Kristen Johnson is no “lovely” magician’s assistant. She’s Lady Houdini, an escape artist who has successfully performed thousands of public feats and has broken Harry Houdini’s record for most water escapes ever.
“Kristen Johnson is currently the only female anywhere in the world attempting the water torture cell,” says her husband, magician Kevin Ridgeway, to an audience at the Western Idaho State Fair in Boise. “Additionally, she is the first person in history — male or female — to ever attempt this escape in full view.”
Johnson calmly walks onstage, slips off her heels and climbs the ladder to the top of a clear cylinder.
The grandstands go quiet as Ridgeway shackles his wife’s ankles and wrists. Two heavy metal chains crisscross her torso, locked in place with four padlocks. Lady Houdini puts her feet in the chilly water. She closes her eyes and begins to breathe deeply. And with a final breath, she plunges into the water.
Johnson pulls a bobby pin from her hair and begins to work on getting the handcuffs off. After nearly three minutes Johnson has picked every lock and freed herself from the chains.
“The world’s premiere female escape artist — give it up for Kristen Johnson!” Ridgeway exclaims.
Johnson first publicly performed this escape in 2003. She’d spent a year preparing. She practiced picking locks, and she worked with a dive master to slow her heart rate and hold her breath.
“I use a shallow water free diving technique where I take a number of breaths so I can take in more oxygen and oxygenate my blood,” Johnson says.
Johnson became an escape artist after taking a break from her job at a Fortune 500 company to help her mother run an entertainment business. It was during that time she met Ridgeway. He wanted to put together a show and he really wanted her to be in it.
“I am not a dancer. I’m not graceful. I’m not Vegas showgirl, that’s not me,” she says.
She envisioned being an equal partner.
“It was important for me to be a strong example for young women in particular, so I thought I would do something most women don’t do, and that is the escapes,” she says.
Nonwater escapes using ropes and handcuffs are fun she says, but the water cell is emotionally draining.
“When you hear the lid get locked on and know that there is only one way out and that you have the only means to get out, psychologically that’s the hardest part,” Johnson says.
At the fair in Boise, Johnson performed this water cell escape three times a day, five days straight. Each time, she goes through her routine to focus. The water has to be just right. She can’t be dehydrated, hungry, sick or tired.
Memories of blacking out twice while in the cell remind her of the danger. That danger wasn’t lost on audience member Rochelle Fowler. She helped lock Johnson in the water cell. Fowler admits she was skeptical.
“There’s got to be some hocus-pocus to it, but no, right there … I clicked her handcuffs to make sure they were just a little bit more tighter. My husband is ex-police, so I’ve seen real handcuffs. There wasn’t anything fake about it,” she says.
Fowler says she was surprised to find herself crying as she watched Johnson. She was ready to rescue her.
“It just was nerve-wracking and then to see her finally escape, I just went ‘Oh, thank goodness!’ I thought I was witnessing something horrible about to happen,” Fowler says.
While in Boise, Lady Houdini performed her 1,100th water torture cell escape. That’s something she never imagined herself doing.
“I’m not a strong athlete. I’ve never been musically inclined. I just wanted to do something that was going to inspire other people,” she says.
Johnson hopes others will see her do amazing feats and decide to tackle their own challenges.
Rochelle Fowler watches with tears on her face as Lady Houdini works to break free. Harry Houdini made the water torture cell famous more than 100 years ago.
Tags: All Things Considered, Escape, Escape Artist, female escape artist, Houdini, Illusionist, Kevin Ridgeway, Kristen Johnson, Lady Houdini, Living Illusions, magic, magician, NPR News, NPRnews, Reach Your City, Ridgeway and Johnson, Water Torture Cell, World's Premier Female Escape Artist