I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with mermaids. As soon as I could draw stick figures, they had tails. I was nine when I made my first mermaid tail. It was orange plastic cloth painted with tiny gold scales and pillow stuffing down the end of it. It got very soggy in the pool but I swam in that thing for six months straight before it disintegrated.
After school I moved to Byron Bay, Australia, and started modelling. I hadn’t thought about being a mermaid as a job. Then I got called to go to a casting for an underwater shoot. There were all these gorgeous women there, so I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to get this”. But as soon as they got in the water, they were like dying blowfish, and I had this natural ability. The director said, “Stop the casting, you’re it.” It was at that moment that I was like, “Yup, I want to make a mermaid tail and realise my fantasy.”
Since then, I’ve moved to Hollywood and done all sorts of things — live events, photo shoots, music videos, films. I even did a commercial for shoes. The idea was that I was so enticed by these gorgeous shoes that I came on to the beach, gave up my tail and put on some high heels.
A great tail starts with a fantastic fin. I use a monofin (which is like two flippers stuck together) and cut it in the shape I want. Then I fit wetsuit neoprene to my body and sew on thousands of tiny scales, one by one, which takes six months. I add silicon decorative dorsal fins and flukes to make it look really pretty and fishy.
All told, a tail costs more than $20,000 in materials and labour, and I have 14 now. There’s a silver tail like a tuna, a pastel tail and a tiger tail, which is a bit more fierce. Each one has a different personality.
Getting in and out of a tail is a contortion act. It has a zipper down the back, so I have to roll over on to my front and get someone to help zip me up. Once I was out in the ocean on a small inflatable boat. It was a rocky day, and I was starting to feel sicker and sicker. My underwater photographer was trying to pull the zip up, and it was caught. I’m lying there, he’s pulling at this thing, and a dive boat just happened to come around the corner. Right at the moment I was sick over the side. The passengers were all just like, “Oh my God, what is happening over there?”
A lot of friends who’ve tried on my tail say it’s like a bondage device because it’s so tight. But once you get in the water, you have this amazing propulsion system. People who don’t know how to make the mermaid movement, where the whole body rolls, can feel a bit out of control with a tail. They look like an inchworm as opposed to a dolphin.
There are other challenges to being a mermaid. In the water, your hair goes all over your face, so you have to learn the underwater hair flick. I have to deal with currents, freezing cold water and swimming at depth in the ocean. Then there’s keeping your eyes open, which can burn. Also, water pretty much goes everywhere, including up your nose.
As a mermaid, I’ve swum with humpback whales, dolphins, turtles and manta rays in the wild to raise awareness about ocean conservation. I’ve even been in a film about how great whites are fairly peaceful animals.
Most of the time they’d just swim lazy circles around, checking me out. But there was one that was coming directly at me, and I remembered that the guys on the boat were like, “You’ve got to show it who’s boss! You’ve got to be the alpha!” So I struck my hands out and swum directly at it, screaming underwater. After that, I was like, “I scared off a great white shark! I can do anything!” That experience was a huge step towards becoming a real mermaid.
Portrait by Molly Matalon
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