Step One: Run Away From Home
In the late 1940s, a young woman, Virginia K., ran away from her family in Tampa, Fla. to become a mermaid in the nearby Weeki Wachee show. Inspired by the fluid grace of Esther Williams, Virginia donned colorful tail flukes. In the sensuous underwater ballet, Virginia somersaulted and swam free while holding her breath for what seemed like a lifetime.
Maybe she had been waiting to exhale, to escape the 1940s hum-drum of feminine domestic duties. But after only a few days as a beautiful mermaid, Virginia's father caught up with her; he convinced the runaway mermaid to come home to her "real" life. Wife and mother. And later, grandmother.
"My grandmother was one of the first women to perform in the Weeki Wachee Mermaid shows," says Stephanie Sims, producer of this month's Merpalooza Mermaid Convention. "In those days, it was a real taboo or scandalous for a woman to be working at all, much less as a mermaid. Swimming underwater, half-dressed, it was equivalent to being a stripper."
Following in her grandmother's wake, Sims has produced the annual Weeki Wachee pageant. She has also organized two national mermaid conventions: Mer-Con in Las Vegas in 2011 and Merpalooza, recently held Aug. 10-12 in Orlando, Fla. "I'm fulfilling my grandmother's dream," Sims says. "Even though I can't swim well, mermaids have always been in my heart."
And certainly her heritage. Mermaids are an alluring mythic tradition that calls its siren song to many women then -- and especially now. In the last few years, mermaids are surfacing as a hot, new trend, rivaling vampires. The Weeki Wachee Mermaid show is one of Florida's oldest roadside attractions. Though they perform a show called "The Little Mermaid," these women are not the pathetic "wannabe-humans" of that tale's main character -- a plaintive mermaid with no soul. When spurned by the prince, the Little Mermaid dissolves into suicidal sea foam.
But in the 21st century, the mermaids I met at Merpalooza are sexy, soulful, sassy, and strong. They know how to have fun, to entertain, and perhaps to steal your soul. They also have a passion for the oceans. Take Mermaid Enakai (aka Spindrift Mer), a young design major getting her master's in "Design, Innovation, and Society" at Renseelaer Poly in upstate New York. Originally from Hawaii, Mermaid Enakai is of Chinese-British-Spanish and Pacific Islander ancestry. She speaks three languages -- Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.
Step 2: Fall in Love With An Underwater World
In Hawaiian, Enakai means, "glowing sea." Sophisticated and far-sighted, like many in the MerWorld, young Mermaid Enakai is not only elegant; she's also knowledgeable and passionate about the sea. She teaches ocean conservation to kids from elementary through high schools. Mermaid Enakai has done internships with the Smithsonian Institute in zoology, NOAA, and volunteered in the Humpback Whale Sanctuary in Hawaii.
"I love sharks," Mermaid Enakai explains. "They're not as dangerous as Hollywood makes you think."
When living in Singapore, Mermaid Enakai directed a project to protest against the unsustainable tradition of harvesting shark fins to make soup. Singapore is one of the largest consumers of shark fin soup, especially during Chinese New Year.
"Why did you become a mermaid?" I ask.
"It's a challenge," she answers with a toss of her long, black hair and a charming smile. "I wanted to do something both realistic and artistic. Its fantasy and technical aspects make mermaiding very intriguing."
Mermaid Eakai would like to work in the special effects industry. That explained her lovely golden-orange prototype tail flukes. Designed by a Thai special effects master, Vasit Suchitta, of Moo Prosthetics, the flukes were made of silicone and shone with elegantly etched scales.
"I do a lot of research," Mermaid Enakai continues. "I actively post on Mer Network. I hope the MerWorld inspires more people to be involved in community issues. Mermaids and mermen are not just people becoming characters, they're also becoming role models."
These undersea role models include Australian Mermaid Hannah Fraser who is a professional mermaid, ocean environmentalist, performance artist, and model. "I see the mermaid as a bridge from our dry land to the cetacean world," Mermaid Hannah says, "which allows many people to experience the wonders of the ocean in a totally new and respectful manner."
I couldn't help but notice that Merpalooza happened during "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel. And the mermaid convention was just a trident's toss from the original Disneyland. These myths of a Magic Kingdom and the bloodlust of Shark Attacks seem predictable and perhaps even passé as more women take to their powerful tail flukes.
The psychologist C. G.Jung always asked, "Why this dream now?" So I wonder: Why this mermaid trend now?
Is it because we intuit that we are all bound for a MerWorld as seas rise and coastlines sink? Is mermaiding a way of adapting, first in our imaginations, before we finally face the facts of climate change? Maybe it's simply time for women for our own health and well-being, to make and reclaim our own mythology. In the 21st century, most of us don't believe the prince will save us or give us a soul. We realize that women must find our own destiny -- even if it means running away from home and, like Venus, rising from the sea.
Brenda Peterson is a novelist and National Geographic author of 17 books. Her forthcoming new fantasy/sci-fi novel, The Drowning World, is about merpeople. Preview an excerpt and join her Kickstarter campaign. Stay tuned for her next in the series on "How to Become a Mermaid."