By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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."
Other business opportunities, she decided, would arise. Since her teens Donin had dabbled in magic. Although she never joined a coven or any other formal group, she had absorbed lots of information from books on pagan religions as well as tomes on herbs, flowers, and oils. Once, after a nasty breakup with a boyfriend, Donin used some of what she had read. "I took strips of paper and wrote his name on it," she recalls. "Then I sat with a candle and burned them. That was a rite." After quickly recovering from the former beau, she realized "how we all practice magic every day in little ways, praying to the parking gods or spraying ourselves with perfumes for added attraction."
When friends learned of her spells, Donin started throwing house parties to help others experiencing breakups or needing things like love and money. (Who doesn't?) "People started asking, "Can you get me the ingredients and help me with the words?'" she recalls.
CharmedWorld was born in mid-1999, thanks in part to financial backing from Donin's family. Besides doing parties and workshops, Donin started a Website (plans to sell the products online are in the works), and marketed her products to Internet shopping services such as Girlshop.com and Gloss.com, which is owned by the Estée Lauder company. Ultimately Donin wanted her products to line the shelves of prestigious retail stores. But that, she knew, would take some major promotion. "I went to New York to meet with different magazine editors," she recalls. "I had no marketing plans, no focus groups. I didn't know the proper channels, so I just went with my gut."
Donin also used her head by hiring Sirens Public Relations in Manhattan. "I knew that editors would be open to her ideas," says Jen Delucca, account manager for Sirens. "It was totally a trend with the whole Wicca thing and all those television shows like Charmed... The media was really hot on that," she adds. "But what really got people interested was Nikki herself. She has this bubbly energy and could articulate how she wanted people to feel empowered by her products. She is a true believer, and her products were well-researched and detailed." (Using a compendium of books from New-Age publisher Llewellyn, New Times compared ingredients used in CharmedWorld spells with those suggested by magical "authorities." Based on our findings, Donin generally hasn't strayed from traditional recipes.)
Delucca helped Donin arrange a trip to Manhattan last spring. Nikki's mother, Lorraine, calls the visit a turning point in her daughter's career. "There were all these editors from Vogue and Mademoiselle, very sophisticated types in Chanel suits," Lorraine says. "It was like, "Here comes this kid from Florida with no business experience.' But they loved Nikki. She went in there with these prototypes, and these [high-powered] women were asking, "Ooh, can I do a soul-mate spell?' They were in hysterics." Mentions of CharmedWorld products soon began showing up in the pages of national magazines including Vogue, Mademoiselle, Modern Bride, and Teen, and even on the fashion pages of The New York Times.
How big is Donin's market? Researchers at the University of Westchester in Pennsylvania estimate that at least 200,000 people practice some form of magic in the United States; almost 40 percent are under age 18. The Witches' Voice, an online advocacy group (www.witchvox.net), lists 113 college groups and thousands of individuals who practice magic, including 1100 in Florida, 247 of whom are teenagers living in places like Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and Kendall.
Though lots of witches are out of the proverbial broom closet, Donin maintains that her objective, rather than to advocate witchcraft, is simply to "free people up of the funk that weighs them down. It's a way to increase your self-esteem without going to a psychic or a shrink."
As the party at Lipoff's house winds down, the herbs from the evening's spells are scattered around her front yard. While people have shared their stories of successful spells (the daughter who helped heal her mother's prolonged sickness, the pretty exec whose petty friends dropped out of sight after she slept with herbs under her bed for a month), no one asks when she or he can expect results from tonight's work. Further, no one demands immediate proof, as one spell states, "That ho!... some skank meddling with your man" has been vanquished.
But if the objective of this spell-casting crew was to have fun, the evening was a success. "This was sooooo cool," says Noelle Williams, a seventh grader from Plantation who promises to talk up CharmedWorld at school. "By the way," she asks Donin, "have you thought about coming up with spells to pass tests and become more popular? Maybe you could call it "Cool in School.'"
Donin promises to conjure up something.