“You know Peter, if you play with fire, eventually you're gonna get burned. Eventually everyone has an accident. And you just gotta hope today's not that day."
You're listening to Johnny Strange – "Strange by name, strange by nature" – as he sits back enjoying a beer in his mate's flat in London, England. I feature Johnny in my newest book "Pushing The Boundaries! How To Live a Fearless Life." He's a... well, I was going to say "daredevil" but he corrects me on that label.
"I get referred to as a dare devil stuntman a lot," he say. "But my preferred job title is simply 'entertainer'. I choose to entertain in different ways – from telling jokes, demonstrating the unique things my body is capable of, circus skills and bizarre sideshow stunts. My aim is to educate and entertain."
No question, Johnny does that. For instance, with sword swallowing.
"I could literally die half way through the show doing that," he explains. "That's why, just as you're about to swallow the sword, you make a joke. People laugh nervously but then you take it back up to the danger level again. You're playing with those emotions."
Speaking of which, I'm going to bet you're as surprised as I am to discover there's a Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI). Not only does this lofty body exist, but the enthusiastic membership has a fancy logo and even boasts an annual convention... you know, so folks who enjoy ingesting long, sharp, cold, metal bayonets into their inner sanctums can convocate and pay homage to veteran sword swallowers, review opinions about the best steel blade manufacturers, share techniques for avoiding injury, discuss the British Medical Journal's comprehensive study "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects"... stuff like that.
I'll also bet you didn't know that the art of sword swallowing originated over 4,000 years ago in India, did you? I learned that from Dan Meyer, president of Sword Swallower's Association International, himself an experienced enthusiast. "It requires the practitioner to use mind-over-matter techniques to repress natural reflexes in order to insert solid steel blades from 15 to 25 inches down the esophagus and into the stomach. There are currently less than a few dozen full-time professional sword swallowers actively performing around the world."
Hmmmm... wonder why so few participants?
Back to Mr. Strange. "I am constantly trying to push boundaries and training to do things that other people can’t do," he tells me.
"Why?" I ask.
"Because it makes me feel like I’m always moving forward and trying to better myself. I love being able to show people something they have never seen before, things they never thought existed."
Sword swallowing is just one facet of this man's astounding array of routines.
"Peter, I fell in love with the circus at an early age," he explains. "I quickly focused on developing skills in juggling and balancing tricks before honing them as an amateur escapologist. This led to me becoming fascinated with Victorian sideshows and the history of freak shows."
"Do you consider yourself a freak?" I ask.
"No. No, not really. Because in the freak shows, there were three kinds of performers. There's the working act: that's what I do. Then there are modified freaks: people who actually change their bodies. And finally, the natural born freaks, the people who are born different. By saying I'm a freak is taking something away from those people who are truly unique." He stops and considers. "Still, I would say, I am a little bit different."
A little bit?
Now, along with shattering numerous Guinness World Records, Johnny's also earned his nickname: “The man with ears of steel”. At first glance, he appears as a handsome, engaging, dark haired lad who, if you met him on the street, could pass for a lawyer or accountant or... that is, until you see the ears.
"Tell me about that nickname," I say.
"Ah yes," he answers. "Well, it was back in 2013 when my abnormally strong,
stretched ears proved tough enough to set the official Guinness World Record for ‘The heaviest weight lifted by pierced ears’."
"And that weight was...?"
"I managed to lift a 32 pound cast iron load attached to carabineers hooked through just the piercings in my ear lobes," he tells me. I'm grimacing in discomfort at this. But he's not done. "Next, just to take it up a notch, I pulled an aircraft for over 20 feet using nothing more than my ears. You just push yourself a little bit more at a time. You just keep adding a little bit more weight. And hopefully you stop before you push yourself just that little bit too far. I'm still working on finding out where that end is. Until you reach it, you just don't know..."
It's quite the life. Johnny's also got juggling skills, working his way up from handling clubs to working with fire, then to knives and then to chainsaws (to be clear, we're talking about juggling sharp chainsaws that are running!). He's also mastered a wide variety of sideshow acts such as lying on a bed of nails, sharpshooting, eating and breathing fire and precision whip cracking. No question, Johnny's truly a natural born performer, and he's gone on to master some of the most daring acts brought to the stage, performing in 20+ countries around the world, displaying his unique and breathtaking skills from Aberdeen to Abu Dhabi, Stockholm to Southampton and everywhere in between, including a successful six month European tour that spanned over 3,500 miles and covered the UK, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, France and The Netherlands.
"Johnny Strange’s Theatre of Wonder” is part of the retinue: a variety show featuring a rotating cast of high class circus acts, sideshow and freak show performers, snake charmers, strongmen, knife throwers, contortionists and aerial performers. And because he always seeks ways to "take it up a notch", his shows typically include variations of sword swallowing such as ingesting a magnet, then retrieving it by swallowing a sword. Or swallowing a 2,000 volt glass neon tube which can be seen glowing through his skin from the inside. Or swallowing curved and wavy blades. Other stunts include feats of speed where he tests his reaction time against the jaws of a steel bear trap, performing multiple chainsaw stunts, target whip cracking routines and precision marksmanship with crossbows.
Some of Johnny's Guinness World Records include the most apples held in the mouth and chainsawed in half (please! I don't want to even think of that!), the most apples chainsawed out of someone else’s mouth (enough!), the most animal traps released on the body, the fastest time to break 16 concrete blocks on the body and the most melons chopped in half on somebody’s stomach with a samurai sword while they lay on a bed of nails.
But wait! We're not done. Not nearly done. Although, to learn more about Johnny Strange, you'll have to buy the book (currently awaiting a publishing deal; check pushingtheboundaries.life for updates).
Before I say goodbye to this amazing man, I'm compelled to ask him this: "If you were to get seriously injured from a sword or a chainsaw or something, what would happen? Would you become, say, a teacher if you couldn't perform?"
"Hmmmm... no, I wouldn't teach," he says. "But I'd find a way to tell people, 'This is what happened to me. Don't let it happen to you!' It would still involve being on stage in some way."
And isn't that just like Johnny Strange: despite all that may befall him, show biz runs deep in his blood. He can't escape it. And I'm confident he'll be out there for many more years, pushing even more boundaries as he goes.