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Life's calling as the 'Queen of Swords'

She’s willing to invite up to 14 swords, some 29 inches long, past her esophagus, but she is rarely willing to invite people past her front door.

The self-proclaimed “Queen of Swords,” Natasha Veruschka, a multiple Guinness World Record holder for swallowing swords, is quite reserved for a woman who makes a living performing in front of hundreds of people around the globe.

“My age is like my phone number: unlisted,” she told LIFE photographer Zoran Milich, who over the past two months established a rapport with the professional sword swallower.

“The first time I did it, it felt like home. It made me complete,” she says of ingesting swords.

Her 5’4” stature, 92-pound frame and bubbly persona make it hard to believe she’s in the profession of ingesting blades of steel, but her glowing neon sword, which illuminates from the inside out reveals this is not a magic act. She may dress the part of an illusionist, in colorful bedazzled leotards and layers of makeup, but her swords are real. Instead of wielding them against another, she puts them inside of her. And she enjoys it.

Her passion for her profession is reflected on the walls of her New York City townhouse, replete with awards, trinkets from around the world, costume jewelry and of course, her prized swords.

And then there are the Vodka bottles strewn across the floor. But this half-Russian does not drink. The Vodka is used as a cleaning agent for her swords.

Veruschka, as multidimensional as her 8-sided Chinese Sai sword, was born in India to a British mother and a Russian father. After her mother’s death, she was adopted by Mennonites in the Ukraine, and then shipped across the Atlantic to Canada, where she discovered her life’s calling as a young child while washing dishes in church. While cleaning a knife, she caught her reflection and felt a sudden connection to the sharp steel blade.

Photographer Milich, himself, has come a long way from Toronto, working in former Eastern Bloc countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall and documenting the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. He took a brief detour in South America before moving to NYC where he is continually inspired by those around him. “It’s the people that make it so interesting not just the landmarks,” he says.

Throwing in the dish towel, Veruschka eventually made her way to New York, performing with swords and belly dancing. “She is a fine polish among all the dirt in New York City,” Milich says.

Known for finding colorful characters, Milich had originally planned on following her around for a week leading up to a sword show, but that was not enough he says, “I needed to know much more about her.”

Verushchka holds seven sword swallowing world records. Among them, the most swords swallowed at once (thirteen 22-inch long swords), the longest sword swallowed by a female (29 inches long), and the list goes on. But humble and unassuming, she is not boastful of her accomplishments, noting that three people have died trying to break her record.

She also has had three near death experiences.

One time, she said, “they told me at the hospital that I would be in the morgue by the following morning. I told them there were shoes in my closet that I still haven't worn.” She was back swallowing swords within one month.

Veruschka has a life outside of swords. She volunteers at a food drive at St. Luke’s Church in Manhattan, where she identifies with the poor people who come in for food. "There, but for the grace of God go I," she says.

There are no signs that she’s parting ways with her weapons of choice any time soon. “My family has shunned me for what I do. To them I am dead,” she says. “But I will be the oldest belly dancing sword swallower in years to come or until I am dead. Whichever comes first.”

- Michelle Cohan, CNN