrote “I missed when Labero received his award this morning. Did anyone see him?” and Gay Ljungberg replied “He wasn’t here and didn’t get an award here either. Therefore, no one has seen it. Not everything in the newspapers are true.”
Quite shitty in my opinion, but Labero has done things that might be considered worse. For example, when Roy Horn in Siegfried & Roy was injured in a tiger attack, and everyone in the magic world was shocked and compassionate… Labero quickly took advantage of the tragedy, falsely claiming that he himself had been asked to take over Roy Horn’s role in the duo, which our Swedish entertainment journalists uncritically filled a center spread with.
When the lie becomes the truth
Since I myself keep track of what is happening in the world of magic, read trade journals and follow gossip on various Internet fora, I have had the impression that all magicians knew that the Merlin “award” is fake, and that the sole question is whether you have a negative, positive or neutral stance to the fraud.
All that was turned on its head when I got to see Hassini “in action” in 2014. I had been booked for a convention in Croatia. The organizer was an exceptionally nice and likeable young man who, together with his girlfriend, had managed to organize an unusually exciting and varied program with several internationally renowned artists. Like most truly good magicians, the booked performers were humble, accommodating and easy to work with – but in the midst of the group was a person I’d never met before, a person who both demanded and received VIP treatment. Tony Hassini. He talked incessantly, had tons of odd and ill-founded opinions on everything, pushed himself in between us every time a photo was taken, and was so generally annoying in every way that it became hard to keep a straight face. This was 8 years ago, when I still wasn’t quite sure who was behind the fake award. I remember emailing a well-informed friend in the US asking who this annoying person was, and got the answer: “He is the con artist who sells the ‘Merlin Awards.’ He’s a well-known bullshitter. Whatever you do, do NOT let him shoot any video of you. He makes videos, pays people nearly nothing, and sells them for decades. He’s done this with many famous people.”
It was utterly baffling to see our host and his delightful girlfriend bowing and being servile to Hassini’s every whim, until the penny dropped and I realized “Oh my God, they don’t know the Merlin award is fake! They think this is real!” It turned out that Hassini had seen information about the convention, contacted the young man and introduced himself and IMS as if it were a legitimate organization, and announced that the young man had won the vote for “Best Magic Promoter of the Year” and tricked the young couple to pay for Hassini’s flight and accommodation. The rest of us artists exchanged worried glances, wondering if anyone would say something, but no one could think of a non-confrontational way to say it, so in the end we reluctantly played along in the charade.
Everywhere we went, Hassini carried two big canvas bags with large “cut-outs” of the fake prize that he quickly mounted at every photo-friendly opportunity, to make it look like he himself was the organizer of everything like the young couple had organized (Image, 10 Mb). A shopping center had co-sponsored the convention in exchange for us doing a show for them. In the photographs from the mall, Hassini has photoshopped in his own domain name, as if it were an arrangement by IMS alone (Image, 10 Mb). It wasn’t easy to do a good show in the mall, there was no backstage area, no space to change and prepare, and the stage was right in front of a big LED screen so the performers stood as black silhouettes against the flashing screen.
I’m afraid I briefly got into a pretty bad mood over the situation, before I came to grips with it and tried to make the best of the situation. I gave my best in my performance, and inexplicably managed to make enough of an impression to get a pretty decent applause at the end… which was instantly halted by Hassini who without warning ran up on stage with a microphone, announcing that he had decided that I was the “Best Cabaret Act of the Decade”, pressed an award into my hands, and turned to the photographer who quickly took a picture, and then he accepted the applause that originally was meant for me, while I, perplexed, walked off the stage behind him wondering “What the hell just happened?”
Apparently, this is a tactic he often uses – to ambush known magicians with his ”award” to create the illusion of legitimacy, so that it will be easier to sell the “award” to others. Look at photographs of people receiving the award, and you’ll see that about half of them have a surprised expression on their face, as if they’ve been taken aback and can’t quite decide how to react.
Since 2014, I have begun to understand that if you are not very active in following what is happening in the world of magic, internationally, it is quite easy to be deceived by Hassini and his claims. During the preparation of this article, I have spoken to several artists who have received the “award”, and all have said that they are happy to talk on the condition that they are not named in this article. Several of them feel a little embarrassed about having let themselves be tricked. “When I got it, I thought it was real,” said at least three of those I spoke to.
As far as I understand, Hassini likes to travel to countries he’s never been to before, so the first 1-2 magicians he contacts in each new country are carefully convinced that it’s a real and legitimate award – after all, he has loads of photographs by himself and internationally known artists which do seems to support his claims. Once they fall for the initial scam, it’s a simple matter of gradually upping the ante until Hassini gets flights, hotels, accommodation and VIP treatment. After the first couple of awards, the tactics become more blatant. Other magicians in the relevant country then receive the offer “Did you see how much PR the magician N got? You can also get just as much attention if you also obtain a Merlin award.” In addition, there are quite a few who themselves initiate contact with Hassini to buy a “price”.
Many of those who have been tricked into thinking that Merlin is an authentic award have today completely removed the information that they received it, because they do not want to be mistaken for anyone who would buy a fake award. Many keep quiet about it, because they find it embarrassing that they let themselves be deceived. Which is a huge shame, because the silence helps the lie appear as reality.
It’s time to speak up
The Merlin Award is a cancer in the magic world. It need to be cut out. Soon, on July 25, 2022, the FISM 2022 World Championships will start in Québec, Canada. Skilled and ambitious artists from all over the world have spent years preparing, investing energy and money in creating original and personal works. An award from FISM is a world-class achievement, something that deserves respect and admiration. If someone comes along with some junk of fool’s gold and claims that they have received the “Magic World’s equivalent of the Oscars”, then it should not go unchallenged, it should be shot down immediately.
Of course collegial respect and solidarity is good, but it should not include reputation leeching from those who have been meritorious enough to receive authentic awards. Enough is enough.