In our dreams, they are dangerous, free & beautiful
They enchant and tempt us, embodying the eternal allure of a world that exists just beyond ours. They have the power to control the winds and the tides; they can lure men to their demise… or bring rebirth and transformation.
The Ancient Greeks, Inuit elders, and Vodou priests have passed on legends of women of the water. Columbus saw mermaids while sailing the Caribbean Sea. Henry Hudson and John Smith recorded sightings in their ship’s logs, too.
We have tried to capture or outsmart them, but they always seem to elude us. Instead, the mermaids toy with us; wild and tempestuous, they mock us with their unpredictable duality, beckoning us toward an unknown fate of pleasure and knowledge...or destruction and doom.
The Dive Bar
The mermaid is still just as much the temptress as she always was. She’s been depicted in literature for as long as we can remember and has been swimming onto our screens since the inception of cinema itself; but these days she seems to be surfacing more and more. Today, there are fitness classes, theme parks, party entertainment companies, and bars across the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Asia that hire mermaid performers to seduce and amuse their clients. Current estimates put the number of full-time professional mermaids in the US at 1,000.
At a bar in Sacramento, California, mermaids and mermen perform nightly in a 7,500-gallon fish tank above the bar. For Rachel Smith, who holds the position of Head Mermaid at Dive Bar, this job came at a particularly difficult moment in her life, and has served to help her find empowerment and self-confidence when she needed it most.
Where there are mermaids, there are tails…
In order to become a mermaid, professional or otherwise, finding the right tail is step one. As more and more people enter the mermaiding world, a whole tail-making industry has begun to flourish. There’s a wide range of tails to choose from whether made of spandex, neoprene, or silicone, but all use a monofin to mimic a fluke and to help propel you underwater.
There are several high-end tail-makers around the US that make custom-order realistic and swimmable mermaid tails, and it’s becoming an increasingly competitive market. Thom Shouse has been a prop-master on film sets for decades. In 1984, he worked alongside Robert Short to create Daryl Hannah’s iconic burnt sienna tail for the Ron Howard film Splash, and he hasn’t stopped making tails since. He is revered by a network of Southern California mermaids and mermen who call him their “Mer Papa”.
Thom views his obsession with mermaids as something that anyone can get hooked on, and has coined the terms “mergasm” and “merpes” to describe both the pleasure of putting on a tail and the viral effect that he has witnessed it having.
Abby & Bryn
Abby and Bryn are fraternal twins who have made a career out of tailoring people’s dreams into reality. A few years ago, they began experimenting with creating realistic mermaid tails for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Before long, they became so good at crafting silicone, paint, and monofins into lifelike tails that word spread to the greater mer-community (a culture they had never heard of before), and suddenly they couldn’t keep up with demand for their work.
Just one of tens of tail-making businesses currently in operation, the twins’ brand Finfolk is considered amongst the very best, and custom tails range from $1,000-$4,000 a pop. Trained as visual artists, Abby and Bryn never imagined they’d be making their living crafting mermaid tails, but there is no end in sight for their business now. They’re constantly dreaming up new fluke and scale designs, and get a lot satisfaction out of combining their perfectly matched skills to bring their customers’ aquatic fantasies to life.
“ The only city of live mermaids ”
If you travel to the belly of the Gulf Coast of Florida, you can find an antiquated, yet still very much alive, relic of the past: Weeki Wachee, “the only city of live mermaids”. Behind the kitsch and the old school Americana, there exists another world that is very real for the women who inhabit it.
The women of this famed roadside attraction, which has been in the business of mermaid shows since 1947, may wear splashy makeup, sequinned bras, and fabric tails for their audiences, but, when the curtains rise and the performance starts, there is nothing pretend about being a mermaid for them. For the women who worked here back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, this spring holds a very special place in their hearts. Performing as a mermaid when they were fresh out of high school gave them their first taste of an independent identity and of a sisterhood outside their family homes.
Ever since a very special 50th reunion show in 1997, the former mermaids of Weeki Wachee have been coming together once a month to perform as the “Legendary Sirens” and relive their inner mermaid identities. We can’t help but wonder if these women have secretly discovered the fountain of youth somewhere deep in those Floridian waters…
Whether an emblem of sisterhood and community or independence, strength, and freedom, the mermaid has been a symbol of empowerment for people all over the world and throughout time. Her part-human part-mystical nature has allowed us to find an archetype to both aspire and relate to.
This project was made in association with the feature film MERMAIDS, a documentary about real, live mermaids and the myth behind them.