It took Donna Purnell over 30 years to tell her parents about her special talent, one she and her husband had kept secret for years.
At age 47, Donna, a hockey Mom, teacher and CCD instructor told her parents and brother that she was escape artist “Alexanderia the Great,” and she’d be performing an escape in her home town of Dedham to raise money for Dedham Athletics.
“They really didn’t know what to say,” she laughs. “The only other person on this planet who knew besides me and Bill had been my sister-in-law.”
Nowadays, “Alexanderia the Great,” of Medway, Mass., has gained national acclaim for her performances in the 2013 NBC show “America’s Got Talent,” making it all the way to the live final competition at Radio City Music Hall.
“She was my junior prom date,” says Bill Purnell. “I was 16, and she had pool in backyard, and to impress her, I did a rope tie and jumped in. She said, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t. I’ve read all these books.’ So she tried it. I expected to save her, but she got out in half the time I did.”
Since then, it became a passion for the couple. Although Bill wanted Donna to take it to a more public level, Donna was hesitant.
“ I said ‘No, I want to go to school. I want to go to college. Teachers are conservative.’ Plus, there were no women doing it. The women who were involved in magic were box jumpers. I didn’t want to do that.”
Teach she did, and later, she ran a family day care, while raising her three children. As Alex puts it, like most family women, she put her hobby on a back burner, especially when times got tougher. Her daycare business slowed, and then, Bill, after 26 years in higher education, was laid off.
“She got really down. She needed something for her confidence,” says Bill, who had felt for years she should do something with her talent. Now, reinvention, as it is nowadays for many mid-lifers, says Bill, seemed necessary. “I knew how blue she was, and I said, ‘You could really do this. You could knock it out of the park,’” says Bill.
After encouraging consultations with professional escape artists, Bill says Donna “was still really on fence. Being outstanding meant standing out. It was not something she wanted to do.” In addition, he says, “She looks like a soccer mom. She isn’t a size 2. She isn’t 23.”
Alex agreed to let Bill post one of her escapes on YouTube, with the stipulation that if she were to get negative comments, he would take it down. He agreed, but told her that if it took off, she had to do agree to do WEAR, the World Escape Artist Relay created in 2005 to commemorate Houdini’s death. At WEAR, escape artists worldwide perform escapes within a 24-hour period. She agreed, and he posted the video.
“It blew up,” says Bill. “There were just really positive comments. People weren’t looking at her. They were looking at what she was doing.” Bill says he thinks Alex’s initial reluctance had to do with women’s inability to see themselves in a positive light.
“I really haven’t had anything negative said about what I do at all,” says Alex. “All my friends have supported me. My family has supported me. My kids have supported me, and Bill’s my biggest champion, so it’s really fun” Alexanderia points out that she and Bill work as a team.
“Since day one, we train worst case scenario,” says the escape artist, who has trained in free diving and to become scuba certified, all the while with Bill’s support.
“I try to help her get what she needs to be safe. We have a ball doing this,” says Bill, who also helps come up with creative new ideas and marketing.
“It’s taken me a real long time to try to show people this,” says Alexanderia, who hopes to use her experience to teach and plans to do some work with Girls, Inc. She’s had some experience.
As a CCD teacher, her Monsignor asked her to perform for a boys’ youth group
“I did a presentation on Houdini,” she says,” about being able to step out and be who you are and to reinvent yourself and go back and do it again. You go out and give it your best attempt, and if you fail, you go up and try again. It’s really about the struggle. It’s a metaphor for life. You equip yourself the best you can, and if you fail, you find another way.”
Alexanderia likes to remind her audience that the real keys to escaping the box they’re in – the head and the heart – are in everyone’s possession
“You arm yourself with knowledge, and the heart is the passion, and the courage to do it. I had the age box. I had the gender box. I had the size box. My hope is to maybe inspire others to help them to get out of their boxes.”