“I hire security?—?we call them ‘the merwranglers.’”
As a child growing up in Nova Scotia, Raina suffered from chronic illness and pain. One day, as she was watching her favorite 80s movie, “Splash,” it dawned on her that Daryl Hannah’s costume was real, not CGI.
Intrigued, she started Googling and discovered that mermaids were a real thing with a long history. Raina quickly learned the story of the first professional mermaid?—?the Australian swimming champion and silent movie star Annette Kellerman. Like Raina, Kellerman also suffered from chronic pain.
“I realized if this woman was doing this 100 years ago there must be others,” she said. Raina began searching and soon learned about Hannah Fraser in Australia and Linden Wolbert in the US. Wolbert, a modern mermaid pioneer, drew media attention to “mers” when she performed at a pool party for Kelly Osbourne. Hannah Fraser is the most famous professional mermaid in the world.
“I decided I wanted to use mermaiding as a goal to get better,” Raina said. What she discovered was a global community of professional mermaids that’s just now starting to enter the mainstream, so to speak. She says there are about 250 professional mermaids between the US and Canada. The first mermaid school was started in the Philippines, and they’ve since been opened in the US, Canada, France and other countries.
Raina, 30, now leads a full-time mermaid business with nine employees. As part of that, she runs a mermaid school for kids and adults and also ran the largest mermaid convention, NC Mermania, over the weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina. It attracted 400 attendees including 300 mers.
Raina, who has over 52,000 followers on social media, says she makes a “happy living” from mermaiding, but to pay down debts or save for vacations, must take on non-mermaid related contract work like teaching or editing books.
Generally, working mermaids like Raina perform at charity events, water parks, public pools, beachside events and parties (including Hollywood openings).
“If it’s a kids party I play pool games, do tricks and teach tricks, and give rides,” Raina says. “I’ll also teach them how to swim in fins.” She says the hardest part about doing kids’ parties is waiting until the “bitter end” of the party to change out of her tail and head back to her car incognito so the kids don’t see her out of costume.
“Most of the swimming I do is in pools, lakes and the ocean. Swimming in each has its own challenges when you’re in a tail,” says Iona, a 27-year-old professional mermaid in Newport News, Virginia. “I’ve also done mermaiding in other places you may not think of?—?like in a public fountain for a festival, and a giant tank at a festival as well.” (Iona says she’s performed at events ranging from gay pride gatherings to conservation fundraisers.)
Swimming with a silicone tail holding your legs together requires a lot of skill and is physically demanding, Iona says. “The basic thing you need to master is the dolphin kick, which you use (with the monofin in a tail) to propel you through the water,” she says. “Then there are tricks like blowing bubble rings, bubble kisses, doing flips and spins, those kind of things.”
A lot of children are interested in mermaiding?—?and that’s good business for professionals. Raina and other mers also also use their mermaiding passion as a way of helping kids who suffer from chronic illness. She recounts the story of visiting one girl in the hospital.
“She wasn’t speaking because she was so depressed about being sick. So I told all my mermaid friends and they all sent me letters for her and I surprised her in the hospital with the letters and gifts. She started talking right away after that.”
When the girl got out of the hospital three months later, Raina surprised her by swimming up to her seaside house in Nova Scotia.
Being a woman who wears a tail and frolicks in the water for a living naturally draws some unwanted attention, and sexual harassment is something mermaids say they deal with a lot, which is why most asked Dose not to publish their last names. Iona says a lot of harassment happens online, in lewd messages from “merverts.” Raina says she had to have police deal with a stalker after a news article was published about her. She’s also been harassed at events.
“In the early days I didn’t know how to handle it, but I refuse to let my team be subjected to it,” Raina says. “I have learned to meet it head on, and have it built into contracts so that clients will also address it. I also hire security?—?we call them ‘the merwranglers.’”
There are mermen, too. Christian, who’s 32 and from Baltimore, grew up as a child actor but found his film career stagnating. Five years ago, he was surfing YouTube and came across a video of Hannah Fraser performing as a mermaid. Further research revealed there weren’t any men doing it, so he decided to do it himself.
“Ironically, my success in the mermaid community helped bring my film career back,” he tells Dose. Christian works full-time as a mer, maintaining a social media presence (he has some 33,800 followers), practicing with his team of mermaids and working events. To supplement his income, Christian has a part-time job at the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.
People might think mermaiding is a weird subculture, but mermaids say it’s very fulfilling. “I’m very proud to be a part of something that not only inspires others, but also builds a community that feels like family as well,” says Iona. “The world needs more magic in it, and mermaids and mermen are grateful to be able to help bring that to others!”