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Rita Lipoff, eyes closed, willpower amped up, is preparing to cast a spell. The flame from a lavender-scented candle flickers over a blank sheet of white paper sprinkled with lavender, hibiscus, and cloves. Lipoff kneels before a glass table in the living room of her tidy, open-loft townhouse in Hollywood, molds the herbs into the shape of a heart, then in a soft voice reads from a waxy paper scroll: "My heart is now open to give and receive. True love is what I ask for on this enchanted eve. So I beseech thee, goddess, keeper of destiny and fate. I am ready to be one with my soul mate. So be it!"
"So be it," agree nine other people. They are an eclectic lot: a multiethnic mix of teenyboppers to fortysomethings who attend or teach school, sell books, run domestic-violence programs, teach sailing, or write. These women and men wear jeans and brightly colored shirts and amber and moonstone pendants and drink Evian and Celestial Seasonings tea. No black robe, pentagram, or chalice filled with blood can be found.
The group is practicing witchcraft, but not the "double, double toil and trouble" type. This is a combination of whimsy, fun, and therapy. It's also a serious attempt to get results. On the table with the candle and herbs sit about 20 different products from a Hallandale Beach company called CharmedWorld: One-Stop Spell Shop, which makes magical shampoos, bubble baths, and spell kits with titles like "Boy Toy," "Cold Hard Cash," and "Tie the Knot." The packaging of this spellware is devoid of Witchiepoo images like black cats and brooms. Instead the hot pink labels feature a glamorous, wand-wielding female clad in pink capri pants and a cropped tank top.
On the company's Website, www.charmedworld.com, the good witch winks at Internet surfers looking to liven up their love lives or heal old hurts. In person CharmedWorld owner Nikki Donin, a petite, five-foot-one woman, is playful and funny. "Are we scaring you...?" Donin asks a guy, who, it seems, is trying to avoid becoming magically snagged.
"We all want the real thing," Donin assures the fellow. "But say a girl meets a guy who's not responding appropriately.... This can help. Still, it's a way for all of us to feel empowered.... Besides, it's fun."
While images of nice witches have a long history -- from Glinda in The Wizard of Oz to Samantha in Bewitched to Sabrina the Teenage Witch-- casting spells seems to be more socially acceptable these days than ever before. Millions of youngsters have read the Harry Potter books, become hooked on the television series Charmed, and seen the film Practical Magic.
In the past year, Donin, a 30-year-old resident of North Miami Beach whose personality outshines her bright green eyes, claims her company has sold $200,000 worth of goods. Indeed CharmedWorld products are sold in upscale stores like Henri Bendel in Manhattan and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, national chains like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, and hundreds of specialty boutiques around the country (including teen-chic Crybaby on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami-Dade). The items retail for anywhere between $14 for a "Wash That Man Right out of Your Hair" shampoo to $60 for a complete "Getting over Him" kit. All items come with printed scrolls that list a spell, the direction to face while intoning the charm, and, lest the goddess' wires cross, the best days of the week or moon phases to perform certain tasks.
Of course there are skeptics. James Randi, a renowned critic of all things paranormal, says the problem with outfits like CharmedWorld is that "there are no tests for those types of products... so if the person wins the sweepstakes, there's no way to prove the herbs have worked." In fact Randi's eponymous foundation in Fort Lauderdale is dedicated to exposing magical scams and scammers. "It may be very faddish for these kids to buy something and be able to say they're "with it,'" he says, "but what they're really with is stupidity."
Asked about such criticism, Donin replies simply: "I've had overwhelmingly positive feedback. Of course people who haven't had any experience with spell-casting and herbs have asked, "What's this? It just looks like a bunch of potpourri.' But later, when they keep finding money after casting a spell... well, they believe."
Donin grew up in Freeport, Bahamas, in what she calls a "very traditional Jewish community" with parents who worked in the tourism industry. She never liked structured settings, a fact that sheds light on her posthigh-school days. "I wound up spending a few years taking cross-country trips with my girlfriends," she recalls, chuckling at the memory. "We drove this unair-conditioned Pinto to places like Seattle and Oregon. I don't recommend it."
Eventually she tired of the adventure. In her early twenties Donin returned to South Florida. "I became a party planner," she remembers. "My aunt was in public relations in Miami Beach, and I started working all the big clubs and restaurants, doing bar mitzvahs and weddings."
Throughout the mid-1990s Donin set up candles and otherwise created sensuous atmospheres at big-name hotels. But, she says, "I was always on call. It was like being an emergency room doctor. Eventually I got tired of trying to find Indian jasmine pink rose petals at 4 a.m."