This article originally appeared on VICE France
For some unknown reason, dressing up like a mermaid has in latter years become a career choice. Having originated in America, "mermaiding" mostly involves cramming your legs into a usually homemade fishtail, which you then frantically beat at aquatic shows and private pool parties.
But I was interested in finding out a little more about the sport, so I got in touch with 25-year-old Claire — a woman claiming to be France's first professional mermaid. Over the last five years, the pretty blonde has used her aquatic-hobby-turned-day-job to supplement her PhD studies. Currently she's busy finishing her thesis, which is entitled "The Myths, Symbols and Archetypes of Disney Productions".
"Mermaiding is so much harder than you'd think," she assured me on our first meeting. "You have to swim around with a 15kg fishtail strapped to your legs. If that wasn't stressful enough, you need to keep your feet held together and your eyes wide open in salt water."
After she finished high school, Claire went straight onto the cruel job market. Being of an artistic nature, she first tried a bit of theatre and modelling but neither took her fancy. After skimming through various American websites, she came across mermaiding — an occupation that combined her interest in swimming with her love of glitter. Unfortunately for her, she could only find one other woman living out the mermaid dream – an American girl named Hanna Fraser. Hannah is a self-proclaimed ocean activist and is best known for spending her time dressed up as a siren while swimming around with sharks.
Surprisingly, nobody in France had heard of mermaiding so first mover Claire took it upon herself to get the scene started. Having found it hard to source a mermaid costume large enough to fit an adult, she was forced to assemble her own with a little help from a Youtube tutorial.
It only took a few photoshoots and the launch of a personal website for Claire to start making a name for herself. It didn't take long before she had Paris Aquarium on the phone offering her a show. All she had to do was get decked out and swim about in a pool full of stingrays and poisonous fish. Which was actually what Claire was after. The show quickly became popular and is currently one of the main staples of the aquarium's program.
One day I tagged along to see how you prepare for such a spectacle. It seems quite arduous — two people are required to put her tail on and zip it up, then Claire needs to be carried up to the pool and dropped in by a colleague. What ensues is ten minutes of underwater choreography full of graceful rolls and rhythmic blowing of bubbles. While Claire is busy trying to be Ariel, a voiceover tells the story of the mythical half-woman half-fish creature. Sure, all the adults think it's bullshit but the kids love it.
Claire is very aware that her job isn't exactly rocket science but it isn't super easy either; She still has to make all the fishtails herself. That might sound simple but it really isn't. You need to adjust everything just right so that the tail doesn't flood with water as soon as she gets (dropped) into the pool. After having made several of them, Claire sees herself as a bit of an expert. She doesn't use latex anymore; She's moved over to silicone, which is more water resistant but also more expensive. Apparently, it's impossible to get a good tail for less than £1000, these days. As they say in the mermaid circles – if you know how to make a good tail, it's not hard to make gold fins.
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The odd time, Claire gets calls from party organisers asking her to come by and act as a human decoration by sitting in a shallow pond, or on a wet rock or something similarly mermaid-y.
"The craziest party I attended was probably last year on this Greek island. Some billionaire was throwing a birthday do for his daughter and I was supposed to be sitting down by the shore, dressed as a mermaid welcoming the boats as they arrived."
Overall, people are pretty respectful. Claire's yet to be dealt an indecent proposal: "I'm lucky; that's never happened to me," she said. "But of course you hear about that sort of thing. There's a famous mermaid tail manufacturer in the States that's made a bad name for themselves by making tails for porno movies."
She's been asked to pose topless for a photo shoot but had no interest in it. "It's not the nudity that bothers me, really. But one day I want to be a teacher so I don't want to ruin my reputation," she went on.
Claire is one of the lucky ones. According to her, some sirens spend their time being harassed by a broad array of deviants with offers of all sorts of mind boggling fetish gigs.
Things are a little different for guys according Claire's fiend Alexis, a self-proclaimed "Triton". He recently invested in a few rather pricey tails, but is yet to dive into the world of mermaids. That didn't stop him from making the headlines of one of Germany's biggest gay magazines, though.
"Men have it a bit easier in this environment, I think. I don't get the same kind of salacious proposals that a lot of the girls get," said Alexis when I got in touch with him.
Currently travelling in the States, Claire took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Weeki Wachee Springs – a park that has been organising siren shows since 1950. She had a chance to perform and even got a job offer. Unlike Claire, Alexis has no interest in making a career out of the whole thing – he just thinks it's a bit of fun. He says he'll be completely satisfied if he just gets to sit up on a Gay Pride float wearing his tail.
Things are moving fast in the mermaiding scene — France's first school of mermaids will open on the 23rd of May. Founded by Julia Lemmi Sardella and her husband Claudio, it will be run as a side project to their main company, which produces aquatic shows. "Mermaid schools are popping up all over the world right now. They're everywhere — Philippines, US, German, Spain and France. They attract a pretty broad clientele of all ages, too. Our main ambition is to be part of developing a new sport that combines physical exercise with artistic movement," their press release boasted.
I'm still pretty sceptical about the actual sportsmanship involved in mermaiding, but in fairness it looks pretty entertaining. And it seems to be booming; Two months after the opening of Sirenas Mediterranean Academy in Tarragona, more than 500 students have already signed themselves up.