ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, we meet a woman who has broken Harry Houdini's record for the most water escapes ever. She calls herself Lady Houdini. She's performed thousands of public feats. Her real name is Kristen Johnson, and she goes far beyond the role women usually play in escape acts.
More from Sadie Babits of Boise State Public Radio.
SADIE BABITS, BYLINE: Kristen Johnson is no lovely assistant. She sits tall with her eyes closed, hands on her lap. She is back stage at the Western Idaho State Fair in Boise. Her husband, magician Kevin Ridgeway, is setting up her next escape for the audience.
KEVIN RIDGEWAY: Harry Houdini made the water torture cell famous over 100 years ago.
BABITS: Johnson calmly walks on stage, slips off her heels and climbs the ladder to the top of a clear cylinder.
RIDGEWAY: Kristen Johnson is currently the only female anywhere in the world attempting the water torture cell. Additionally, she is the first person in history male or female to ever attempt this escape in full view.
BABITS: 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. 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.
RIDGEWAY: The world's premier female escape artist. Give it up for Kristen Johnson.
BABITS: 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.
KRISTEN JOHNSON: So I use a shallow water free diving technique where I take a number of breaths so that I can take in more oxygen and oxygenate my blood.
BABITS: 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 her husband, Kevin Ridgeway. He wanted to put together a show, and he really wanted her to be in it.
JOHNSON: And I am not a dancer. I'm not graceful. I'm not like a Vegas show girl. But, you know, that's just not me.
BABITS: She envisioned being an equal partner.
JOHNSON: It was important for me to be a strong example for young women in particular, so I thought I would do something that most women don't do, and that was the escapes.
BABITS: Nonwater escapes using ropes and handcuffs, those are fun, she says. But the water cell is emotionally draining.
JOHNSON: When you hear the lid get locked on and know that there's only one way out and that you have the only means to get out. Psychologically, that's the hardest part.
BABITS: 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.
ROCHELLE FOWLER: There's got to be some, you know, hocus-pocus to it, but, no, right there and I clicked her handcuffs to make sure they were just a little bit more tighter. My husband is an ex-police officer. So I've seen real handcuffs. Anyway, so, no, there was nothing fake about it.
BABITS: Fowler says she was surprised to find herself crying as she watched Johnson. She was ready to rescue her.
FOWLER: It just was nerve-racking, and then to see her finally escape, I just went, oh, thank goodness. I thought I was witnessing something horrible about to happen.
BABITS: While in Boise, Kristen Johnson, aka Lady Houdini, performed her 1100th water torture cell escape. That's something she never imagined herself doing.
JOHNSON: I'm not a strong athlete. I'm not - never been musically inclined. I just wanted to do something that was going to inspire other people.
BABITS: Johnson hopes others will see her do amazing feats and decide to tackle their own challenges.
For NPR News, I'm Sadie Babits in Boise.