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Interview

Professional Mermaids Make Quite the Splash (and Cash)

Professional Mermaids Make Quite the Splash (and Cash)
Photo Source: Courtesy Mermaid Melissa

There’s more than one way to make a splash as a performer. Just ask Mermaid Melissa, a self-described “professional mermaid for hire,” who makes her living performing underwater for various clients around the world.

“It’s funny because I kind of feel like Clark Kent...nobody really notices me when I’m a human walking around,” Melissa says. When she dons one of her intricately crafted tails and descends into a tank full of frigid water, though, young mermaid enthusiasts who follow her hundreds of YouTube videos consider her aquatic persona a celebrity at birthday parties. “I’m the Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber of mermaids,” she says with a laugh. “They just know who I am.”

Entertainers looking for the kind of part-time job that’s both lucrative and challenging might want to consider adding this aquatic acting gig to their résumés, particularly since mermaids may be replacing vampires and zombies as pop culture’s go-to fad. But, Melissa hastens to add, it takes impressive physical strength and lung capacity to make a presentation look effortless; as a former professional free diver and animal trainer, she has the qualifications to swim, for example, alongside tiger sharks in 58-degree water (yes, really). “The audience doesn’t understand what’s going into that performance,” she says. “You have to really sell it underwater.”

Rachel Smith, head mermaid at Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., agrees. “It’s a ton of work. Swimming, obviously, is the very first skill, being super comfortable in the water.” When making new hires—“normal manager stuff,” she says, “on top of being a mermaid”—she checks for ease underwater first, then dance and improvisation experience. “It’s new every night,” Smith explains, and not only because merperformers are swimming alongside actual fish; other complicating factors can include “if you weighed yourself too much or too little, if your hair is in your face. It’s about thinking on your fins, even if you’re disoriented underwater.”

And don’t underestimate the importance of body language. “You have to know how to correct and move your body,” says Smith, a professional hula dancer since her early teens. “Every girl is pretty much doing improv the entire performance: backflips, handstands, bubble rings, bottle-sipping underwater. Everybody sort of brings their own personality into the tank.” Actors with experience in mime, a wide array of dance styles, and even circus skills would be most eligible for a coveted position at Dive Bar.

Since the job usually involves night shifts, adds Smith, “it is like most theater gigs.” The challenges and inherent risks involved in such a niche profession, however, means mermaids and mermen can stand to earn substantially more than they would onstage. “We get paid in normal mermaid wages,” Smith jokes. “Sunken treasure.”

Melissa says it’s taken about a decade of growing her online presence, training physically, and simply legitimizing her persona so clients take the work seriously to establish the feat of a full-time career. “A lot of people buy these expensive mermaid tails, like, ‘If I get a $5,000 tail I’m going to be famous!’ But it’s not just investing a lot of money. A lot of it is your drive, determination, and work ethic. I have over 10 years of building up experience—and rejection.”

Sound familiar? Just as purchasing a tail does not a mermaid make, simply moving to L.A. or getting headshots is not enough to create a star. Whether or not performing as a mermaid actor is for you, it’s an apt example of the hard work inherent in forging an innovative career path and pursuing a passion. As Melissa says, “If I can make my living as a mermaid, anybody can do anything.”

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