Magic Man

Criss Angel used to cringe at the sight of a syringe in the doctor’s office.
These days, the magician’s feats include hanging from four large
fishhooks beneath a helicopter. To prepare for such daring, Angel adheres
to a tough fitness regimen and strict diet. But nothing readied Angel for
his work or helped him overcome his fears more than his father’s
determination to fight an aggressive cancer.

By Allan Richter

May 2008

Thirteen years ago, Criss Angel’s career as an illusionist and performance artist was climbing. Angel, then 28, was negotiating a contract to put on a show in Las Vegas when his father, John Sarantakos, called with the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. His father was told he would have three weeks of life left. Angel cut his career plans short, flew home to New York and spent the rest of his father’s life close to him, through his last birthday at 60. That was three years after the diagnosis.

Angel has escaped from a double straightjacket. He has put himself on fire. He has been sandwiched between shards of glass and a moving steamroller. And he has appeared to levitate over the Luxor Hotel, his Las Vegas base where this summer he is to begin a 10-year run in a $100-million Cirque du Soleil show.

Nothing prepared Angel for any of those feats more than the determination with which he says his father fought and managed his cancer. “He really exemplified the power of the mind, body and spirit even in the darkest most challenging days,” Angel told Energy Times, “and he did what the doctors said would be impossible—live.”

In one painful feat—hanging from four large fishhooks beneath a helicopter—Angel turned to his father’s memory. “Thoughts of my father swirled in my head like the blades of the... helicopter...My father had always been my greatest motivation and positive guiding force, and today was no exception. His energy and spirit were with me,” Angel wrote in his book Mindfreak (HarperEntertainment), also the name of his A&E television series, the fourth season of which begins in July.

Angel says his father’s influence was powerful not just for the way he challenged his cancer but the way he lived long before the diagnosis. John Sarantakos was a body builder and Golden Gloves champ who made quality time for his wife and three boys despite long hours working in his restaurants. But it was the cancer that prompted Angel to engage his own fears. “When my husband died,” says Angel’s mother Dimitra, holding back tears, “something happened to Christopher. He knew nothing was going to stop him.”

In 2007, Angel received the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Chris Greicius Award, named for the group’s first wish recipient and given to celebrities exceptionally dedicated to helping terminally ill children.

Family drives Angel, born Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos 40 years ago, above all. His older brothers Costa and J.D. work on his show, and his mother has made appearances. “My sense of responsibility to take care of my mom and the rest of my family was enormous after my father died,” Angel writes in his book. Angel spoke with Energy Times from Las Vegas, where he performs. His epicenter, though, is clearly the working-class New York home where his Greek-American parents doled out spanakopita and healthy servings of confidence and motivation.

Energy Times: There’s no better way to understand the impact of someone’s passing than by grasping the details of his life. Please paint a portrait of who your dad was and the life he led.

Criss Angel: He was very moti­vated and determined. He was passionate about life, about bettering his life by helping his family. He got a Penn State scholarship, which he rejected to take care of his family, his mom at the time. He was also a Golden Glove [winner]; he was Mr. Pennsylvania with body building. He was in many body building magazines. He was a very strong mind-body-and-spirit type of person. My mom and dad were just incredibly loving. I think I was dealt the best hand with my family. My dad and my mom were incredibly nurturing and always there, always selfless, just trying to better the lives of their children and giving them opportunities they didn’t have. I just recall the most incredible memories of my dad working in the coffee shop from 4:30 in the morning until 7, 8 o’clock at night. He would come home and still have the energy to do things with his kids, go to the football games, the baseball games. When I was studying martial arts he’d be there no matter what. He was never too tired, and if he was he never showed that.

I thought my dad was going to live forever; he personified everything that was strong. Whether you knew my pop or just came in contact with him in the course of the day he was very likeable. He had a tremendous faith and pride in his family and his kids. He lived life to the fullest and enjoyed life for what it was. I find that even more amazing now because of the predicament I find myself in, and it could be very challenging. You know—money, fame or being able to have 50 cars. You can get caught up in materialistic things, which is the antithesis of what my father was about. My father was about the things that you can’t buy: happiness, love, family. Growing up with that just really instilled in me and my brothers all the things that he personified that still live in me and in my brothers.

ET: How did that persistence and spirit manifest itself after your father was diagnosed with cancer?

CA: He was given three weeks to live. He was in the fourth stage of...stomach cancer. My dad was determined to live to see my oldest brother’s daughter be born and have time with her. He lived for more than three years, and I spent pretty much every day with him. I took him to the hospital. At the end I showered him. When he passed away in my arms, I wouldn’t let the coroner touch him. My brothers and I carried him...ourselves. It was a very touching time. My dad just always instilled in us that when the mind, body and spirit work together anything is possible, and if you’re willing to go through the trials and tribulations to attain any of your dreams, you can achieve them no matter how impossible it seems.

One of two things will happen when somebody gets diagnosed with a death sentence of three weeks to live: You’re going to fold or fight, and my father his whole life was a fighter. He chose to say, “I’m going to beat this thing or get more time.” Every breath, every moment, every day was a gift and precious, so he would train. He would do push-ups, sit-ups and lift light weights, and eat everything that was right. He knew that he may wake up and not feel good, yet he always had a smile. He never complained. He was always strong. His attitude, his outlook on life is what really allowed him to be resilient in a very challenging time. He would always say, “Your body is the slave to your mind.” Most people would have succumbed to the disease mentally.

ET: What advice would you give families of others with cancer who perhaps do not or can not put as brave a face on the illness?

CA: You have to be around people you love. You have to think positive. Whatever your brain is telling your body it’s going to believe. Everybody has what works for them. Surround yourself with people who are going to feed you positive energy and thoughts. You can’t succumb mentally because if you do then your body is going to follow suit. Go out fighting and appreciating every moment and trying to live in the unfortunate condition that you’re in as best as you can. Life for me is the memories you create for others to remember, and my dad is a living example of that in how he lived his last days. He chose to live his life and create memories that myself and countless people that knew him and that he affected will never forget. The memories you want to create are positive and with a smile and graceful.

ET: You’ve attributed your fearlessness to the way your father handled his illness.

CA: Yeah, and his unwavering faith and the fact that I had my own fears at the time. I would go to a doctor who would take blood and I’d pass out. I decided right then and there I was going to address my fears. So I hung by four fishhooks through my back from a helicopter more than a thousand feet above the Valley of Fire to overcome my fear. I did that on a lot of different levels and then realized there is nothing to fear. If you don’t fear death what is there to fear in life? Nothing. We’re all going to die so what is there to fear?

ET: You have said that your father understood the science of nutrition and physical activity before those aspects of health became widely appreciated. I understand the physical activity part because of his body building. Tell me more about his interest in nutrition.

CA: This is another thing that he always said to me as a kid: “You are what you eat.” He would tell me if you put junk in your body, your body is not going to function right. He said you’re a product of your environment, and so is your body. My dad was very much into nutrition, eating vegetables, a lot of spinach. When he was sick he would eat raw garlic. He would eat lemons. It was a very organic approach to dieting. He wasn’t an overeater. There were some phases in his life he was really happy, really content, probably in his 50s, and we would go out to eat. We’d just all indulge, but my dad didn’t indulge in fried foods and fast food. My family is Greek, and my mom would cook a lot of the Greek foods. My mother was born in Greece and left the country when she was about 13. We would spend every weekend with our cousins and aunts and uncles, so that whole Greek heritage and the food would resonate.

 I wasn’t allowed to drink soda when I was younger. I wasn’t allowed to do what a lot of kids in school did because my dad didn’t think that was the best choice. My dad wouldn’t let me leave the table until I ate whatever vegetable he had there. I guess that’s where I got good at doing magic, because I had to make things look like I ate them. I’d make things disappear; I’d have to use the bathroom, that kind of thing.

My whole life I took vitamins. Since I can remember, until my dad died, I was taking about 30 pills a day; vitamin E, vitamin C, every pill you can take my dad researched. We had three refrigerators, two of which were filled with vitamins and supplements that we would take daily. My dad spent so much time studying books upon books of research and he had vitamin handbooks. He dedicated a good portion of his life to understanding this stuff; I haven’t, so now I take vitamin C and a multivitamin.

ET: What would you say to the family of someone who similarly lived a very healthy lifestyle but was confronted with life-threatening illness, where there must be an acute sense of bewilderment and difficulty understanding it?

CA: I would say that life is not fair. We all have free will to make decisions, and unfortunately there are other forces that are within us that affect what happens to us. The only thing that a person can do is try to live their life as full, rich and pure as possible, with love and happiness. Eating healthy, keeping yourself in somewhat decent shape helps you have a better outlook and feel better about how you perceive yourself. I don’t mean just physically but mentally, meaning that you’re strong-willed, that you can conquer and maintain anything you want from your life. People that have lived their life in a very clean, healthy, nutritious way who get a terminal disease—it’s a horrible thing to hear, but those people probably lived a better, stronger, richer, full life. They’ll probably be able to live longer because of their history. If I had a choice to get cancer being obese or in shape I would choose to get [cancer while] in shape because physically, mentally, emotionally I would be better at fighting it.

ET: How else do you take care of yourself? You must follow a highly regulated diet.

CA: I’m totally regulated. I eat probably four to five meals a day that are high in protein. No potatoes. No fried food. No bread. I eat chicken or turkey four times a day. I eat salads. I eat apples, fruits, almonds, a lot of water, even though I drink carbonated water. I love soda but I got myself away from it. That’s more of a treat. Once a week I allow myself to eat whatever I want, which is normally pizza or something like that. But you have to have a balance and do things in moderation.

ET: And your fitness regimen?

CA: I try to train six days a week, at least five days a week. I do about a half hour to 45 minutes of cardio a day, probably about an hour and 15 minutes of weight training and about 15 minutes of stretching. [My work is] very physically demanding and that’s why I train, to address the challenges that I put myself in. If you think about the consequences it could bug you out. I do a lot of very physical things, a lot of running, jumping, fighting, things that keep my cardio up. Once I start my live show at the Luxor this summer, I’ll be doing enough cardio where I won’t have to do cardio [training] anymore because I’ll probably get too thin. So I won’t have to run on a treadmill anymore, which I’m looking forward to.

ET: Tell me about what drove your belief in the power of the mind, and how it’s worked for you.

CA: My dad always said to me you should have short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. You should write them down and spend every day trying to achieve those goals. I’ve achieved and went beyond so many things I set my mind to that it’s very apparent that visualization works. When your mind, body and spirit harmoniously work together you can visualize accomplishing things. It’s very much like a fighter or a high jumper. Before they leave the block they’re looking up and they see the high jump and visualize what it’s going to look like, and hopefully their body follows suit. I look at that approach in the very same way. When you accomplish those things you then realize the power of your mind. I do hypnosis, which is the power of suggestion, on myself. I’m brainwashing myself to think positive, see my goals and have my body follow suit every day to get closer to achieving that goal.

Success and achieving goals and the power of what you want out of your life most times won’t happen when you want it to happen. That’s where your perseverance, your stick-to-itivness and your passion come in. Anybody that’s successful is passionate about what they do. Even if it doesn’t happen on your time frame you have to allow it to make you have a stronger skin, make you want it that much more. I thought I was going to be successful ten years ago and it didn’t happen, but I kept on persevering, I kept focused. I kept people who were doubting me and naysayers away from me. If I had them around me, I allowed that to fuel me to say, “You know what, you’ll see one day,” and I let that negativity work to try to show them that they didn’t know what...they were talking about. But the key is to set your mind on what it is you want. If you don’t believe you can achieve it then you’ll never achieve it. If I take a coin, put it in my hand and don’t really believe that the coin is in my hand how can I expect a spectator to?

ET: The power of the mind applies far beyond coin tricks. You put yourself in some dangerous situations, for which you rid yourself of emotional baggage. Describe that process.

CA: I have to empty my mind of any emotional baggage when my life is on the line. I’m not thinking about any problems, headaches, bills or anything like that. The only thing I’m thinking about is the goal. I’m seeing it play out moment by moment. I’m just so focused on mind, body and spirit. I need to be because if something should arise I need to know because the things that I’m doing haven’t been done before. If something should pop up I know how I’m going to address it. And if you have negativity…look at Mike Tyson, perfect example. The guy won a million fights then he wasn’t focused and got beaten. It’s not only about physicality and strategy; it’s about your hunger and your passion.

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