Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos, aka Criss Angel, the biggest name in Las Vegas magic, lives in the desert foothills 20 minutes from the Strip in a $22 million, 25,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style estate he calls Serenity. The 48-year-old illusionist, instantly recognizable to fans for his black eyeliner, spiky black hair, and heavy-metal jewelry, parks his Rolls-Royce Phantom, Lamborghini Murciélago, and Cadillac Escalade out front. The décor inside suggests a Gothic-accented Greek Orthodox church. The walls are adorned with stylized crosses and portraits of the crucified Jesus, one of which features drops of Angel’s own blood on the floor below.
Angel can afford Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis and Jesuses becauseBelieve, the spectacular he put on at the Luxor Las Vegas in partnership with Cirque du Soleil, together with his other ventures, has been generating about $70 million a year for him, say people familiar with Angel’s finances. That sum comprises millions of dollars from television, including foreign rights; road show versions of his act; magic kits and other merchandise; and sponsorships. More than a mere magician, Angel is a miniconglomerate with a remarkably diversified—and vital—brand.
As the Strip faced increased competition from legalized gambling elsewhere in the country and, later, fallout from the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, casinos bridged the revenue gap with nightclubs, Blue Man Group, Celine Dion—and Angel. As much as anyone, he embodies the kind of entertainment that’s kept Sin City glowing. Last year, Vegas welcomed 42 million visitors, up 2 percent from 2014, but casino revenue on the Strip fell 2.5 percent, to $5.8 billion, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board. These figures confirm a long-standing trend: Twenty years ago gambling accounted for 60 percent of Vegas tourism revenue, says William Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. In 2015 the figure was 35 percent. “Entertainment has been our lifeline,” Thompson says, “and magic—Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Criss Angel—is a big part of that.”
It’s a lifeline Luxor’s tapping into again. On May 11, Angel begins previews of a show called Mindfreak Live! He says that after seven years, Believe is “a dinosaur” compared with this one. Live! will feature illusions, sure, but also musicians and DJs, 3D special effects, and more autobiographical material. Angel promises a summer blockbuster (tickets run to $142), and Luxor, of course, hopes he’s right. But the launch of any show is a tightrope walk. In 2008, Believe sold mountains of advance tickets based mostly on Angel’s popularity on the A&E network, but the show turned out to be a muddle of exotic costumes and hand-waving that many reviewers panned initially. It needed a lot of work to become a hit. “There’s always some risk” in revamping a Vegas show, says Jerry Nadal, senior vice president of Cirque, which remains a partner on Live! “But if anyone can pull it off, it’s Criss.”
There’s no questioning Angel’s desire to succeed. In 1998, as a 30-year-old, he performed a 12-minute routine from morning to night, 50 times a day, at a Halloween convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden. In 2001 his mother, Dimitra, took out a $360,000 mortgage on her house to help him mount an off-Broadway show, the originalMindfreak. After a 14-month, 600-performance run, Angel says he repaid the mortgage and banked more than $1 million.
Angel at Serenity, his estate off the Strip
In 2003 he moved to Vegas to focus on TV. After landing specials on several networks, he introduced a series on A&E in 2005, also calledMindfreak. It incorporated solemn, psychedelic scenes of Angel wandering in the Nevada desert like a peyote shaman with six-pack abs. Many of the actual tricks, though, took place on Vegas sidewalks, where the star appeared to levitate and vanish. The show took off.
“Criss came in with ideas [to which] we’d say, ‘No f—ing way you can do that on TV,’ and then he’d do it,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, a senior A&E executive. She points to a trick called “In Two”: Angel appeared to pull a young woman apart at the waist on a park bench, as observers screamed in dismay. “It was so visceral, amazing, no box or cloak,” she says. Other times he seemed to walk on water—a YouTube version of this has gotten 52 million views—and made an elephant seem to disappear.
But Angel’s ascent stalled with Believe. “I got my ass handed to me,” he says of the bad reviews. At the end of one performance in 2009, he hurled obscenities at blogger Perez Hilton, who was in attendance. Word had reached Angel backstage that Hilton was telling his followers that he’d “rather be getting a root canal”—not a unique reaction.Believe received an overhaul. “We changed the balance to make it much more about Criss and his illusions and less about Cirque characters,” Nadal says. Reviews turned positive in 2010 and remained that way through this year. (The show wrapped in mid-April.)
In 2013, Angel returned to TV for a series of hourlong shows on Spike guest-starring the likes of rapper-actors Ludacris and Ice T, professional wrestler Randy Couture, and former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. More than 100 episodes of Angel’s programming have been licensed for airing overseas. Beyond Las Vegas, he produces and directsThe Supernaturalists, a traveling revue he opened last summer that showcases nine lesser-known performers. This Halloween he’ll be back on A&E with an hourlong special. In the U.S., “the TV shows drive people to the Las Vegas shows and sell the merchandise,” he says.
Angel manages the TV ventures, stage shows, and merchandising—Angel Inc., or as it’s officially known, Angel Productions Worldwide—on three to four hours of sleep a night. He gets help from his brother, Costa; Dimitra, 81, a Greek immigrant, lives with him part-time. He credits his business acumen to his late father, John, who operated coffee shops on Long Island, N.Y., where Angel grew up. For example, rather than license his signature magic kits to a toy company, he outsources manufacturing to China and sells them, along with T-shirts and DVDs, from his own warehouse. Since 2005 he’s sold more than $35 million in magic kits alone. He oversees details as minor as the price of fixing a straitjacket used onstage, hitting the roof when he learns it will cost $250, twice the price of a new one.
The performer speaks lovingly and often about his 2-year-old son, Johnny Crisstopher, who has leukemia, now in remission. The boy lives in Australia with his mother, Shaunyl Benson, from whom Angel is estranged. Despite an earnest family devotion, Angel often generates TMZ-worthy gossip in his personal life. Over the years he’s dated actresses Cameron Diaz and Minnie Driver and pop singer Britney Spears, as well as ex-Playboy bunny and reality-TV star Holly Madison.
Angel’s ventures don’t necessarily win him fans among rivals and aficionados. Penn Jillette, the tall, talkative member of the Penn & Teller duo, once told a radio interviewer: “Criss Angel does tricks on TV, which means he’s not in the category of David Copperfield. He’s in the category of Samantha Stephens on Bewitched.” Mike Caveney, a magic historian in Southern California who co-authored the bookMagic: 1400s-1950s, says, “Criss Angel has done more to harm and damage magic than any other person I can think of. The stuff he does on television and the Internet—walk up the side of a building, walk across the swimming pool—is just silly, and it generates cynicism about the art.”
One recent morning, Angel leads a tour of the 60,000-square-foot factory where his team of engineers and welders are building the multimillion-dollar infrastructure for Mindfreak Live! Although it continues his franchise, “it’s a brand-new approach to everything I do,” he says, showing off a massive buzz-saw contraption. Some might argue that the classic sawing in two of a comely assistant is a tired stunt, but Angel says his version will be more realistic-looking and shocking. The show is scheduled to run for the final three years of his 10-year contract with MGM Resorts International, the Luxor’s owner, and Cirque. This summer he’s scheduled to do a dozen performances in Dubai, under a contract that he says covers all his expenses and pays him $2 million. “There will always be critics,” he says, “but I’m proving that my performances appeal to the widest possible audiences, not just in Vegas but around the country and the world. I want to own the magic space.”