I interviewed Irish mentalist Keith Barry for Time Out last week. I notice he always gets referred to as “Irish mentalist Keith Barry”, which feels a bit like saying “black singer Donna Summer”, but Keith’s main point of difference as a mentalist/magician/illusionist/brainhacker is that he’s not some skulking creep trying to psyche you out in too much eyeliner… and journalists using the label “Irish” is shorthand for letting you know you’re in for a no-bullshit approach. Yep, Keith’s the no-bullshit bullshit artist.
In this interview he takes pops at personal development gurus, psychics and the pseudoscientific claims of cosmetic companies. And yep, he read my mind at the end and guessed which number I’d thrown on a dice, which irritatingly meant I lost his $10,000 bet. He’d happily refer you to The Full Facts of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland though, to let you know exactly how he did that.
Keith, you’ve been embraced by the Hollywood celebrity circuit and frequently mind-melt the stars. Are actors particularly easy to read?
Yeah, absolutely. Athletes are the other ones, because athletes are very good at visualisation techniques. I just like to turn the tables on them and take away their control mechanisms for a moment, because they’re such control freaks at that level. They’re surrounded by so many people, and they have their managers and their agents always around them, yet for one moment in time they go back to that childlike sense of wonder again. When they’re with me, it’s not about them, it’s about: “How the fuck are you doing this stuff?”
You did a talk for TED.com a few years back, and the analogy used to describe you was that you’re a computer programmer who can hack into the brain. Was that your own description?
I can’t remember if I came up with that analogy, but it is true. I see the brain exactly like a computer. You’ve got a hard drive, you’ve got software that goes in there, sometimes you’ve got viruses that go in – and I can send viruses into people’s brains. Just as some computers with their security systems can be very difficult to hack into, some brains are really difficult to hack into. There are obviously hundreds of thousands of pieces of information in a computer, but it’s the same in our brains – there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of information we’re not even aware, because they’re stored subconsciously rather than consciously. I also compare brains to safes. In other words, some safes, believe it or not, only have two-digit combination, so hacking is very easy. Other safes have like a ten-digit combination, and they’re nearly impossible to hack into.
You don’t have the creepy illusionist thing going on, though.
Those people are creepy, but it’s also boring. There are a lot of guys very well known in the mentalism community, that personally when I see their shows I fall asleep, because it’s all that Svengali, scary, “I’m gonna hypnotise you” thing going on, and it’s almost like being a bully. For me, it’s all about the entertainment factor. The live show is raw, uncensored, and designed to make people laugh until their faces hurt, and then hopefully be fooled as well. I couldn’t care less really, whether people can figure things out or not. I want them just to have a good night out, over the period of two hours. I wanna be the ordinary guy that can do some pretty weird shit that you’re slightly nervous of, but you wanna have a pint with at the same time. I don’t want to be creepy.
What do you make of mentalist-cum-pickup artists like Mystery – the subject of Neil Strauss’s book, The Game?
I’ve examined The Game and the whole pickup artist area and I just think they’re a bunch of sad bastards. They’re hiding the fact that they’ve no personalities beneath it all. I know pickup artists in Ireland that get together once a month in a bar, and the whole thing is to pick up as many phone numbers as they can. It’s a learned art.
And thanks to The Game, women recognise all the neurolinguistic programming techniques now.
But as well as that, if a woman – for whatever reason – actually enjoys the company of a pickup artist and then starts dating him, after a couple of months she’ll find out it was all an act and the whole thing will crumble. Mystery was teaching bunch of nerdy guys how to be a pickup artist, so in my mind that’s what he himself is, a nerdy guy. I saw him doing some really bad magic one time, trying to teach guys to do magic tricks to pick up chicks. I was like, jeez, really? They’re preying on women and their vulnerabilities, so yeah, it’s not for me. I’m happily married anyway, to the same girl for 18 years.
I did wonder how any girl would be able to trust you…
We’ve been together since our teens and she started studying psychology. That’s when I became interested in mixing psychology and magic, because I was only a magician then. We both went to college together and I was studying chemistry of all things, but I started reading her psychology books and learning hypnosis. To an extent she can hack into people’s brains and hypnotise them herself.
You could be master criminals!
Yeah, I’m telling you! At dinner parties we sit there and say, will we fucking rob a bank? Just imagine, no one would ever suspect me, let alone my wife, or this guy over here, a quality insurance guy for cosmetic firms… who’s going to suspect any of us? And we’d be really good at it! I always wonder about that.
You’ve appeared in CSI Miami. That can’t have been something you anticipated, starting out in Ireland as a magician. What ambitions do you have left?
I’ve fulfilled all the ambitions I had, so I’ve set new ones now. I said last year that I’d really like to work in movies and then all of a sudden I got hired for a massive movie project. It’s coming out in January next year and it’s called Now You See Me. It’s a magic/mentalist/hypnotism/heist movie, starring Woody Harrelson. I was involved in the rewrite of the screenplay and then they hired me as the chief mentalism consultant. I was teaching Woody how to be a mentalist and then they gave me my own role, which I’m assured isn’t on the cutting-room floor. I know Irish people are going to completely take the piss out of me because I play a French tourist and I’ve never spoken a word of French in my life.
If I got serious about it, I’d go to the Gaiety School of Acting, where Colin Farrell and Stuart Townshend went, really because I’m interested in the power of the mind. I give motivational speeches back home in Ireland and help people get over their phobias. I do it to promote gigs, if I’m honest. I want to start doing seminars on reprogramming the subconscious mind, giving people the tools to do it themselves. And everything I do is about permanent solutions – you don’t have to keep coming back and paying me!
Reading any good books at the moment?
I’m reading one called Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant by Erik Jan Hanussen, who came up with the idea of using the swastika and taught Hitler all these brainwashing techniques. I talk about psychics quite a bit in the live show and why I don’t believe in what they do. Stalin had a psychic advisor too – Wolf Messing. So if you think psychics don’t do any harm, you should investigate those guys, you know?
A friend of mine, her and all her friends gather and go and see a psychic, who gives them career advice, health advice, love advice – and they all take it. It’s crazy stuff. They’re living their life by what someone else says. I said to her, “Just do me a favour – read this book. It’s called The Full Facts of Cold Reading, by Ian Rowland. I gave her the book, and she had it for a year but never opened a page of it, because people just want to believe. I think it’s quite damaging. If you want to go to a psychic act for fun then that’s OK, but if you’re living your life by what the psychic says then there’s a lot going on that’s wrong there, you know?
I go to them all the time, because I’m ready to be converted. But with the knowledge that I have you better be damn fucking good. I went to one in LA and I gave off the subliminal body cues that confirmed she was getting things right – because that’s what they do, they’re reading your body language, your pupil dilation, even. If I was a normal person I might have convinced myself she was very accurate. If you don’t investigate this stuff and you don’t know how it works, then it appears that they’re really reading minds or contacting the dead.
Professor Richard Wiseman writes some great books on the subject of mind tricks, mediums and clairvoyants.
Yeah, I’ve read Quirkology, and another one, and I follow him on Twitter.
Did you ever have a boring day job?
I am a cosmetic scientist by trade. I used to invent women’s makeup. I went to college for four years and then I worked for a Swedish cosmetics company for two-and-a-half years. Actually it was a real con, cause I was the guy standing over a three-ton batch of cream with a pipette, and dropping four drops of aloe vera in, so that marketing could get the claim “aloe vera”. It’s like your blog again. It’s fascinating when you see the marking labels and I’m sending four drops into a three-ton batch. I became bored, so I was like, OK, I’m gonna take the risk. I’m gonna become a full-time entertainer and that’s it. No one could talk me out of it.
Are you a believer of the law of attraction, or are you are ‘working hard gets you places’ kind of person?
I don’t believe in the ethereal, weird version of it, but I do believe that if you want something you have to think about it obsessively. It’s like the movie I’m involved in. I attracted that, but I didn’t just think about it, I went out and made it happen. Rather than believe in the law of attraction to the extent that the books [like Rhonda Byrne’s best-seller The Secret] say, you need to give yourself a realistic timescale and work towards something.
Would you write a book yourself?
I’ve got a book deal at home in Ireland. A publisher’s taken me on board, so the book will be about three probes in the subconscious mind and teach people how to do it. I see a lot of people being ripped off around the world at motivational seminars – it’s big money at the moment. You could be paying $10-$15,000 for a two-day seminar, where you have to fly to Hawaii and that kind of stuff, and I just think they’re taking it too far now. People just get greedy too fast, and a lot of the public end up very disappointed.
Oprah keeps endorsing them, that’s why.
Well that’s it, you know. I mean, I know Tony Robbins, he does get results, but if you pay a lot of money to go to his seminar, you don’t get him for two days – he’ll do a few hours. I do admire people like him, I just think it ends up too costly for people. [Robbins’ six-day ‘Date With Destiny’ course in Australia this August costs a minimum of $4995].