- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

TOKYO — Tenko Hikita, Japan’s most famous magician, is a master of illusion. Or, perhaps, a masterful illusion.

Known as Princess Tenko, she uses her flamboyant image to sell everything from cosmetics to clothes to pet goods. Construction is starting on her theme park, set to open in two years, where aspiring magicians will be able to attend training camps.

Hers is not a fleeting sort of fame. In 1990, Miss Hikita was named Magician of the Year by the Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood, becoming the first woman and the second Asian to win a title shared by some of the biggest names in magic, including David Copperfield and Doug Henning.

But Miss Hikita’s greatest illusion could well be herself. She suggests that the popular view of her grows out of what audiences expect: “It seems like everyone always has their own image of what I should be.”

Yet it’s obvious that creating her image has been a full-time effort.

When she switched from a career as a singer to pursue magic full time in the 1970s, she assumed a new name. The old one was Mari Asakaze, and even that was assumed. She was born Mariko Itakura — or at least that is what reports say.

Her career change also included a new birth date and age. That changed again 1989, when she signed a contract with the U.S. toy maker Mattel Inc. to produce dolls in her likeness.

“I agreed to a contract that turned a human into a character,” she said in an interview at a swank Tokyo hotel. “Like a doll, I can’t change the length of my hair, my makeup, my weight. My age will be 24 forever. Last year I was 24, this year I’m 24, and next year I’ll still be 24. It’s hard work.”

Miss Hikita — who is probably closer to 45 — has happily egged on the tabloid press in its efforts to unmask the mystery man in her life. Two years ago, the media buzzed for months that she was on the verge of getting married to action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.

To the surprise of few, the engagement never materialized. Her manager, Noboru Ochiai, says Miss Hikita never contended that she was Mr. Van Damme’s flame.

Miss Hikita remains as coy as ever.

“I am seeing a famous person, and things are going so well,” she said. “But, of course, I can’t say who it is until the appropriate time.”

Miss Hikita says little about her early years beyond that she was given intensive training in the arts, studying classical ballet, traditional Japanese instruments and the piano. She said she wanted to be a pianist like her mother.

While still a singer, she doubled as an apprentice to a well-known male magician, the first Tenko Hikita. When he died unexpectedly, she took on his mantle and name, and wasted little time in turning convention upside down.

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