Believe it or not, it’s a thing. But ‘mermaiding’ runs far deeper than simply dressing up in a silicone tail. So what’s the big pull? Our intrepid columnist Liz Jones takes a deep dive into a bizarre way of life.
There must be something in the water. On the day the September issue of Vogue is published and guest editor the Duchess of Sussex quotes Anaïs Nin: ‘I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living’, I’m about to slip into a pool in Mill Hill, Northwest London – dressed as a mermaid.
My instructor, Tracey Minney, is explaining how you pull the tail up to your waist. It’s like putting on a very thick, one-legged pair of tights. I’m sweating – not just because it’s one of the hottest days of the year, but because I hate the water. I always got out of swimming at school with a note from my mum, feigning a verruca. I couldn’t stand the idea of other girls seeing my body. I’ve rarely been in the water since.
But today, after much wriggling, the tail is on, and I shuffle on my bottom towards the pool. I’m not allowed to stand on dry land, as I could tip forward, breaking my nose. I’ve never felt more vulnerable, although I’m secretly glad my cellulite is hidden.
Tracey gets into the pool first. I tell her not to let me drown. ‘Now,’ she says. ‘Remember, once you push off, you need to twerk. Your arms must be straight out in front of you, torpedo fashion, otherwise you might hit your head on the side due to the speed.’
Hang on, due to the speed? Is she joking? I push off, doing a dolphin kick with my feet. I’m surging forwards, faster than ever before. The water embraces me. I am free. I am elegant, when usually I flail. I am mermaiding.
And it turns out that ordinary women throughout the country are finding out just how liberating it is to be a mermaid; how strong it makes them feel. My lesson was organised by Planet Mermaid, founded in 2009 by Maggie Jovanovic, a 41-year-old who lives in Bedford. A keen swimmer, she wanted to start a business that would fit around supporting her middle child, who is autistic. Mermaiding kept bubbling up, on Facebook, Instagram…
She started making outfits for children, but by 2017 the demand from mums was so strong that she began selling adult tails and fins, as well as setting up a network of instructors to give lessons and host parties. Tracey is on her team and, after depositing me to flap on the side, she’s off: under water like a dolphin, twisting, turning. This woman is so fit in her mid-30s she plans to swim the English Channel. ‘You can only stay under for about ten seconds,’ she says. ‘The physical exertion is so intense, you use a great deal of oxygen.’
After just four widths, I’m exhausted: mermaiding is indeed great for core strength, lung capacity and muscle tone. But over the next few weeks, as I dive deeper into the world of mermaids, I discover the whole magical, mystical movement is not just about getting fit. From its origins in the wake of the film Splash! (starring Daryl Hannah) in 1984, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid in 1989, when girls in California started dressing up for pool parties, it has grown into a global phenomenon fuelled by Instagram, of course, but also by a need for women to take part in a physical activity that is part meditation and part escapism (much as young men go to ComicCon festivals and dress up as Deadpool: it’s a way of avoiding the real world. Brexit, maybe).
The current trend for grown women to don a tail has mushroomed in the past two years, with a staggering 100-plus mermaid instructors in the UK alone. The reason? It’s ultra-sociable; mermaids often swim together in a ‘pod’ (as in group of dolphins). It’s reclaiming femininity. You can be strong and beautiful. It’s about female solidarity: pod parties with no need for men or alcohol. It’s not a religion, but its devotees are pretty evangelical. It turns out it’s a perfect pastime for the #MeToo age, and much more fun than boring old yoga.
I meet Tyler Turner, a 26-year-old trainee counsellor, who has travelled from Prestatyn in North Wales for our photo shoot in London. She’s carrying a huge pink mermaid tail made out of silicone, which is really heavy – ordered online for £580 – and a bodice she made herself, decorated with seaweed and shells.
She seems sorted today, comfy in her own skin. But it hasn’t always been that way. ‘I was a restaurant manager, which was very stressful. I was diagnosed with depression and it got to the point I couldn’t get out of bed. So I took a month off, and I started to reminisce about my happy childhood. It got me thinking that, instead of being an adult, I wanted to be a mermaid. I’d seen Splash! and The Little Mermaid, but I didn’t know mermaiding could be a way of life.’
Tyler went online and bought her first tail. That was two years ago. A strong swimmer, she got a part-time job as a pool attendant. ‘I would put my fin and tail on and practise.’ Her eye-catching displays led people to ask if she’d appear at swimming galas. ‘They said, “Oh, can you turn up at the pool to raise money?”, so I did. That’s how the charity fundraising started.’
Logistics meant her boyfriend would push her in a wheelbarrow; he’s dragged into most events, picking her up and plopping her in the pool. ‘People say, “You’d never think you had depression, you’re always smiling,” but I believe it’s the most empathetic people who suffer the most. Yeah, I have depression, but it’s not stopping me. Go with what you love. I feel more real as a mermaid than I do in real life. Under water, time stops. It’s like meditation.’
But it’s a palaver. People might laugh. Does her family think her odd? ‘At first, they found it strange, but now they are like, “Wow, you’ve found your passion.” I’m rough round the edges, a tomboy, but then in mythical stories mermaids were warriors. They carried spears.’
She tells me mermaiding is big in the LGBT community. ‘I have a friend who used to be Kit and is becoming Scarlet. So, yeah, there are merpeople, as we call them. It’s about being allowed to be yourself. It’s a very loving community.’ Tyler is taking part in Miss Mermaid UK in October, which is in its third year. ‘It’s not just about beauty. It is about creativity and swimming ability, breath control, how to pose underwater. I often go to my local aquarium to watch how the fish move for inspiration.
It was Tyler who introduced mermaiding to her best friend Lolly, her wing woman on our shoot. They swim together often. ‘I love when kids see us, they go, “Mummy! There’s a mermaid in the pool!”’ Lolly is married with a busy job, but feels it’s crucial to make time for herself. ‘It keeps me fit: I’ve lost three stone. It helps my confidence. Maybe it’s in my blood; my grandad was a fisherman, he was always telling tales.’
Common to all the mermaids I meet is a love of dressing up. Tyler shows me photos of herself on the beach as a mermaid, covered in plastic fishing lines, to raise awareness of what we are doing to our seas. Conservation drives many to mermaid. Take 26-year-old Sammy-Jo Pengelly, (aka Mermaid Joanne), the current Miss Mermaid Swansea: ‘I work for a wildlife conservation trust, educating people about the importance of preserving wetlands. I visited a school to speak to some five-year-olds; I was in my tail and they were enthralled.’
What made her start? ‘I was at uni. I wanted to get into swimming, but I felt self conscious. However, with a tail on I feel different. People are looking at the tail, not my body.’
It turns out that mermaiding can even be a career: Laura Evans lives in Cornwall and, having bought her first tail four years ago, is now resident mermaid at St Ives. She’s famous for her ‘wash-ups’: appearances on a beach for special events or to raise money for charity.
I get that it’s great exercise, therapy even. But when I meet Alison Farina, a playwright and director from Bath, I find out mermaiding has its roots in the emancipation of women. Alison, 46, spent her childhood in the US and was drawn to stories about mermaids. ‘My favourite was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. I would make seascapes in the bath and imagine myself underwater. When Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out, it brought mermaids into the mainstream. I loved that she had red hair: I’m ginger, all the kids called me Carrot Top. It’s so important for little girls to see themselves on screen: it’s fantastic that a black actress, Halle Bailey, has been cast in the latest film version of the story. As I got older, I started searching for mermaid pictures online; I called it Fish Friday, a game a friend and I started to amuse ourselves. Then my friend told me she’d found a company that made tails. It was a door to another world.’
Returning to the US to care for her ailing parents, Alison used mermaiding as a way to escape. ‘It helped me deal with my parents going into a care home. Anything that takes you out of your head is good for mental health, but when you are in the water, you only hear the lapping, you see the light on the bottom of the pool; your hair is floating, you feel weightless.’ I wonder what her husband thinks. ‘He’s really supportive. He thinks it’s fun and sexy.’
He’s not the only one. Take The Pisces, the bestseller by US novelist Melissa Broder, in which a young woman falls in love with a merman. It’s a graphic tale of inter-species sex. She imagines mermaids ‘long-haired with little waists and shells on their t**s’. It seems Homer’s Odyssey is partly to blame for this craze in the #MeToo age: his sirens were mythical creatures who lived for centuries, posing on rocks to lure humans to their death or captivity. The feminist poet Sappho found the goddess Aphrodite, transformed into a woman out of sea foam, to be the ultimate sex object.
Crikey! So it’s not really about Disney at all. Imagine Alison’s shock when, last year, she was working on a project to celebrate the centenary of female suffrage and came across the diaries of a suffragette called Mary Blathwayt. ‘She’s inspiring in so many ways: she played the violin, she was a bluestocking. And she founded a mermaid swimming club! Swimming baths for women had just opened, and she and her friends were called the Mermaid Swimmers.’
Did they wear fins and tails? ‘No. This was 1910 and it was illegal for women to be seen naked: female swimmers had to be fully clothed. Members of her club wore bathing costumes as a protest, to claim back their bodies. So swimming and the suffragette movement go hand in hand. This is my body: if I want to go swimming, you can’t tell me what to do.’
We need mermaids today as much as we did in 1910. ‘Girls face so many problems from an early age,’ Alison continues. ‘Mermaiding is claiming back the siren thing and making it your own. It takes that paint, that glamour, and means you can become a mermaid no matter your age, your looks or your abilities. The empowerment comes from feeling graceful in the water. When I first put on the tail, it was like a dream come true, the joy I felt. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t skinny, I’ve never felt so beautiful.’
Alison and an unofficial ‘pod’ rent a small pool in the Cotswolds. ‘We lark about, we discover our inner mermaid. The lady who runs the pool loves us. She says, “Oh, the mermaids are back!”’ Mermaiding should be on prescription: it allows us to escape in a way a glass of wine never will. As we say our goodbyes after our shoot, I give Tyler the last word. ‘Mermaiding really saved my life. Now, if I’m feeling a bit low and can’t get to the pool, I will just take a bubble bath wearing my tail. That usually does the trick.’
Whatever flips your tail
From fundraising to promoting the feelgood factor, mermaids are, naturally, trending on Instagram too
Playwright Alison Farina (@aquaesulissiren) dreamt of being a mermaid from childhood. ‘When I first put on the tail, I’d never felt so beautiful.’
Sammy-Jo Pengelly works in conservation and uses her Mermaid Joanne (@mermaidjoanne) alter ego to flag up eco issues.
The St Ives Mermaid (@stivesmermaid), aka Laura Evans, is famous for washing up on the area’s beaches for special events.
Trainee counsellor Tyler Turner (@tiggi_93) says that mermaiding helped her to combat depression. Now she uses it to raise funds for charity.
Fancy diving in?
- Mermaid Planet (mermaidplanet.co.uk) designs and supplies adult mermaid attire.
- For details of children’s apparel, visit Planet Mermaid (planetmermaid.com).
- For mermaid swimming experiences, visit Mermaid Wave (mermaidwave.com). An Experience Day (the one-hour lesson that Liz participated in) costs around £30 per person with up to 12 participants, including the hire of a fin and tail.
YOU readers can get a 15 per cent discount on all the above websites until 2 October 2019; quote MERMAIDYOU at the checkout.