'World's Best' Escape Artist Matt Johnson on His Nerve-Racking Artistry and 'Living on the Edge' (Exclusive)
By Zach Seemayer
"No matter how much training you've done, every time is like the first time," acclaimed escapologist Matt Johnson says of getting shackled and locked inside a glass box filled with water from which he must either escape or risk drowning. "And every single time I go under, I think to myself, 'I do not want to be here.'"
And then it did, in a way. In a radical cliffhanger unlike any you've likely seen on similar reality competition shows, The World's Best ended its pretaped premiere episode with Johnson still stuck in the box, gesturing for help.
It was a bold effort by the new series to entice viewers to return for the next episode to see if Johnson makes it out alive.
Well, it should come as little surprise that the magician did, in fact, live through the ordeal, and he spoke exclusively with ET on Tuesday about his experience on the show and his motivation for putting his life on the line to follow his passion for escapology.
"What's so compelling about [being on The World's Best] is it's not like you're just auditioning," Johnson explained.
The show -- which features a panel of celebrity judges made up of Drew Barrymore, RuPaul and Faith Hill, as well as 50 international judges who are all respected experts in various fields of entertainment -- brings together a slew of acts who have already earned the respect and recognition to reasonably compete for the eponymous title.
"Just getting that [recognition], I feel I've already won," the entertainer, who hails from Sheffield, England, shared.
While Johnson's mortal fate isn't a mystery -- after all, if a contestant had died during the production of a reality show, it would already have been front-page news -- his performance on the series, and possible place in the finals, won't be revealed until Wednesday's new episode.
Naturally, the seasoned performer couldn't give anything away about how his stunt turned out, but he candidly admitted that getting out of the tank of water was an unprecedentedly difficult ordeal for him.
"The escape was the worst it's ever been for me," Johnson revealed. "I've never been in the tank that long."
Watching Johnson take what could be his final breath as he steps into the water tank, tensely fidgeting as the timer clicks up, and watching this man press his luck further and further, it can be difficult to understand why a person would ever subject themselves to this.
For Johnson, it's all because of his younger brother who suffers from a rare genetic condition known as tuberous sclerosis, which causes painful seizures that prevent him from breathing for minutes at a time.
"About three years ago, I said to my wife, 'How does he go through this? How is it possible for somebody who knows he's never going to get a cure to be hit with this not just once a year or once a month, but day in and day out? What does that feel like for him?'" Johnson recalled. "A lot of people who have siblings who have tuberous sclerosis will tell you that when [a loved one] is having a seizure, they will hold their breath too, to know that this person is going to be alive at the end of it."
So, in an effort to gain some perspective, Johnson decided he wanted to start holding his breath. He started going to a local pool four days a week at 6 a.m. to teach himself to stay underwater longer and longer.
It wasn't until eight months later that he chose to turn his energies toward escapology.
Looking at Johnson, who is almost entirely covered in tattoos that he describes as a scrapbook on his skin and sports a long beard and a shaved head, you're immediately reminded of the sideshow performers and illustrated men from circuses of yesteryear, whose very existence has been closely intertwined with the art of magic for a century.
It's also clear, especially from the way he can captivate and command an audience, that he's been performing for quite some time. In fact, Johnson has been a working illusionist, sleight of hand artist and mentalist for nearly two decades. However, escape artistry is something he's only been doing for two or three years -- although you'd never be able to tell.
"What you see with my escapes is real, which is why it's so important to me that they are so visual and in your face," Johnson explained. "It's painful, it hurts. It's not like I've got some magic gills and I can go underwater and hold my breath for, like, four or five minutes. I can't. If I get to a minute and a half, that's basically me done."
"I'll be honest, I can do four minutes in a swimming pool, static hold and relaxed, just floating and meditating. The most I've ever done is four minutes," he said. "But when you put yourself in a tank of water, and chain yourself up and handcuff yourself, instantly you panic… And when you go on a TV show like this [with] 20 million people watching, your heart rate goes through the roof. Which it can't be, it has to be low. If your heart rate is high, it burns oxygen really fast."
The truth of the matter, according to Johnson, is that the experience is painful, stressful, and he often doesn't enjoy it -- but it's an unmatched thrill.
"For me, life is about living on the edge," he said, comparing the exhilaration to that felt by free climbers and extreme athletes. "That's where the thrill comes from."
With living on the edge comes danger, and with danger comes discomfort -- specifically for those in the audience and at the judges' tables, who are watching Johnson risk life and limb. Unlike close-up magic or disappearing acts, watching an escape artist try not to drown can be downright horrifying.
But fear, disgust and horror aren't emotions Johnson sets out to instill in those who watch his shows.
"I enjoy getting reactions, but I don't enjoy scaring people," he said. "It's an unfortunate side effect… [and] I know I'm not always the favorite guy, because some people don't like to watch."
But, Johnson strongly insisted, "I don't plan on dying on stage anytime soon."
All that being said, his act has had some beneficial side effects aside from his increased fame and public profile. By appearing on The World's Best and a handful of other international shows with his emotional personal story about his younger brother, he's managed to spread awareness for tuberous sclerosis, and he's made his brother proud.
"The team at The World's Best flew my dad and brother out to be there, and my brother is part of the story. My brother, in his hometown, is now like a little celebrity," Johnson added. "My brother can't work, he can't have a job, he can't drive, because he never knows when he's gonna drop, but he's become this celebrity."
"He's the most courageous guy I know and I'm so proud of him," he added.