Life

This Is What It’s Like To Be a Professional Mermaid

“All my life, I had a strong desire to bring whimsy into the world.”
June 30, 2021, 10:17am
syrena, singapore's first professional mermaid
Photo: Joshfather Photography

A mythical figure with a shining tail and shades of turquoise and purple descends into an aquarium. It moves effortlessly through the water, gliding from end to end, smiling and waving to children standing by the glass pane. It’s Syrena, the mermaid

On land, she’s 29-year-old Cara Nicole Neo, billed as Singapore’s first professional mermaid. Instead of going under the sea, she performs at kids’ parties, corporate events and hotels. She also has her own mermaid school. 

“To me, professional mermaiding is about character creation,” Neo told VICE. “I believe having a truly successful ‘mersona,’ is [creating] something that is still faithful to you. Even when I’m in full Syrena mode, it feels natural to me; it is part of who I am.”

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While shopping for a Halloween costume in 2011, she was drawn to vibrant mermaid tails, fascinated that you could actually swim in them. 

“I bought it because I thought it was just going to be a fun hobby, a continuation of a childhood dream. I mean, this gadget [the tail] was phenomenal. I bought it, tried it, and loved it,” she said. 

syrena, singapore's first professional mermaid

​Photo: Joshfather Photography​

Just a few months of swimming in a mermaid tail and she knew she wanted to do it professionally. 

“When would I be able to give this a shot, if it’s not now?” Neo remembered thinking. 

She was studying literature at the National University of Singapore at the time. She was hired for some gigs, but opportunities were few and far between. Neo said she almost quit, but after some encouragement from her boyfriend, she decided to just keep swimming. 

Then came her big break. In 2013, Neo was featured in an article profiling her work as a mermaid, and she started receiving multiple inquiries. Now, she works with top hotels, malls and tourist attractions in Singapore. Live performances, which could take anywhere from one to three hours, give her a chance to get creative through choreography.

syrena, singapore's first professional mermaid

​Photo: Joshfather Photography​

Mermaiding is a subculture found all over the world. It’s like freediving but with people’s legs tied together the entire time. 

In April, a resort in Sanya, China, showcased over 100 mermaids who performed as part of its third anniversary celebration. The event broke the Guinness World Records title for largest underwater mermaid show

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What makes mermaiding different from cosplay is that, most of the time, performers create their own personas instead of adopting existing characters.

“You really have to construct a fantasy for [the audience] that is engaging and immersive enough to keep them involved for that period of time, all while doing intensely physical choreography.” 

syrena, singapore's first professional mermaid

​Photo: Obselete Photos

As magical as mermaids are, Neo’s pre-show routine is just like any job. She prepares her uniform (crown, top, and tail), makes sure she has the right tools (lubricant to slip in and out of her tail), and gets ready mentally and emotionally. In every event, she tries to be excited yet calm. 

“For mermaiding, the lower your heart rate is, the more oxygen-efficient your body is going to be. And obviously, that’s very important in my job,” Neo said. “Despite knowing there’s going to be a hundred people waiting to see me perform... I have to prepare myself with mental exercises and breathing exercises to lower my heart rate and ensure that my body is performance ready.”

Emerging from the water after holding your breath for an extended period of time is not glamorous, but Neo has to stay in character no matter what—always elegant and majestic. 

She usually does 20 to 40 dives in one show, holding her breath anywhere from 50 seconds to a minute before going back up for air. 

“I would have to constantly come up gracefully for oxygen for about 20 to 30 seconds before diving back down.”

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“I have not timed how long I can hold my breath under water; that gives me too much stress. But when I feel free and I’m enjoying the moment, I tend to be able to hold my breath much longer,” she said.

syrena, singapore's first professional mermaid

​Photo: Joshfather Photography​

Besides performing, Neo also founded the Singapore Mermaid School, where students learn practical tips on how to move like a mermaid. 

“All my life, I had a strong desire to bring whimsy into the world. Singapore is a city of chrome and glass, and I want to show that magic still grows within the cracks.” 

“All my life, I had a strong desire to bring whimsy into the world. Singapore is a city of chrome and glass, and I want to show that magic still grows within the cracks.”

To Neo, this isn’t just “swim school,” it’s a holistic program that covers mermaid mythology, history, pop culture and movements. Some students have the opportunity to perform in shows or what she calls “finternships.” 

Participants range from 18-year-old students to 60-year-old retirees. There are nurses, accountants, lawyers and stay-at-home moms, too. She said most people are there to find a community, pick up a new hobby, or relieve stress. 

“I find it particularly meaningful when adults in the mermaid school open up and share their life lessons,” Neo said. “Attending the Singapore Mermaid School has helped them move forward and discover themselves.”

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For Neo, the joy in slipping into a fishtail is the chance to spark wonder among the audience.

“Another meaningful part of the job would be the few seconds during performances whereby I’m looking through the glass and touching hands with a little kid on the other side, and you just see the spark of magic in their eyes. At that moment, they believe that anything is possible.”

syrena, singapore's first professional mermaid

​Photo: Joshfather Photography​

Naturally, Neo felt like a fish out of water when shows and other activities were canceled due to the pandemic.

“That’s when I realized how much your job really shapes your identity as a person, and I felt lost,” she said. 

When Singapore eased pandemic restrictions, Neo returned to holding mermaid classes and performing in birthday parties, but large-scale events are still on pause. 

She also used her time out of the water to start new projects. In May, Neo released a music video for her first single “Jolly Sailor Bold” on YouTube. In it, Neo sings by the beach wearing a pink mermaid top and tail with matching pink hair. The song is also available on Spotify and iTunes.

Her life as Syrena, the mermaid, seems straight out of a fairytale, but Neo has some very practical advice for those pursuing their dreams: It entails hard work, too. 

“Make sure you’re actually good at what you do, make sure your heart is happy, set a timeline for you to experiment, and try it out. And if it doesn’t work out, maybe it’s still meant to be, but just in a different capacity,” she said. “There’s always room to make magic, but you just have to manage your expectations.”