James Harrington has dreamed of wowing crowds with his sleight of hand since he was 6 years old. And, this week, he exceeded those ambitions after he impressed the judges and millions of viewers on America’s Got Talent.
He and his wife Marina Liani, who live in Dubai and met on an online dating app in 2017, started the mentalism act Mind2Mind five months later, after realising they had a deep “emotional connection”.
“The best way to explain it is when you get close enough to someone, you start to finish their sentences,” says Harrington. “We decided to see how far we could take this. I always thought it would be cool if instead of just finishing each other’s sentences, we were able to say the entire sentence.
"It could be defined as an unspoken language that in some way connects us all and to access this skill requires merely learning that language.”
The act draws on this connection and they’re careful not to call themselves “psychics”, but mentalists who perform all sorts of mind-boggling tricks.
On America’s Got Talent, for example, Liani demonstrated “mind-reading from a distance”. She stood outside with show host Terry Crews as Harrington held judge Sophia Vergara’s phone in his hand. Liani proceeded to identify the correct battery percentage left in the phone.
The pair then invited audience members to think of positive personal memories and write them on a piece of paper. Judge Heidi Klum held one in her hand and thought of the memory, while Liani recounted it successfully.
The panel gave the act four yeses and a standing ovation.
While Harrington, 38, turned his childhood obsession with magic into a career when he was 18, Liani, a former flydubai cabin crew member, had never set foot on a stage before she met her husband.
Harrington has been performing close-up magic in Dubai since he moved to the UAE 14 years ago, but this was also something new for him. The pair worked on their act for eight to 10 hours a day for a few months before they took to the stage for the first time together.
They'd been practising at a Friday brunch in Abu Dhabi, where Harrington had been working. He started to bring Liani along for the gig and the first time they performed, Liani did something called "second sight", where she describes random items pulled from people's pockets while blindfolded.
"I vividly remember seeing the audiences reaction and knowing that we had something special," says Harrington. "Marina's confidence slowly grew from there."
The first time they performed on stage was for the Channel Middle East Awards in October 2018 at the Armani Hotel Dubai.
“I still remember our first show,” Liani recalls. “James was very supportive which helped my nerves. I was shaking after — the buzz and the adrenalin are addictive.”
In 2019, they headed to Harrington’s home country the UK to perform on Britain’s Got Talent, where they taught Simon Cowell how to read fellow judge Amanda Holden’s mind.
Since then, they’ve also appeared on Ukraine’s Got Talent, as Liani is from Ukraine, where they received the golden buzzer, putting them on a fast track to the live shows in 2021.
Harrington couldn’t speak Ukrainian and it was the first time they’d performed for a non English-speaking audience, but clearly magic transcends language barriers.
“As soon as we finished, the audience started chanting ‘knopka'," recalls Harrington. "I had no idea what that meant so I asked Marina, who whispered ‘They want a judge to press the golden buzzer’. Then the judge Ksenia Prkhatskaya, stood up and actually pressed it.
“It’s all a blur but to say it was one of my proudest moments is an understatement.”
For the final, Harrington learned the entire act in Ukrainian. “He spent a month working during every waking moment,” says Liani. “When the time came, I couldn’t have been prouder. His Ukrainian, on that stage, in front of my country, family and friends, was flawless. The show's judge who is most similar to Simon Cowell said: ‘James, your Ukrainian is better than some of our politicians’.”
The duo didn’t win — that honour went to 14-year-old singer Artem Fesko — but they weren’t deterred from entering America’s Got Talent when they were asked to audition.
“Being on the AGT stage was amazing, the show production team was so well organised and the two days we were there ran like clockwork,” says Liani. “As you can imagine, it felt much bigger and more intimidating than our prior experiences. The host Terry Crews was lovely though; he stood outside of the theatre with me during our act and was very reassuring. He even offered to run and get me a coffee which was a very sweet gesture.”
Harrington says he was actually looking forward to seeing tough judge Cowell again, “as I know he loves this type of act”, but it came with a certain amount of nerves. “It always feels like we’re risking our career as we know things can go wrong on these shows and a bad audition could ruin everything we’ve worked for, but still … it’s a risk worth taking and we never regret taking risks to move forward. Luckily we’ve had a good run so far.”
Off screen, other career highlights for the pair include performing for tennis star Novak Djokovic, who now “occasionally chats with us via Instagram”, and for American illusionist Criss Angel backstage after his show in Las Vegas. "He invited us to his green room where we chatted and demonstrated a portion of our act,” says Liani. “He was super nice and it was an absolute thrill to get a glowing review from the biggest legend in magic.”
Back in Dubai, Mind2Mind regularly perform corporate gigs but are planning “the first mentalism theatre show” in the UAE.
“As far as I’m aware, the only long-term theatrical residency in the UAE is La Perle,” says Harrington. “Theatres have, in the past, had magicians and mentalists on a one-off basis. What we’re working on is a long-term, Las Vegas-style offering. A show that tourists and residents will have a chance to see all year round.”
They’re looking to start the show at the Royal Suite in Park Hyatt Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, in November. “The show would be an intimate evening of mentalism with the working title Connected,” says Harrington.
In the near term, we still need to find out how they did on America’s Got Talent live shows. “Unfortunately we’re bound by a non-disclosure agreement regarding the nature of what’s coming, but watch this space,” says Liani.
They do still have another trick up their sleeve, though. “We’re going to Vegas soon to begin working on something super exciting," she says.
No matter how famous they get, Harrington is certain they’ll be calling Dubai home for years to come. “It’s a magical place with huge opportunities for growth,” he adds.