Clairton native wins TV contest by being Super

Acting like himself, he wins NBC's magic-show competition

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Mike Super gained fame and a modest fortune in November when he won Phenomenon, NBC's magic-show version of American Idol.

And here was the greatest trick of all: Mr. Super, who grew up in Clairton, did it without wearing black, or sequins, or pretending to descend into near-death trances. He won just by being himself, a funny, likeable guy from Pittsburgh.

"I didn't think I was going to win, I just didn't want to be the first one voted off," he said, laughing. "And I just didn't want to be voted off not being 'me.' "

Phenomenon, which ran live for five consecutive weeks, invited 10 of the country's top illusionists, mentalists and mystifiers (try putting that on your income tax form) to compete on national television, where famed mind-over-matter mentalist Uri Geller and Criss Angel of A&E's "Criss Angel: Mindfreak" passed judgment before opening the lines for phone and internet voting.

They weren't always kind. In fact, Mr. Geller referred to Mr. Super's first-night act as somewhat of a party trick.

"My thinking and strategy on that was: while I'm trying to impress them, it's the audience who's going to vote," Mr. Super said. "It's a lot like acting. Rejection is just part of the thing."

Sticking to his convictions served him well, and he won $250,000 to boot. When producers began their search for contestants, they were impressed by his combination of complicated magic and humor. But it didn't suit the darker tone they wanted for the show.

"They said 'Mike, can you be 'darker'?" That's not my personality."

So he passed, agreeing to be an alternate if one of the original 10 had to drop out before broadcast began.

"As fate would have it, they called me on my mom's birthday," said Mr. Super, whose parents are deceased. "And I won on Nov. 21, which was my father's birthday."

Once he got on the show, Mr. Super, 32, stood out in a sea of mostly ultra-serious colleagues. The producers didn't force him to make changes that first day, but, he said, "they like to strongly suggest things.

He said he stalled until it was too late to change his clothes, and wore what he normally does in his act: blue jeans and an untucked, oxford-type shirt. Mr. Super performed an elaborate "murder mystery" number that began with random audience members providing details about a death-by-dresser incident (check this out on NBC.com, where full episodes of Phenomenon are still available) and ended with the time of the "murder" stamped on the hands of each member of the audience.

"I don't claim to have psychic powers. I'm a magician, and there is a lot of comedy in my show. After my first appearance, [the producers] loved it," Mr. Super said.

So did the voters. Although the illusions he performed were three-minute versions of the jaw-droppers Mr. Super does almost every night in his regular act, doing them on stage in front of a national audience, with no control over camera angles, made for some tense times.

"Things do go wrong, all the time," he said. "But when I'm designing illusions, I come up with three ways to accomplish the same goal. You just switch to Plan B and the audience never knows it."

He said the television part didn't make him any more nervous; a mistake in front of 500 people is just as embarrassing as a mistake before millions watching on the TV.

"I'm just very blessed that I've done as much performing as I have."

One night, Mr. Super had the misfortune to perform right after another contestant -- Pittsburgh native Jim Callahan -- got into a much-publicized argument with Mr. Angel that nearly came to blows.

"Story of my life, it's never easy for me," he said with a laugh.

"Once, I was at a very high-end corporate event for Microsoft and here I am, with this sort of fun, comedian-like personality, all jazzed and ready to go out."

"Then this guy stands up and makes an announcement: 'Just to let you all know, Mr. So-and-So has passed away.'

"Everyone's friend had just died, and I have to go out there and make jokes."

Mr. Super is passionate about his craft, changing up the act "mostly out of boredom" and spending most of his time on the road. He figures he does about 200 shows a year, with about 20 on Disney cruises. It's not a bad way to spend the winter months; he's signed up for a cruise to Cozumel in a few weeks.

Not many people get to make a living doing what they love, a fact not lost on Mr. Super. He was obsessed with magic as a kid, idolizing Harry Houdini and David Copperfield, Doug Henning and the creator of the Magic Kingdom himself, Walt Disney.

"I'm a huge Disney fanatic," he said. "When I was a kid, we went to Walt Disney World and there's this little magic shop on Main Street where I would stand and watch this nice old guy doing these little plastic magic tricks.

"My mother said 'PLEASE Michael. We'd paid of ton of money we don't have, we need to go on the rides.'

"All I wanted was to stand there. In the end, I think they bought me a couple of little tricks, and we moved on."

Disney, he said, appreciates his family-friendly act.

"I love seeing kids with their families, adults and grandparents," said Mr. Super, who referred to himself as "a big kid."

"I really think magic has a universal appeal."

His travels take him all over the country, but his only recent appearance in Pittsburgh was last summer, at the Byham Theater.

Mr. Super's current base of operations is his home in Canonsburg, although since winning Phenomenon, the range of options has broadened considerably.

"It really has been whirlwindy, like in a movie. I have, like, four TV offers, three offers for Las Vegas. I've been flying from New York to LA and back again. And all the while, trying to keep up my tour schedule. It's been insane."

Back at Clairton High School, he was Mike Supernovich.

"Everyone used to call me 'Supernova,' and I hated it," he said, noting that Super just sounded better for an aspiring magician."

His Pittsburgh roots run deep. Besides taking a backdrop of the city skyline onstage each night, Mr. Super's stage crew includes his sister, Amanda Supernovich, and Pittsburgher Jeremy Rolla, his lighting expert. Ty Seich is also an assistant, although the highly interactive show doesn't have on-stage help. If there's someone to be levitated, it will be a member of the audience.

There's another trick to being a success in the world of magic, he said, and thriving on this challenge is what keeps him happy, even when he's doing 30 shows in 30 days.

"If you're in music, everybody wants to hear the stuff you've always done. But if you're a magician, they want to see something new.

"I use [magic] as a medium to connect with people. It's like if you're a writer. You all use the same alphabet and you're not creating new words.

"But how it all comes together that matters."


Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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