Today's professional mermaids don't just don tails and smile and sit idly by pools. They are media savvy entrepreneurs who publish memoirs, write how-to books, author Buzzfeed articles, start swim schools, teach fitness classes, organize conventions, give TEDx talks, and work on every imaginable way to raise their profiles.
"What influenced me to take it all the way was in 2005, that pivotal moment when YouTube was first starting," says Mermaid Melissa, a Florida-based mermaid who began her career as a professional free diver. "Suddenly there was this new platform on social media where you could actually put your videos somewhere that could be seen by the whole world." And that footage is being seen; she has over 300,000 followers on her YouTube channel. Her Facebook page does even better at over a million likes.
Today, there's no shortage of professional mermaids. A whole Mernetwork features every kind of hirable one imaginable, with mermen, merpods, and other merfolk available for work. But the ones at the top have been around for a while, and have mastered the tricky business of marketing themselves well, bringing their work out of a small niche and into the wider world.
People don't take me seriously because I'm a woman, and secondly, because I dress up as a mystical fish creature. So that's a big obstacle.
There's a seriousness and dedication to the work that the mermaids find is often not appreciated by those outside the industry. Their inboxes are flooded daily with thousands of young admirers looking to break into the business, a generation that grew up watching The Little Mermaid and think becoming a professional mermaid simply involves slipping on a tail. And then there are those who believe their occupation is just as made up as the creatures they personify. "The most difficult part of being a professional mermaid is not being taken seriously," says Mermaid Atlantis, a Bay Area-based mermaid who hosts mermaid swim meet-ups for thousands of interested people. "First of all, it's because I'm a woman, and secondly, because I dress up as a mystical fish creature. So that's a big obstacle."
While not all mermaids are women, there is something to be said of the relationship women have with what mermaids have historically represented—the evil creature that lured men out to sea, invented to "attack femininity and make women a dangerous thing," as Vaughn Scribner, an assistant professor studying the history of mermaids at the University of Central Arkansas, says. It's why modern mermaids are changing the face of the mythical image, Scribner muses and don't necessarily incorporate every part of the legend into their personas. "I don't like the myth of the mermaid as this dark siren that's going to pull people down into the depths," Mermaid Hannah tells me. "I really see the mermaid as this loving persona and an icon for the ocean. I also don't like the traditional clamshell bras. I try to avoid sticking clamshells on my boobs."
Today, the interpretation of the professional mermaid varies widely. Mermaid Melissa has tails in every color of the rainbow, from silver to neon pink to glow-in-the-dark. Mermaid Atlantis has a whole array of creative looks, some of which don't even include a tail. According to them, it's freeing not to have to conform to the typical image.
"I feel like ten years ago, it was only this one sort of mermaid—the Disney representation of this shape, this size, this look," says Mermaid Kariel, a mermaid based in Hawaii who has been doing it professionally for the past seven years. "And now, it can be anything. The gender doesn't matter, the size, the personality: It just can be what it is. And I think that's almost a better representation than anything specific."
Today's mermaid is a jack-of-all trades, and the most successful ones can adeptly move between roles. Each one is a businesswoman, actress, athlete, and one more role: advocate. Nearly all of the ones I talked to use their characters as a platform to promote a cause, whether it's ocean conservation, environmental awareness, or simply all-around positivity. And all of them alluded to the idea of the mermaid as a role model.
"I see a movement of women these days, who are proud and strong, standing up for what they believe in, and claiming their own sensuality in a really beautiful way," says Mermaid Hannah. "I see that rather than the mermaid being this helpless, disconnected, lonely figure sitting on a rock by themselves in the ancient myth." But still—their representations have aspects of the mystical and otherworldly, a touch that is not to be overlooked. Scroll through a modern mermaid's Instagram feed, and you'll be spellbound by shot after shot of them gliding effortlessly into the depths. It's a reason for their current success: They appeal to the modern imagination, blurring the line between myth and actual life.
For now, they inhabit something that's somewhere in between, providing a niche service they feel is a necessary one. Many would agree. "The very first time I put on a tail and swam, everybody in the pool stopped and gave me a standing ovation," says Mermaid Atlantis. "An older woman came up to me and said, 'What you're doing is important. People need this magic. Please do this in front of as many people as you can.'" She's been doing it ever since.