Saturday 17 November 2018

Gleeson's great escape

Deception artist Rua says staying in shape is a big part of his performance, writes Andrea Smith

Illusionist Paul Gleeson, aka Rua
Illusionist Paul Gleeson, aka Rua
Rua attempting to escape from a straight jacket while balancing on a catapult on top of a five-storey building on O'Connell Street
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

He may spend his days wriggling out of deadly situations that require a mind-blowing amount of stamina and fitness, but Paul Gleeson, aka Rua, says that he actually had more serious injuries before he became an escapologist and magician.

"My appendix burst, I've had the top of my finger cut off, my teeth have been knocked out and I've been on fire," he laughs. "Never a dull moment anyway, which is just the way I like it!"

While he is just about to burst on to our screens with his 10-part TG4 series Draíocht, which sees him performing mind-blowing predictions, dazzling the public with street magic, and escaping from highly risky situations, Rua started his career as a teenage fire-eater. This ended for the Monkstown lad when an accident put him in hospital with second and third-degree burns to his chest and hands for two weeks, and a friend gave him a book about card tricks. He studied sleight of hand day and night and, after a year or two, began getting gigs at charity events.

"I don't like to go on about it because I'm absolutely fine now, but I've still got bad scarring across my chest," he says. "My scar was right in the middle of my pectoral muscles, above my sternum, and as it healed, the doctors believe that it slowly pulled my shoulder muscles forward, and I've had massive problems with them ever since.

"I had surgery to cut out a piece of my bicep and my rotator cuff two months before we were due to start filming. But James Cummins at Elite Training and Nutrition had me back to normal in just over two weeks by changing the way I trained and lifted weights around the injury. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have been in such good shape for the show."

Rua studied communications, and his masters degree focused on film and TV. He honed his magic skills while at college and worked in PR for a time, but his heart was in performing, so he sent clips of his work into production companies. Many were interested, but he joined forces with Midas Productions, who made Keith Barry's first TV series.

Keith had been extraordinarily generous to him with his time in the past, he says.

To get in shape as the youngest professional escapologist in the world, Rua (26) works with Elite trainer David O'Hara. During the show, he trained twice a day, doing weight training and anti-catabolic training, including everything from flipping tractor tyres to prowler suicides.

"This blasts through body fat and helps me to keep lean," he says. "With weight training, we'd change it up every four weeks. We did German volume training, which involves selecting a muscle group, say legs, and choosing one big compound exercise like a squat -- you do 10 reps, rest for 60 seconds then another 10 reps, and so on for 10 sets. I've no interest in being the biggest guy in the gym, as I just like staying strong, fit and healthy, with plenty of flexibility for the escape stunts that I do."

When it comes to his diet, Rua likes to keep things simple, and takes in 3,000 or so good calories every day. He cuts out gluten, dairy, alcohol and sugar completely while training for something TV or stunt-related, and finds supplements hugely important. He was lucky that USN sponsored him, and he has a good protein shake after a workout, BCAAs during it, as well as a good multivitamin, zinc and plenty of glutamine.

"I lived like a monk for the last few months, maintaining around a 10pc body fat mark," he says. "Tons of lean meats -- chicken, turkey, fish -- and I'm a big proponent of the red meat and nuts breakfast, which works wonders for me. Carbs come from sweet potato, and I've been dabbling with basmati rice. The rest of the time, I might let myself have a cheat meal on the weekend and a beer or three with my friends -- you can't deprive yourself because health is happiness as well as being in shape."

The past year has been a whirlwind for Rua, from doing stage shows at Body and Soul and Electric Picnic, appearing at the Dublin Fringe Festival and gigging across the country. His new TV series will bring him to an even wider audience.

"I'm really excited for everybody to see the show," he says. "I guess if you took David Blaine, Derren Brown and Harry Houdini and put them in the blender, you'd get me. We filmed street magic in Dublin and Galway, which was fun to do through Irish, and I play a lot of mind games with some of our guests.

"Each episode has a couple of big escape stunts and a mentalism demonstration. I also wanted to take an older lady who had difficulties with her memory and show her some simple stuff that could help. When I first met her, she could only remember four words on a list, but after three minutes with me, she could memorise 50 things and instantly recall them days later."

Rua is currently studying apnea, which is underwater breath-holding, and is determined to master it so he can try a stunt he has planned. He nearly filmed it, but had a blackout during training the day before, which freaked him out.

"I'm trying to get back in the zone and forget the incident, but every time my head goes under the water, this voice tells me that I'm going to screw up again," he admits. "Not a good thing when you're trying to essentially meditate underwater.

"I met Feargus Callagy from FreeDive Ireland for a training session, and he said that I won't get better at it because my mind is too occupied and I can't focus on just relaxing. So that's where I'm trying to improve in training."

'Draíocht' begins on Sunday, January 12, on TG4 at 7.30pm. Visit

Irish Independent

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