Wednesday, October 29, 2014

In Grave Danger by Design - Life of an Escape Artist

I have taken a long break from this blog.  Being on America's Got Talent forced me to stop writing freely due to their contract.  I have done some writing since AGT and this article is being posted in on the online magazine la Vie Sirene.
For most, October means Halloween and a time to dress up in your favorite mask and pretend to be who we are not. Many love dressing up as their favorite villain or dressing in an outrageous outfit and shocking their friends.  

Though I love costume parties, for me, Halloween reminds me of magic. And when you talk magic all discussions begin and end with the master, Harry Houdini. In fact Houdini died on October 31,1926.  I saw the Tony Curtis movie Houdini and I was simply mesmerized.  Watching Houdini do those death-defying stunts blew me away.  I wondered what it would be like to try and escape from a strait jacket or the terrifying Chinese Water Torture Cell. I really wanted to know what it felt like to try and do the impossible. 

When I was growing up magic had a prominent role on TV. Magicians like Doug Henning and David Copperfield would do hour-long TV specials showcasing their wonderful talent, but no matter what they did on the show they would always end with a Houdini-like escape.  I can remember Doug Henning stepped onto the stage and I literally got a chill.  

I was 13 at the time and to see Henning do a legendary escape that many thought (wrongly) that Houdini had died in, was thrilling.  It gave me goose bumps as he was lowered into the tank. No way to breathe and seemingly no way to escape.

I can remember again thinking how cool it would be to be able to do that but I had one huge problem. There were no female escape artists. The only women doing magic were the magician’s assistants. They were beautiful and wore amazing costumes (‘barely there’ stuff) but they were literally called "box jumpers" as that is really what they did.  I didn't want to jump from box to box.  I wanted to do the impossible like Houdini did. 

Now, I didn't dare tell anyone of this as it was not what girls did. The irony here is that I wanted to do death-defying escapes but I didn't have the courage to escape my own box "perception".  I didn't want people to think I was weird or different. I locked myself in the box of "normal".  I threw away any thoughts of doing magic and decided I was going to be a teacher - something girls did -- not become an escape artist.

Well then a met a boy in high school.  Little did I know he was a big Houdini fan as well.  In fact, he read about Houdini and his escapes and learned some of his methods.  We were 16 and I had a pool in my backyard.  I had no idea he liked magic and escapology.  He said to me, “Want to see a trick?”  He had me tie his hands and feet together.  I thought he was crazy, but I was also intrigued. My heart almost stopped when he jumped into the deep end.  he was doing an underwater escape -- the very thing I had dreamed of doing, but dared not as I was too afraid to be different.  In just under 2:00 minutes he had escaped from underwater. Now I think my reaction shocked him.  When he surfaced he asked what I thought and I said, "I want to try it".  He laughed and said, "You can't do that; you don't know the trick."  I asked him to let me try.  And so I did.  He tied my hands and feet and I dove in.  
When I got to the bottom the feeling was like a cross between pure panic and a 
feeling of OMG I am really doing this.  I was doing an underwater escape like Houdini.  I loved it.  What a rush.  I managed to get out somehow, mainly because I was running out of air.  My boyfriend was completely blown away.  He tried to convince me that we should be an act but I was stuck in "my box" -- not willing to try and escape it.  I said, “No way!” I was going to do the safe thing.. the normal thing... and be a teacher.     

Well, that boy actual became my husband. And for thirty years he urged me to follow my original dream though I never really told him it was a dream.  It took me 30 years (a few job losses, bankruptcy and almost losing the house) before I would show my talents. In 2009, after years of talking with professional escape artists about what we did and my husband Bill showing them clips, I finally allowed him to post something on Youtube for the public to see.  

Bill and I watched magic through the years, especially escapes and would try and reverse engineer them -- figure how to do an escape and then try and go further with it. I never thought I could perform in public as I thought I was risking it all my job, my friends and my family.  I dared not be different. 

My problem with showing the world my talent was I was dealing with even more boxes now. I added age & weight to my list of reasons why I couldn't do this. I thought ‘Who wants to see a 47-year-old do escapes?’ Bill refused to listen to any of the negative talk. The agreement was simple.  If any negative comments were posted about my escapes he would remove them and end any further discussion about becoming an escape artist. Of course, if it took off, then I would do my first public escape at the Worldwide Escape Artist Relay, an event held in honor of Harry Houdini.  

Well, the video exploded and I did the Worldwide Escape Artist Relay doing my Underwater Leap of Faith Escape. It required me to tell my parents, as I did the escape in their hometown, and tell my friends. Crazy as it sounds, I was more worried about rejection than drowning! Simply put, to be outstanding, you have to be willing to stand out. I would risk doing death-defying escapes 12.5 feet underwater in 50 pounds of chains and shackles but would not risk showing the world for fear of rejection.

The villain inside us is what we have to fight. Especially as women, it is so hard to step out for fear that others (sadly too many women) will judge us harshly. As a sisterhood, we have to begin to be more supportive of one another.  We cannot rip apart each other every time a girl or a women steps out.  It is appalling how poorly women treat one another.  And now, our little girls are being thrust out on the stage earlier than ever before with social media.  Many have been victims of cruel and senseless ridicule.  I have done work with Girls Inc and I tell my story of "getting out of my box" and the struggle it posed.  I now teach young girls to be strong and dare to be different.  I try to help them become escapes artists (figuratively) by helping them escape their boxes.

For me, the last 4 years has been nothing short of amazing. I have done seven national TV appearances. I did NBC's Today, the CBS Evening News, set a world record on Fox and Friends, and I did three episodes of America's Got Talent last year and designed and trained Todd Sampson for a Houdini like underwater escape in the series Hack My Brain for the Science Channel (which also aired in Australia on ABC and won an award for best documentary) . But none of this would have happened without the love of a strong husband and the courage to escape my box. As sisters, mothers and friends, I urge you to help support our girls and show them that it is ok to stand out, as it is the only way to be outstanding. 


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