When Melinda Saxe was 16, she had a dream. "I was on a huge dark stage wearing a large black cape. I was doing magic," she recalls. "The next day, when I woke up, I thought it was all stupid, because females aren't magicians. They never have been. Still, I couldn't get it out of my head, so I asked my mother if it was possible."

Allakazam! Seven years later, in Las Vegas, flashing neon lights on the marquee of the Landmark Hotel spell out the answer: Melinda: The First Lady of Magic! Melinda's arrival at the summit of her profession was confirmed by an invitation to perform for her peers at the annual convention of the Society of American Magicians this summer in St. Louis.

The first female magician ever to get featured billing in Vegas, Saxe, now 23, puts on a show that is equal parts flash and finesse: A quacking white duck appears on a flaming platter; an entire yellow Volkswagen suddenly vanishes. "You don't invent magic; it has all been done before," she says. "The secret is to do something differently and in an exciting way."

With that in mind, she has a selection of six outfits, including one with a tuxedo jacket and fishnet tights, and she is accompanied onstage by 14 bumping, grinding, kicking topless hoofers (her older sister, Suzanne, 27, is the lead dancer; her kid brother, David, 19, works on the tech crew). "Melinda has what any great magician, male or female, needs—a truly dynamic stage presence," says veteran magician David Copperfield. "Like Sinatra, she demands attention when she performs."

But her act isn't just Saxe appeal. The secret to her sudden, out-of-thin-air stardom is that classic behind-the-scenes trick: practice. Once her mom—a former Vegas show girl and now her director, producer and choreographer—gave Melinda's teenage dream the go ahead, Saxe simply disappeared—into her bedroom, that is, for a concentrated crash catch-up course in hocus-pocus and sleight of hand.

"Most boy magicians start about age 10," says Saxe, by way of explaining those 10-hour-a-day sessions behind her closed door. "I didn't start until I was 16, so I knew I had a lot of years of practice to make up." She hasn't broken the habit. Says her mother, Bonnie, 47: "She shuts herself up in her studio for hours, sometimes all day, and we never see her. She does the same trick over and over again."

Before that, Melinda spent some of her earlier years in backstage dressing rooms, hoping to follow in her mother's dance steps(her dad, Richard, 55, is a band leader). Graduating from high school a year early, she joined the Siegfried and Roy magic show as a dancer at 17, hoofing onstage each night while honing her legerdemain by day. When Melinda was 19 her mother got her booked as a magician at Vegas' oddly named Bourbon Street Hotel, and Saxe left the chorus line behind. "Mom pushed me," notes Melinda, who is grateful. "I was always a ham and never thought I'd do anything but perform. She taught me to look at people, how to smile without being phony and how to hold the audience's attention."

Melinda's dressing room wall is covered with photos of Johnny Cash, impressionist Rich Little and other show business admirers. Little, in fact, has appeared at enough of Saxe's performances that rumors of a romance began to spread like stage smoke a while back. Gossips, like magic fans, shouldn't believe everything they see, cautions Saxe. "Rich came backstage to meet me with his daughter and saw the show quite a few times," she says. "He sent me flowers and is a really nice man. But he's married and too old for me. Besides, I don't have time for much dating. Magic is my true passion right now." Poof, the rumors vanish. Saxe, on the other hand, appears to be someone who's come to stay.

—By Ned Geeslin, with Angela Blessing in Las Vegas