Defying death is difficult, but rewarding

Kristen Johnson, also known as “Lady Houdini,” releases her ankle restraints as she escapes the water torture cell escape Wednesday at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. Johnson and her husband, Kevin Ridgeway, travel the country performing death-defying stunts at fairs and theaters. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

With the help of an audience member, “Lady Houdini” is bound with rope. Ridgeway, who led the show, put a gray sports jacket on the audience member and held a curtain up to his shoulders. Johnson, who was standing behind the audience member with her hands tied behind her back, emerged from behind the curtain wearing the audience member’s jacket. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

Kristen Johnson, also known as “Lady Houdini,” releases her ankle restraints as she escapes the water torture cell escape Wednesday at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. Johnson and her husband, Kevin Ridgeway, travel the country performing death-defying stunts at fairs and theaters. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

BLACKFOOT — Kristen Johnson’s daily grind once revolved around managing a “temp” agency.

Today, she makes a living by defying death.

Johnson, also known as “Lady Houdini,” travels the country performing stunts and creating illusions with her husband, Kevin Ridgeway. She’s known for performing the “water torture cell escape” — a stunt made famous by legendary escape artist Harry Houdini.

The original Houdini — no relation to Johnson — is said to have made the escape 1,000 times.

Lady Houdini performed the escape for the 1,331st time Wednesday at the Eastern Idaho State Fair.

Johnson’s career as an illusionist didn’t take off until four years after she quit her job at Norrell Staffing Services, an Indiana-based business that provides temporary workers for various businesses.

Before Johnson quit her day job, performing magic tricks was a passionate hobby. She said she staged shows in college for some extra money.

“I never thought I would be doing it for a living,” she said.

Johnson’s mother was a party magician who ran an entertainment company. In 1997, her mother fell ill and was unable to manage the company. Johnson and Ridgeway decided to take over the business.

After attending a magician’s conference in Michigan, Ridgeway decided he wanted to work on the stage, rather than behind it.

It didn’t take very long for Ridgeway to put an act together and start performing around Indiana. At the time, Johnson was Ridgeway’s assistant. But that soon changed.

“I wanted to be an equal part of the show,” Johnson said.

After two years, Johnson and Ridgeway put together an escape-artist routine and took the show on the road in 2001. Today, they spend 10 months out of the year touring “the fair circuit.”

“It’s never dull,” Johnson said.

Although escaping death three times a day can be difficult, Johnson said the benefits outweigh the challenges.

“It can be exhausting,” she said. “But one of the most awesome things that happened is we get to meet a lot of people on the road. Traveling gives us a unique opportunity to catch up with them. We have friends that can do everything from wrestling alligators to riding motorcycles in the ‘Globe of Death.’”

About 120 people attended Lady Houdini’s 2 p.m. show Wednesday at the Fair’s West Events Area. The crowd watched as Johnson freed herself from a straitjacket while suspended upside down 100 feet off the ground.

During the show’s finale, hearts pounded as Johnson — handcuffed and chained — was submerged in a 140-gallon tank of water that then was locked. After what seemed like an eternity, Johnson managed to pick the locks and pop out of the top of the tank.

“It was pretty awesome,” Jessica Richardson, 36, said. “I can’t believe she can hold her breath so long.”

Seven-year-old Paige Burnett was worried about Johnson as she watched the stunt play out.

“I was scared she wasn’t going to make it,” Paige said. “But I’m really happy that she did.”


Reporter Ali Tadayon can be reached at 542-6746.


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