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When HQ met... Keith Barry

Keith barry is not a psychic. In fact, he is at pains to point out that he's a total fake.

Known on both this side of the Atlantic and across the United States as a man who reads celebrity minds and gets up to all sorts of magical mentalism with adoring audiences, he's found that fans on either side of the pond are different kettles of fish, in slightly disturbing ways. "The psychic movement is huge over in the States and people there are very willing to believe that I have paranormal powers, even though I explain at the outset that everything I do is based on science, deception and subliminal suggestion," he says. "In Ireland it's different. Irish people are quite sceptical when they come into the show, in a healthy way. They want to get value from what they've paid their hard-earned bucks to see, and it takes a while to bowl them over. I quite like the challenge: walking out on the stage and having to prove myself. In Ireland people come up to me and ask how I did what I did. In America they just take the mystery for granted."

Barry became interested in fooling people -- "fooling them badly," he puts it -- on receiving a Paul Daniels Magic Set from Santa when he was five years of age, but didn't take it seriously as a career option 'til he was a teenager and found a book called Magic for the Complete Klutz. Within a year he was giving his first public performance at Jury's hotel in Waterford for 300 awestruck children. "I was so nervous, my hands were shaking throughout the show, which is not good for a magician considering he has to hold so many props," he laughs.

After such awkward beginnings he went on to study chemistry at college and came out with an honours degree. His girlfriend at the time, now his wife, was studying psychology in Galway, and it was through poring over her text books that Barry learned to marry his interest in magic with his scientific studies.

"I'd stay up late into the night reading her books, trying to figure out how psychology and magic would work together," he says. "Then I researched and found out that this wasn't a new thing. Way back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, magicians, hypnotists and mentalists had been mixing all the traditions together. I found everything I could about what they did and used my own knowledge from my girlfriend's books to teach myself how to be a mentalist."

He couldn't have picked a better time to do it. Endless round-ups of the decade just gone by have failed to remember that the Noughties was the era of the mental illusionist. Barry surfaced on television in 2003, the path towards stardom already worn for him by the likes of David Blaine, who began coming to global prominence with his Houdini-like stunts in 1999, and Derren Brown who hit the ground running with the Channel 4 show Mind Control in 2000.

"Magic and illusion goes through peaks and troughs, just like any other form of entertainment," says Barry. "It just depends on where the public's heads are at any moment in time. I think that in the Noughties people became very intrigued by the power of the human mind, with hugely successful books like The Secret and the widespread use of neuro-linguistic programming in the corporate world. The type of mentalist magic that myself or David Blaine or Derren Brown do tapped into that fascination."

Barry's unique selling point was that he worked with celebrities, a format the American audiences lapped up as he played his tricks on the likes of Colin Farrell, Samuel L Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Harrison Ford and numerous others. His return to Irish screens after years of MTV and CBS specials, however, marks a new departure.

"I was looking to do some stuff back at home," he says. "So when Endemol, the producers of Deal or No Deal, called my agent and asked if I was interested in presenting the game show on TV3, I was more than happy to go for it.

"I love the way the show helps people who wouldn't have the opportunity to get their hands on lottery money like that in the everyday course of their lives. The most we've given out so far is €89,000, but in the show that goes out on January 8th, a contestant goes all the way from opening a box with €5,000 in it to having a box in front of them with the jackpot, €250,000. I can't tell you how it turns out, but I can tell you that we get emails and letters saying that we have literally changed lives. It's great to be part of that."

Sadly, Barry's own life has been touched by tragedy in recent times. Last September his grandfather, Paddy Barry, was beaten in a robbery at his Waterford family home. He never regained consciousness after the attack and died a week later. Barry strongly condemned the justice system in a series of understandably emotive interviews. Today, he refuses to be drawn on the subject and will only speak about his work, drawing a line between his professional and personal life, except to express his family's disappointment that the perpetrators are still at large.

With more Deal or No Deal shows to film at the end of January, Barry is currently packing in a countrywide tour with his new show, Asylum, which employs restraint techniques used in Victorian madhouses to bamboozle audiences.

"What went on in those places was often horrendous and I know the show sounds very dark, but really it's a good laugh, a really fun night out that doesn't offend anybody. Having said that, it's not your regular mentalist show, not by a long stretch.

"Primarily, all my shows are about entertaining people. I like them to laugh first and then be amazed rather than be amazed and have a bit of a giggle afterwards. I want people to completely forget about their day-to-day lives and be pitched into a magical world where anything can happen. As long as they know that I'm pulling the strings." HQ

Keith Barry's Asylum is at the Olympia 'til Sunday. For countrywide dates, visit www.keithbarry.com