Exclusive: Nik Wallenda on Family, Fame, Fortune—and the Grand Canyon

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Nik Wallenda strides into this month's walk across the Grand Canyon with a worldwide fan base and high hopes for expanding his family's fame—and fortune.

Author: Tony D'Souza


Photographer: Troy Plota

By Tony D’Souza | Photography by Troy Plota

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When he entered Canada last year, Sarasota’s Nik Wallenda had to present his passport to immigration authorities just like anybody else. But that’s where the similarities with earthbound folks end. Wallenda, of course, stepped into Canada after crossing Niagara Falls on a wire, watched by a worldwide audience that garnered the daredevil an estimated one billion independent media impressions. Heir to perhaps the most famous circus family in history, Wallenda is now set to cross the Grand Canyon on June 23. He’ll be untethered this time, no safety net in sight, 1,500 feet above the rushing waters of the Little Colorado River. The seventh-generation Flying Wallenda wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wallenda, 34, acknowledges that his life has changed since his Niagara crossing. His public appearances and speaking events keep him on planes and away from Sarasota, and impact the time he gets to spend with his family—his wife of 14 years, Erendira, and his three children, Yanni, Amadaos and Evita. He’s in the midst of a number of major endorsement deal negotiations, makes constant media appearances, and carefully manages his brand and performing career as he returns the Wallenda name to prominence.

When he’s not hanging by his teeth under helicopters, walking Wheels of Death suspended over the edges of tall buildings, or daring fate on the high wires that claimed the lives of his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, and other members of his family, these days Nik Wallenda might just as easily be found shopping at a Sarasota Walmart, making time to sign autographs for fans. We recently caught up with Wallenda, who was home for a brief visit in between making preparations to cross the Grand Canyon.

Q: You’ve been traveling a lot?

A: Oh, man. I just got home yesterday. I was in Arizona, Illinois, and twice in New York. I was gone for eight days, and I may be flying out tomorrow. Back out to Arizona for a photo shoot. It’s crazy how busy I am. Up until now I’ve been doing it all myself, OK’ing all of my flights and a lot of them I purchase. But it’s gotten to the point that I’m about to hire an assistant.

Q: You have to wear a lot of different hats in your career.

A: I always have. I have to be on camera, on point, and also I’m on all the engineering calls. Every Friday we have meetings leading up to the event. For instance, we had to buy a rope to pull the cable I’ll be walking on from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other. It’s a $35,000 rope, so it’s not just a rope. I go out and get extra bids and better pricing.

Q: Tell us about the Grand Canyon walk.

A: The distance is similar to Niagara, about 1,500 feet across. It’s 1,500 feet high, taller than the Sears Tower. It’s in a beautiful area right over the Little Colorado River about an hour from Flagstaff. One of the challenges is we’re not going to be able to have huge crowds. At Niagara, there were 150,000 people. Here, we’re talking maybe 300. There’s no space for people.

Q: Why the Grand Canyon?

A: As far as TV-friendly and the beauty of location, this is the place. If it’s too long a walk, airtime is an issue. NBC is producing it; it’s going to be live on the Discovery Channel in about 181 countries. It’s possibly going to be the largest live TV special in history outside of the Olympics; 1.3 billion people will be able to watch.

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Q: You had a billion people watch you cross Niagara, is that right?

A: It wasn’t [all] live, but yes, within 24 hours we had one billion media impressions around the world.

Q: I know you dreamed about crossing Niagara as a child, but why choose another natural location?

A: The canyon was something I dreamed about for a long time, too. I was actually planning to walk across it back in 2008, but NBC had some financial problems and my project was put on hold. When I drive anywhere in the world I’m always looking around and saying, “Where’s the next spot?” In Sarasota, I think, ‘Well, I’ve done the Ritz-Carlton. I’ve gone over 41. What’s next?”

Q: There was an explosion of media coverage about you beginning around 2011, which has been constant through now. Your life has really changed, hasn’t it?

A: For sure. I have set out on a path to put my family’s name under a worldwide spotlight. My ancestors did an amazing job, and it’s time for us to get the name out there again. That’s been my goal, to make sure the world doesn’t forget who the Wallendas are.

Q: But for a long period, it was like that, the world had left the Wallendas behind. How did you get yourself out in front of the cameras again?

A: (Laughing) I heard “no” a lot and I didn’t give up. That’s why I live by that motto, “Never Give Up.” Niagara Falls is the perfect example. I had to speak in front of the New York state senate, the Assembly, the House; the governor had to sign a law with my name on it giving me—and me only—an exemption to a law [against stunts] that was existent for over 100 years. It’s a challenge, it’s a fight. It cost me well over a million dollars to pull that off. That’s not easy money to come by, especially in our industry.

Q: So how did you lay the groundwork for it?

A: Before Niagara, I had broken six world records. It was important that I had first built a name. If some guy comes up and says, “I’m one of the Wallendas, let me do it,” the first thing they say is, “Great, but Karl Wallenda was a Wallenda, and he died in 1978 walking between two buildings.” I went back and recreated that walk with my mother just to prove to the world that the Wallendas are still around and know what we’re doing. There’ve been about 14 wire walkers over the past 100 years who’ve adamantly sought but were not granted permission to walk over the falls. I built the brand up before I went to seek that permission.

Q: You learned wire walking from your family, but did you learn brand management from them, too?

A: That’s an area my family kind of lacks in. My managers will tell you, “Get Nik in the room and we guarantee the deal will be closed.” I can promote. I am a marketer, a businessman, as much as I am a performer. My family are incredible performers—but they’re not incredible businessmen. And you need to be incredible businessmen in order to excel. The perfect examples would be my great-grandfather and Evel Knievel. More businessmen than performers, but both made history.

Q: You grew up around the circus, but what you’re doing isn’t really traditional circus, is it?

A: That’s my background, my history, but I’ve stepped away and brought it to the mainstream. I remember years ago saying, “I want to make circus cool.” How do I do that? I take what I learned from my family and make it new. A couple examples are the Wheel of Death, something our family has done forever, and I said I’m going to put it on top of a building and hang it over the edge so if I fall off, literally I’m falling 300 feet. Another example is I’m visiting my grandmother [Jenny Wallenda] and she’s got a picture of her hanging under a bicycle on a wire by her jaw. I saw that and said, “That’s awesome, but how can I make that cool?” So I put it under a helicopter without any safety at 280 feet. I look at a guy like Tony Hawk; here’s a guy who loves skateboarding and he made an incredible career out of it. I’ve always realized our family must be missing the mark, because if somebody who rides a skateboard can make hundreds of millions of dollars, what we do is so much more extreme, there’s got to be a way.

Q: Wallendas have been part of our culture for a long time; everybody knows the name. But have you gone farther? Are you the most famous Wallenda?

A: I try to do anything I can to put my family’s name on a platform. I do it in honor of my great-grandfather. It’s important to me that he would be proud of what I’m doing. I don’t do anything to outshine him; I do everything to shine light on him. We’ve got media he didn’t have access to and it’s at the fingertips of everybody. My goal was to build a brand that everybody in the world would know, and I think he’d be right alongside me.

Q: Can you talk a little about your endorsement deals?

A: I have a Swiss watch that endorses me called Jean Richard. I [did] a photo shoot [in April] for GQ here in Sarasota. Other things are still in negotiations: major automobile companies, clothing lines, sports drinks, deodorants, cell phones. There’s definitely a lot of reward for the work I’ve put into this. I hope other people in our industry can capitalize on the doors I’ve opened.

Q: I know your main focus is walking on the wire; if business deals fall through, can that stress or distract you?

A: That’s one of the blessings of being raised in this industry. I remember as a child my parents getting called to perform at Disney World; I’d be so excited, “We’re going to perform at Disney World for a year!” And it would fall through and my heart would break. So I’m immune to that. I’ve been through it already.

Q: You’ve said that until Niagara, you’d never spent even six days away from your wife and kids. I’m suspecting that’s not true anymore?

A: It’s definitely changing. Although they fly in. Next week, they’re coming to New York; I’m bringing my entire family. It’s one of the things people connect with: I’m a family man. My wife and kids come first, they are my main priority. My main calling in life is to be a father. The rest comes second.

Q: And you’re religious, a devout Christian; you expressed your faith to the world while crossing Niagara. Do you make it to church even when you’re on the road?

A: With the Internet, I attend my home church almost every Sunday no matter where I’m at. I go to Shining Light Bible Church, which is off Fruitville east of the Interstate. It’s nondenominational. I’m not overly religious; that kind of scares people sometimes. I don’t believe I have to be at church every Sunday, but it’s good to be fed every week, to learn more about God and socialize. A lot of times, my family will be in the audience and I’ll be on the Internet.

Q: Does your faith make it complicated for your brand and reaching people around the world, many of who may not be Christian?

A: To hurt my brand, I think I’d have to be out there forcing that in people’s faces. I believe my example is more of a witness than anyone saying, “This is what the Bible says.” I have faults. I make mistakes all the time. I will get frustrated with my father and get in an argument and be cursing and screaming. At the end of the day, it’s a hug and kiss and, “Dad, I love you and I shouldn’t have said that.” I do my best to remain a positive example, a father, a family man. Business can get in the way of that; I have arguments with my wife and definitely many growing pains in our marriage because I have to travel a lot. Some of my closest friends will slap me upside the head and say, “Don’t forget who you are and where you came from.” After every event, I sign autographs. As a matter of fact, I was telling my wife, “You know, it’s probably not good because my autograph will not be worth anything. “It’s great for my brand [but] I think it hurts the value of an autograph when you’re signing so many.

Q: Please keep signing those autographs!

A: I will. Shoot, I was at Walmart signing an autograph last night when I got home.

Q: Speaking of arguing with your father, I watched the Sarasota Skywalk you did in January. For me, that was more terrifying than Niagara. At Niagara, you were tethered, but it was so windy in Sarasota, there was terror on everyone’s faces. You were on live feed arguing with your father about the tension on the wire. What was he doing wrong? Can you talk about that?

A: I am an entertainer.

Q: What does that mean?

A: I am an entertainer.

Q: (After a moment) You were just “selling the act”?

A: Two weeks before I walked over Niagara I was walking in Baltimore and as I was walking, one of my friends was up top. I said, “Hey, you want to see this audience scream?” and he said, “Yes,” and I did a fake slip. The president of ABC was watching and freaked out and that’s why I [had to wear] a tether [over Niagara Falls]. If I just walked across that wire, it would get boring. To add a little drama—and the wire was moving some, don’t get me wrong, never uncontrollably, never to the point where I felt like I was going to fall—but a little bit of what I do is being an entertainer. It’s important that I keep that level of excitement up every time I perform.That’s what pays my bills.

Q: I heard you got a text from ABC, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?” in all caps?

A: Yes, not from the head of ABC but someone who was sent the message, “Deal with this.”

Q: That Baltimore slip, Nik, I saw another interview with you where you said you did slip because you were messing around with your friend.

A:
(laughing) Exactly. It just depends on what’s on my mind at the time.

Q: Did you slip or did you not slip? I saw it. It was scary.

A: I think my response was, “I’ll let you be the judge of what that was.”

Q: Aha.

A: As an entertainer, I’m also not supposed to tell you that I’m an entertainer and that I was faking; I’m supposed to tell you, “Yeah, the marina wind was horrible and I almost fell in Sarasota and the guys were doing a horrible job.” I’m a lot of times overly honest, which sometimes isn’t a good thing. But as an entertainer, I’m coached to say, “Oh, yeah, it was bad. I barely made it in Sarasota. I thought I was going to die.”

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Q: Your great-grandfather had a famous quote: “Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” He walked the wire until he fell from it.Your uncle Mario rode the wire even after he was paralyzed from his fall. Was there anything else you could have done but the wire?

A: I thought about becoming a doctor; I was getting ready to go to Southeastern Bible College when I was 18. And the reason was my parents and ancestors were extremely successful on the wire, but they weren’t extremely successful at paying their bills. There was a point as I was growing up when my parents had gone bankrupt and I thought, “Here’s what I love to do, and I’m going to have to give it up because I’m going to have a family to support.” I always wanted to be a family man. [Then] I was like, “I’m going to have to move on past this.’ You’ve probably read the stories where we went to Detroit and recreated the seven-person pyramid. That was the turning point where I saw the amount of media from around the world and attention on that event. I saw a career.

Q: Now the million-dollar question—your career is unique in that people are watching you because you might die, isn’t that right?

A: Absolutely. But I think 90 percent of people who watch NASCAR are watching because they think someone might die. Well, maybe not 90 percent, 40 percent. There’s other entertainment that’s like that for sure.

Q: I read somewhere that you’re afraid to do media because people keep asking you questions about dying, falling—you worry it can get in your head?

A: I didn’t say I’m afraid to do media. I said if I bought into what they say—media, your job is to build hype and make things exciting, so of course you’re going to come to me and say, “You could die. I thought you were going to die. You’re not going to wear a tether? How foolish.” You’re going to build it up. Well, what I do is so mental that if I buy in to that, I can talk myself out of doing what I do.

Q: The fact is you’re a Wallenda, and Wallendas have died.

A: There’s definitely been several. For one, accidents happen. But I could get killed just as easily in my car today, especially driving in Sarasota, as walking the wire. People don’t understand that. I see being a police officer as 20 times more dangerous than what I do. A police officer is not in control of that criminal with the gun. I’m in control of myself on the wire for the most part. The only thing I can’t control is the weather. Yes, there’s a danger to what I’m doing, but we’re all taking a risk every time we leave our houses.

Q: And your kids? How do you explain the risks you take to them?

A: They have been raised around it so it’s all they know. If you’re raised around your father being a police officer, it’s not very often that a child is like, “Dad, I want you to retire, I don’t want you to be a police officer.”

Q: You’re not a police officer, Nik. I read that your son cried when you were about to do Niagara.

A: My son did, but I think my son—being that this was such a worldwide event—bought into the hype. Let’s face it, I was hooked in. As lame as that was, I had to be hooked to the wire. I was going to hang there and dangle like a spider if something were to happen. He bought into the hype.

Q: If the worst does happen and you were to fall and die, how would you want the world to remember you?

A: As someone who’s lived a bright and noble life and encouraged other people never to give up.

Crossing the Canyon

When: June 23, Discovery Channel, time TBD

Wallenda announced his Grand Canyon wire walk on the Today show on March 18; the wire will span 1,500 feet across the Little Colorado River on Arizona’s Navajo Reservation. Nik will be untethered and working with no net 1,500 feet high, a height greater than the Empire State Building.

Click here to see a video of Nik Wallenda’s Sarasota Skywalk.