It is not often one enjoys the pleasure of spending an hour with an international superstar snuggling into one’s lap, sleeping off jetlag. But by the time I have finished my chat with Piff The Magic Dragon, his chihuahua sidekick superstar, Mr Piffles and I have become positively intimate.
With the help of Mr Piffles, Piff reached the finals of America’s Got Talent. Across the Atlantic, his celebrity status is assured. “It’s crazy,” he says. “In America nowadays I walk out to a two-minute standing ovation …They’re not gonna do that in Edinburgh!” This will be his seventh Edinburgh show and they just might, I suggest.
Piff was born when a creatively unsatisfied close-up magician called John van der Put went to a fancy dress party in a dragon outfit found under his sister’s bed. “I hated magic growing up … I hated Paul Daniels, and I didn’t understand Copperfield. But when I was 15 I found a book about card magic and then I saw Jerry Sadowitz and I was like … ‘What’s that? That is what I want to do. I want to be grumpy and do card magic.’”
So he practised close-up magic and hung out with other magicians. “They told me to get a residency in a restaurant, get corporate bookings and earn a living. I did. I spent ten years schlepping around shitty close-up magic, doing weddings, barmitzvahs and corporate gigs – and hating my life.” The dinner gigs were worst of all. “I was thinking ‘This isn’t f***ing showbusiness – I’m in catering. I am interrupting people for a living’.” Just in time, “I stumbled on Piff and I realised all the self-loathing and grumpiness could be channelled through a magic dragon. Perfect!”
Stumbling on Piff happened when he went to what he had been told was a fancy dress party only to discover that he was the only one in fancy dress. “Everyone was coming to me asking what I was dressed as and I was saying ‘I’m a Rain Dragon’. Somebody said, ‘You should do this in your act – you could be Puff the Magic Dragon.’ I just thought, ‘I’m Piff the Magic Dragon, you might have heard of my older brother Steve … That’s funny. I should do it.’ It was unquestionably a brilliant idea … and unquestionable that I have no credit at all for it.”
At the time he was doing close-up magic in a smart suit at a restaurant called Circus in London and loathing it. “I just thought, ‘I’m done with this’ and I told the manager I wasn’t coming in the next day. She was really upset but I said I just couldn’t face it any more. I was just starting to try out Piff at a few gigs and she said, ‘Why not do the restaurant gig as Piff?’
“So I tried it. And killed it. And suddenly this job that I hated became my favourite thing in the world. They sacked all the other magicians and turned the thing into Brunchtime at Piffany’s and I got to do crazy bullshit for three or four months. And then I realised that the least interesting thing about the character is the magic – although people do love it.”
Indeed they do. Ten million Americans loved it all the way to the final of last year’s America’s Got Talent. “The whole point for me was to get to the end and lose,” says Piff. As the weeks went on and the votes poured in he thought about simply walking off the show.
“The producers said, ‘If you walk off the show America will hate you.’ They were so right. When I was in it I thought, ‘No-one takes this stuff seriously.’ But when I came out, it was crazy. People were so angry we lost. People were screaming at me, ‘You should have won that show’ and I was like ‘Dude, it’s a TV show. I got millions of dollars of advertising. I’ve got the greatest showreel of all time. I’ve already won’.”
He pulls out his phone to show me a photo of the new building- sized billboard that is going up for his Vegas show. “Piff the Magic Dragon,” it reads. “Loser of America’s Got Talent.”
“There’s nothing funny about winning,” he says. “Who gives a shit about a dragon who won a million dollars? I care about a dragon whose only dream was to win a million dollars, and he got so close but then he shot a dog out of a cannon and ruined his whole chance.”
Yes. The Americans were deeply unimpressed with his apparently cavalier attitude towards Mr Piffles. “We had four boxes onstage and we were dropping them and throwing them around, and finally they were all destroyed except one and I would open it up and take Piffles out of it.”
On the live show, supermodel Heidi Klum was one of the judges. “She was outraged that we did this and had a massive go at me and afterwards said, ‘How can you put that poor little dog in a box?’ I was like, ‘Heidi, it’s a magic trick … the dog was never in the box. It’s magic!” And after that we thought, ‘Let’s get to the final and shoot the dog out the cannon and everyone will hate it.”
So now he is headlining at the iconic Flamingo in Vegas but returning to Edinburgh just because he loves it. He even loves flyering in the rain and speaks fondly of his years in The Caves (a natural habitat for dragons, he points out) which resulted in four months with cave lung. He is, he says, living his dream.
“My dream was to get onstage in a show – even if it is not my show – and to do that every night and earn a living” he says. In his first year at the Fringe (in a stage musical called Mikey the Pikey) he saw the original [cabaret act] L a Clique. “ A few years later I did Piff with the same people, who were then La Soiree, on the South Bank at the Underbelly’s Wonderground. And I thought,’Now I feel like I have done it’ And I’ve been doing it for fun ever since.”
l The Piff the Magic Dragon Show, Assembly George Square Theatre, until 13 August. Click here for more reviews from the Edinburgh Festival