Magician Justin Willman lost his mother to Alzheimer’s. He’s hoping a research fund his family created in her memory will help scientists find a cure for the disease in his lifetime.
When Justin Willman was 12, he tried to impress his St. Louis neighborhood friends by riding a bike while wearing roller blades. The stunt seemed like a good idea at the time, but it flopped when Justin fell and broke both arms. After six months of orthopedic care, Justin’s doctor urged him to find a hobby that would increase his dexterity. Inspired by a magician he had seen at the hospital, Justin decided to learn card tricks.
It proved to be a life-changing choice. Today, Justin is a world-famous magician, comedian and producer. The star and creator of the hit Netflix original series “Magic for Humans,” he has performed at the White House, is a regular on television talk shows and has hosted programs on the Food Network and Disney channels.
He also provided the entertainment at the 2021 virtual Illumination Gala, hosted by The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Justin, his sister, Ashley, and their father, Robert, have a special relationship with the Foundation. It’s where they established the Sonja V. Willman Alzheimer’s Disease Research Fund in honor of Justin’s mother who died in 2020 from complications of the disease.
On June 26, 2021, Justin hosted a star-studded virtual event called “Magic for Memories: A Night of Comedy and Wonder to Make Alzheimer’s Disappear,” to benefit his mother’s fund. It included a list of celebrity performers and a special appearance by John C. Morris, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
Today, Justin still credits his childhood bike accident for sending him on the path that led to this successful career. But it also taught him an important lesson about life.
“It set me up to always know whatever happens, there’s a way to make that a positive part of your journey,” Justin says. “Even out of sadness and heartbreak, even my mom’s passing has been an opportunity for me to reminisce, relive and honor her in my show and figure out a way to frame a piece of magic or storytelling to express something about her that’s important to me.”
In doing so, he looks for performances that can resonate with other people and remind them of their own mothers and fathers.
“It makes people feel less alone when they hear your story,” he says.
Justin Kredible and His Magic Guinea Pig
Justin has great empathy because of his family’s closeness and deep sorrow over Sonja’s disease and death. “My parents were supportive of whatever would light me up, my mom especially, since she was an amazing artist and interior designer,” he says. “She knew when you come across something that lights that fire in you, you have to pursue it.”
He describes Sonja as an outside-of-the-box thinker who influenced his approach to life. He remembers hearing his mother fight for her ideas when others thought they were impractical. Several weeks after Sonja died, Justin and his sister came across a magazine article with a quote from Sonja that summed up her artistic philosophy in one sentence: “Think of the logical thing, then do the opposite.”
“Just like my mom, I can’t take no for an answer,” Justin says. “I have learned to trust my gut even when the people around me think it’s a crazy idea. I know it’s going to work out.”
Sonja was Justin’s first audience, what he calls his “magic guinea pig.”
She drove him to lessons at a St. Louis magic shop and would go inside but wouldn’t watch.
“My mother didn’t want to know how anything worked, so she’d go off to the corner so that when we got home, I could then show her what I learned and she would be amazed by it,” he says.
When he was in his early teens, Justin began building his magic business, often working at children’s parties. Sonja came up with his stage name, Justin Kredible, and made flyers to advertise his skills. When he was 14, she made his first business cards.
Meanwhile, his father encouraged Justin’s business and entrepreneurial side.
“In high school, I was the first of my friends to have a pager and a cellphone because I had a business I was running,” he says. “I had to get back to these moms about their kids’ birthday parties.”
Justin continued his magic entertainment business throughout high school and in college. Although he graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism, he knew magic was his calling. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he performed at colleges, private parties and corporate events. His business and reputation began to grow.
The Magic of a Cure
Although safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Justin from live performances, the ability to reach many more viewers via Zoom gave him the idea of raising money for his mother’s Alzheimer’s research fund. He reached out to celebrity friends—including Grammy winners Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles and Weird Al Yankovic and comedians Jim Gaffigan and Nicole Byer— who agreed without hesitation.
“Alzheimer’s can make you feel very hopeless,” Justin says. “But I think right now we’re at a time when Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University are making amazing strides in research.”
During the show Justin interviewed Dr. Morris, who explained that gifts to Sonja’s fund are playing an important role in making crucial advances. This progress makes Justin optimistic that the end of Alzheimer’s disease could happen in his lifetime.
“I feel like we’re on the cusp of some really big moments,” Justin says. “Nothing is going to bring my mom back at this point, but if I can work hard to help ensure my son doesn’t have to live in a world where a parent, loved one or himself are robbed of the beautiful thing that is our brain and our memories and our relationships to the people around us, then that would feel really, really great.”