Of all the majors at UCF that a mentalist could choose, psychology seems like the best fit.
Keith Kong ’17 certainly thought so.
Kong recently celebrated one of his biggest achievements to date as a mentalist — or a “mind-reading” magician — with an appearance on the CW’s show “Fool Us,” which features legendary magician duo Penn & Teller.
Kong walked away with the “Fool Us” trophy after the pair failed to explain the young magician’s trick. More importantly, he landed a spot as their opening act at Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas show.
“I could get used to performing in Vegas,” Kong says with a laugh. “I’ve always looked up to Penn & Teller, so this win was surreal.”
Destined to perform
Kong’s path to this juncture began a few days before his 11th birthday, when he was blown away by a TV show featuring a magician. He abandoned his previous birthday wishes and begged his mom instead for a magic kit. A young Kong provided the entertainment at his own birthday party a few days later.
“I remember the awe and excitement in people’s faces as I got to do that, especially the adults,” Kong says.
Kong was hooked from that point forward. He entertained classmates in the cafeteria and adopted the title “mentalist” in high school.
“I call myself a mentalist because what I do is based off of predicting what others are thinking and essentially ‘mind reading,’” says Kong. “I have always been interested in understanding how and why people make certain decisions, what makes them tick.”
Psychology in magic
When Kong entered his freshman year at the University of Central Florida, he chose psychology as his major because it has always inspired his work as a magician.
“There is a lot of psychology in magic,” says Kong. “The reason magicians like myself can entertain people and pull these things off are rooted deeply in psychology. Some of it even comes down to understanding body language and verbal cues.”
“The reason magicians like myself can entertain people and pull these things off are rooted deeply in psychology.”
When he wasn’t in class, Kong was focused on dreaming up performance pieces and furthering his skills.
“College for me was more so about learning systems and getting organized,” says Kong. “I’d use five subject notebooks and take four classes a semester. That last section, the fifth subject in the notebook, is what I’d dedicate to tricks and ideas for shows. I spent the majority of my time there in that fifth section, writing and doodling.”
Performances throughout college paid well and there were often opportunities at local venues. After graduating in 2017, Kong took a leap of faith that would ultimately be the launch pad of his career.
“I requested a month off from the restaurant I was working in at the time,” says Kong. “I picked up a show that I could perform at, and I was able to pay the bills. I kept doing this, requesting time off and picking up shows until I got auto-terminated from not working a single day in three months. But it felt good. I felt free.”
All the world’s a stage
The newfound freedom fueled Kong’s magic-driven ambition. He began jetsetting to places like Jamaica, India, China and Mexico, saying yes to any opportunity that allowed him to showcase his magic.
His shows involve brain games and mindreading, each with their own individual twist based on the energy of the crowd that night. The performances, as Kong states, are well-received by his audiences.
“Every show is a bit different,” says Kong. “I’ll read the thoughts of the audience, I’ll give them a show, but I also talk to them a bit about what I do and how some of this is based on understanding communication and cues.”
After years of curating and performing his magic, Kong stepped foot on the stage of Penn and Teller’s “Fool Us” to put his mindreading capabilities to the test.
Kong was the only one in the episode that aired in July who was able to fool them.
“Knowing that I was good enough to fool them using my mentalism made me feel like I was doing what I am meant to be doing,” he says.