Narrow escapes

It’s a rare treat to see a true escape artist. In April, Kristen Johnson, known as Lady Houdini, will bring her feats to the Spring Jonquil Festival in Smyrna.

Since she started performing in 2000, Johnson has dazzled crowds with aerial stunts and conquered straitjacket confinements. She has become most known for daring escapes from the “water torture cell,” a stunt made famous by the legendary Harry Houdini. Johnson broke Houdini’s record for water chamber performances in 2012 when she accomplished her 1,001st escape.

“What we are most known for is being in full view underwater, as I am handcuffed and leg shackled,” Johnson says. “There are no secrets behind how I do [it], because there is no curtain.”

Audiences watch as Johnson works her way free while inside the narrow vessel filled with 140 gallons of water.

It can be breathtaking for children. Some run up and hug Johnson after the show and occasionally take bobby pins that were used to open handcuffs as souvenirs.

To master her craft, the escape artist has trained with dive masters, locksmiths and police officers, among others.

Precautions have to be taken before performances. For example, Johnson has to be well-hydrated before her act, and must eat a good amount of carbohydrates, she says.

That wasn’t the case in 2009 when she experienced a hypoxic seizure while underwater and was pulled out of the tank by her husband. It occurred during a halftime performance of an Oklahoma Thunder NBA game. “In the brain losing oxygen, your body shuts down all unnecessary functions,” Johnson says. ”The airway closes off. It prevents you from drowning, but you have to get above water before the seizure ends or you will take on water. I was ill [earlier] that day but thought I was okay.”

Kevin Ridgeway, her husband and a magician, is trained to rescue Johnson within eight seconds.

The Jonquil Festival represents a road to recovery for Johnson and Ridgeway. They were in a car accident last year in Florida that caused severe injuries. Johnson had a punctured lung and broken ribs. Ridgeway, who was in a coma for many weeks, lost a kidney.

“We’re still finding a new normal,” she says of physical adjustments for each of them. A lot goes on behind the scenes of shows in setting up and taking down equipment.

Johnson comes by her profession naturally. Her mother performed as a storyteller, clown and children’s characters in Indianapolis. Johnson says she wants to demonstrate to young girls that they can do anything they set their minds to.

“I have always thought girls [need] a good mirror to let them know they are smart and can do things,” Johnson says. “Very few women in this world have done escapes.”

Lady Houdini. Escape artist Kristen Johnson appears at the Spring Jonquil Festival April 28-29. 200 Village Green Circle, Smyrna. 770-423-1330.; Johnson returns in the fall to the North Georgia State Fair at Jim R. Miller Park, as well as October events in Cumming and Dalton.

—Adrianne Murchison