"Often, mermen get booked for modelling and events where we're just sitting there posing. That's what I'm trying to change. I feel that boys are just as capable of doing the stuff that the mermaids get paid to do."
Chris O'Brocki, otherwise known as Merman Christian, is talking about the challenges mermen face to be taken seriously as professionals in a female-dominated sphere. "Maybe if merman gigs become more active and open then people will see us as more than just being there to balance out the mermaids, because mermen are just as important as the girls."
Unsurprisingly, much has been written about the community of professional mermaids, with their media-friendly seashell bras and Instagram-friendly tails. But what about the professional mermen of this world? If you're just a boy, with a tail, asking someone to book you—well, how hard can it be?
As arguably the most famous merman in the world, Eric Ducharme is something of a legend in the mer-community. I ask him whether he's ever encountered sexism from his chosen tribe because he's a man. "Oh my goodness, yes. Without a doubt. A man in a tail is a scary thing for some people, while others enjoy it."
When I ask Ducharme to elaborate, he points to the fact that "mermaids seem to be the highlight of an event," although acknowledging that given his profile, he generally manages to avoid any gender pay gap that might exist within some aspects of the mer-industry. "I'm one of the first men who wears a tail to put himself on such a high public level, and I have a flat rate that I charge for my time at an event."
Another challenge faced by aspiring mermen is a lack of visible role models. Growing up, Tikva Naim Maksim Briggs a.k.a. Maksim Merman the Yellowtailed SeaWitch never had strong male mer-models to look up to. "King Triton, obviously, but mostly Ursula, even though Ursula is not a merman." This is something O'Brocki also knows all too well. "About five years ago, when I was making neoprene mermaid tails, I discovered the community of mermaids on YouTube. I knew I wanted to make a tail of my own, but as I researched the community more I realized that there were no merman figures to look up to."
Like the heroine of a Nora Ephron novel, O'Brocki would have to become the role model he himself sought. "I wasn't really gaining much from my tail-making, so when I saw the window was open to be that figure [that people look up to] and make a difference I decided to jump through it."
From a cost-effectiveness point of view, there are positives to being merman, something Briggs acknowledges. "On the whole, although tails are equally expensive, I don't have to wear a top so equipment costs can be cheaper for mermen."
O'Brocki agrees. "We don't have boobs, so that's a whole chunk of money we don't need to throw down for so many gorgeous tops that the girls wear. A lot of mermaids like to wear wigs and extensions, so that's another thing that can sneak up on you."
Despite the challenges, all the mermen I spoke to emphasised how the mercommunity is at heart a welcoming and inclusive place: somewhere they can make space to explore their 'mersonality' and develop their identity free from social judgement or constraints. "Anyone can be a mermaid, merman, merkid," Ducharme tells me—provided you can swim, of course.
But things can get a little tough out of the swimming pool and in real life. If you're going to be merman, you're going to need a thick skin. It's good not to let other people's perceptions or things they may say bait you—something Briggs understands. "Although I've never experienced sexism in the mercommunity because we do not judge—we are more like family—there are some unhappy people out there who look at us mermen and say, 'That's not a merman. Merfolk are supposed to be women.'"
Pioneering mermen act as an inspiration to a generation of young boys who might previously have thought that tails were only for girls. "Some of my biggest fans are young boys," explains O'Brocki, "because they're so used to seeing mermaids almost all the time. They get such big smiles on their faces, it's adorable. They want to race me in the pool or ask if my dad is King Triton or Poseidon."
By swimming against the prevailing ethos that only girls can have fins, O'Brocki is an unlikely hero to aspiring mermen everywhere. "I get some very personal and emotional messages from men who've told me that I've given them the strength and courage to follow their dreams."
None of the mermen I interviewed had dated fellow merfolk, although in part that's because being a merman seems to be a full-time gig. "It's important not to try and copy someone else in the mercommunity. Really just know going into it, what kind of merman you want to be," O'Brocki says. Developing your own persona really helps. "I'm known worldwide as Merman Christian, and when I set out to become this character I really had to think about my mission. How would my tails look? What would my mission be?"
Finally, some advice to any dudes out there thinking it might be time to invest in a silicone tail? "Anyone can be a merman," O'Brocki states. "Period. There is no mold that you have to be to fit in this community. It's a welcoming place that's as big as the ocean."