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 items for pets and — later this year — wine. Construction is starting on her own theme park, set to open in two years, where aspiring magicians will be able to attend training camp.

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

But Hikita’s greatest illusion could well be herself. Hikita suggests 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,” she says — but it’s obvious creating her image has been a full-time, and exquisitely confusing, 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 claim.

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

“I agreed to a contract that turned a human into a character,” she says 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.”

Hikita — who is probably closer to 45 — has also 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 no one, the engagement never materialized. Manager Noboru Ochiai said Hikita never claimed to be Van Damme’s flame.

Hikita is meanwhile as coy as ever.

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

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 says she wanted to be a pianist like her mother.

Hikita got into magic almost by accident, she says, but wasted little time in turning convention upside down.

While still a singer, she doubled as an apprentice to a well-known male magician, the first Tenko Hikita. When he died suddenly, she was selected from among three apprentices — the other two both male and older — to take on his mantle and his name.

Her shows incorporate standard magician fare — getting sliced up in boxes, floating on air, disappearing acts — into a Madame-Butterfly-meets-Stars-Wars-like production, replete with lasers, extravagant sets and sexy costumes.

“Japan was hard. The Japanese personality made it difficult to follow a man,” she says, quickly adding: “I don’t retreat or compromise the way Japanese are often expected to.”

Still, she admits to deliberately amplifying stereotypes on stage that she feels her audiences may expect, or want, of her — whether that means putting oriental props into her shows in Las Vegas for Westerners, or acting exotically Western for crowds at home.

Alternating between the United States and Japan, her efforts have won over Japanese teens, American housewives and more than a few men around the world, including, she says, North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, adding yet another layer of mystery to her persona.

Hikita has been invited to perform twice in an annual springtime arts festival in North Korea and claims to have met Kim and his inner circle. She proudly rattles off a string of intriguing tidbits: visiting the Pyongyang construction site of a Princess Tenko Theater, approaching the heavily fortified border area separating North and South Korea from the northern side, discovering that Pyongyang’s elite spoke Japanese fluently.

Few of her claims can be verified.

For Hikita’s fans, that doesn’t seem to matter. At a Tenko show in western Japan, Atsuko Tanigawa, 19, said the facts of Hikita’s life were not as important as the fame the magician had managed to gain, not only in Japan but around the world.

“I don’t know how much of what is said about her is actually true,” she said. “I don’t really care. She’s beautiful, she’s very talented and she’s done what no other Japanese magician has been able to do.”

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