Four years ago, Dedham native Donna “Alex” Purnell took the plunge and pursued her lifelong interest in becoming a female escape artist.
Now 51 and living in Medway, Purnell has landed a spot on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” under her stage name “Alexanderia the Great.”
She cannot reveal her next escape, but her audition was getting out of handcuffs and about 30 feet of chain while holding her breath underwater. She's back on the show this Tuesday or Wednesday at 9 p.m.
Getting to the point where she could do that so-called “leap of faith” on national television required moving forward with a more personal leap of faith in 2009.
“Leading up to all of this, my husband had spent so many years trying to convince me to do this since I was 16,” Purnell said of her longtime partner and now trainer, Bill Purnell. “I didn’t think the world was ready for this – a female escape artist. There are only a handful of us in the whole world actually doing escapes and I kept saying I just don’t think anybody would watch this.”
Alexanderia the Great did her first public escape at a pool in Dedham on Oct. 24, 2009, for the Worldwide Escape Artist Relay, and local newspapers covered her participation. When Purnell got back into work the following Monday as a substitute teacher at the Medway Public Schools, her coworkers celebrated her achievement, much to Purnell’s surprise.
“She was worried it was going to hurt her teaching, but she was getting called in to sub for the rest of October, November, and December,” Bill Purnell said of his wife.
Purnell and her husband were invited on the 105.7 WROR “Loren and Wally Morning Show” and eventually on the “Today Show.” Producers for “America’s Got Talent” saw her on the Today Show and invited her to try out.
The scariest part of being on the show, however, was not the death-defying escapes she would have to perform, it was being seen by one of the judges: edgy radio personality Howard Stern.
Purnell worried her compact, muscular body or her strange choice of hobby would be the subject of ridicule.
“Howard Stern was a new judge and I thought I’ve worked too hard; I can’t risk having something happen to destroy my confidence,” she said.
As it turned out, Stern was encouraging during her audition.
“He was nothing but gracious,” said Purnell’s husband. “He’s a heck of a judge, hard and honest, but he values talent.”
Though she had trained since the age of 16, Purnell said she had to fight the thought that she would not be able to be successful because she was a woman. Now it is one of the reasons she continues to perform.
“I’m a girl and I have two girls of my own,” she said. “We put ourselves in boxes. I thought I was the wrong gender, that because I wasn’t a guy I couldn’t do this, or that I wasn’t the right size and nobody is going to want to look at me.”
Age was a factor as well, she added.
But as with her escapes out of handcuffs and chains, Purnell wanted to escape the box she had placed herself in. Having lost her job and faced bankruptcy with her husband also inspired her to reinvent herself.
“With my two keys, and everyone has them – the head and the heart – I can get out of any situation,” Purnell said.
In a return appearance to the Loren and Wally Morning Show on Monday to promote her spot on America’s Got Talent, Purnell bested a former world record she herself had set. She escaped from a straightjacket and chain in under one minute 59 seconds, obliterating her previous record of two minutes 37 seconds. Upon completing the escape, she smiled at her husband and hugged one of the hosts.
“One thing about the public, they don’t believe it if they don’t see it,” Purnell said in an interview with the Globe a half hour after her escape. “They want to see the struggle.”
Purnell said she has struggled her whole life, but like a sword, she believes getting beaten and burned has made her stronger and sharper.
“I’ve tried to take all the negative things in my life and use them to become strong and I feel so much stronger now,” she said.
And she is hoping to pass on the lessons she has learned as a spokeswoman for Girls Inc., speaking out against bullying and cyberbullying.
Purnell, her husband, and the rest of the viewing public will find out whether she will progress to the next round when the show airs Tuesday and Wednesday.