Mermaid series (Part 1): Why world is going ga-ga over mermaids

Cara Nicole Neo, who also goes by Cara Nicole Neo, who also goes by

Vampires out, mermaids in. Such is the trend that’s taken off in the past year or so with a subculture of mermaid wannabes emerging from blogging communities around the world. Mainly women (but increasingly men too), the “mermaids” meet at pools or the seaside, assisted by “mer-tenders” who are there to provide physical assistance getting in and out of their tails. Yahoo reporter LUNA PHAM dives deep to uncover the global mermaid trend and how Singapore has joined in the craze.

Don’t be surprised if you see a mermaid splashing across your neighbourhood pool soon.

No, you’re not dreaming --- an increasing number of young Singaporeans are putting on swimmable mermaid tails and diving straight into their fairytale fantasy. Some do it for fun and to live out a childhood fantasy, for others it’s a hobby and yet more enterprising ones get decent pocket money as “mermaid” entertainers hired to swim at private parties, photo shoots or functions.

National University of Singapore student Cara Nicole Neo, 21, is one such mermaid. The English Literature student, who also goes by her alter ego “mermaid Syrena”, started moonlighting as a half-woman, half-fish in July this year.

“From an early age, my parents taught me how to read so I was exposed to fairy tales, a lot of mythology and a lot of that was mermaid-related, so it has always been kind of in my blood so to speak,” she said.

“One day, I was doing research online on a costume for Halloween and then I stumbled on a link that said “swimmable mermaid tails” and I was like “Haaaaa’, so I clicked on it and everything just snowballed from there,” she said.

Are there others like her in Singapore?

Yes, but they’re an “elusive batch”, she said.

“There are currently mermaids in Thailand, Malaysia, India. Singapore-wise I think maybe people are more apprehensive to come out as mermaids in public,” she said.

“But since starting my mermaid Facebook page I have had about two other mermaids reaching out to me saying that they were going to get their tails like realistic tails from Singapore and one from Malaysia as well. She bought a tail after she saw mine, it just makes you really happy.”

American Jolene Oldham, 53, has been swimming with mermaid tails for the last 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Jolene Oldham)American Jolene Oldham, 53, has been swimming with mermaid tails for the last 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Jolene …

RISE OF THE MERMAID

While it's now being seen as trendy by some, others have been doing it for years.

For example, American Jolene Oldham, 53, has been swimming with mermaid fins for the last 30 years. The New York-based art director and photographer started by joining the first Coney Island Mermaid Parade in 1983, sewing her own tail with green swimsuit materials. Now Jolene owns ten fabric tails and still swims almost daily.

But of late, the mermaid trend has replaced the vampire as the mythical creature du jour, in large part due to recent pop culture references.

In August 2011, Lady Gaga introduced YüYi the mermaid, her so-called alter ego in music video You and I, followed by Katy Perry planking in a mermaid outfit. The mermaid wave rippled again in May this year when Animal Planet mocumentary Mermaid: The New Evidence drew its largest audience in the network history.

Around the same time, American model/actress Hannah Fraser also became the first professional mermaid in 2011 after buying herself a tail and modeling in it. In 2012, a San Francisco-based blogger and environmental activist named Mermaid Shelly was among the first to organize “mer-meetups” and “merfolk” directories in 2012.

Since then, men and women from Australia, Turkey, Iran and India have jumped on the mermaid subculture, so much so that its given rise to “mertailers” who specialize in the production of fins.

Mermaid tails can cost several thousands of dollars depending on craftsmanship and material used. (Photo: Abby Roberts, Finfolk Productions)Mermaid tails can cost several thousands of dollars depending on craftsmanship and material used. (Photo: Abby …

Equipped with a monofin, mermaid tails enable swimmers to undulate through underwater with their legs bound together in the stretchable tube.

While some handmake their tails, most order from overseas, notably from the United States. The intricate, detailed tails can cost anywhere from US$150 to the thousands, depending on the materials used, craftsmanship and even weight.

“Shipping alone ranges from US$500 to $700,” said Abby Roberts, 21, who along with her twin sister, Bryn, own Finfolk Productions, a US-based company specialising in made-to-order fin tails which cost US$2,500 and up. The silicone-based tails which she hand-sculpts are not light and typically weigh 11-14 kgs.

But the steep price does not seem to deter Singaporean mermaid-wannabes.

“Of our international inquires, most are from Singapore,” the young entrepreneur told Yahoo Singapore.

She said her company began producing tails for sale this summer at the rate of one tail per week but in the last few weeks, they have started receiving as many as three orders and more weekly inquiries from Singapore.

“We have been stunned. We absolutely love that there is such an interest on the opposite side of the globe.”

MERMAID WAVE IN ASIA

The mermaid wave is building up in Asia, with pods - mermaid groups based in different regions– forming in India and Thailand. The mermaid’s popularity as a subject in folklores across cultures and nations has helped fuel the trend adoption: variations of mermaids range from sea-fairies in Persian culture to selkies in the Irish sea region.

In places like Iran, where women must swim covered-up in the presence of men, Shahrzad P. has been swimming in a tail since she was 11.

“Persian culture doesn't always embrace dressing up,” said the 24-year-old Iranian who moved to the US at 16. She now swims more freely as most people in Los Angeles, where she currently lives, “don’t bat an eye” when they see her in a tail.

Across the Causeway, blogger and ONE FC ring girl Felixia Yeap has also been making waves as one of Malaysia's first mermaids.

Listing herself as "mermaid" in her blogger profile, Yap boasts over 130, 000 followers on Facebook and can turn herself into a half-woman, half-fish for S$1,600 at private parties, reported The New Paper recently.

Here in Singapore, blogger and cosplayer Kristy Lee Li Zhen, 21, said she always tried to mimic Princess Ariel in the Disney movie as a child.

When the Animal Planet mermaid hoax went viral earlier this year, Kristy searched online for the video and stumbled across the swimmable fin. Extremely thrilled, the 21-year-old bought one from Ebay for around SGD160, after failing to find it in Singapore.

Frenchman Alexis, 24, is born deaf and finds escape being a merman. (Photo from Alexis)Frenchman Alexis, 24, is born deaf and finds escape being a merman. (Photo from Alexis)

MER-MEN GET IN ON IT

But lest you think the trend is confined to females, even men are picking up on it too.

For Frenchman who wants to be simply known as Alexis, 24, mermaiding is an identity and an escape from the noisy world. Born deaf, Alexis struggles to respond to sounds.

“I always loved swimming because it's a quiet world underwater,” he told Yahoo Singapore during a webchat from Paris last week.

“When I put on my tail and swim underwater, all my pain goes away and I feel free,” said the Frenchman, who’s currently training to become physical fitness trainer.

He also believes that mermaiding does not just limit to girls, as the gender-biased term seems to suggest.

“Guys swimming in a monofin is okay so there is no reason to have a problem with a guy wearing a tail with a monofin inside,” said the Parisian, who was denied entry by 14 pools in Paris when he brings his tail.

“I think it takes a real man to become one because he doesn't care about what people think.”

Here in Singapore, Nigel Tan, 24, a student at National University of Singapore, also plans to order a tail to fulfill his childhood dream.

Recognising that the “mermen” trend may still be seen as bizarre by some, the life science student told Yahoo, “At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves, if we don't do it now or at least give it a try, will we regret later? If yes, then the answer becomes clear to us.”

Mermaid Cara Nicole Neo is a Singapore who's joined the global mermaid trend. (Photo: Cara Nicole Teo)Singaporean Cara Nicole Neo was influenced by mermaid and mythical tales as a child. (Photo: Cara Nicole Teo)

IS TREND HERE TO STAY?

But will the mermaid trend be here to stay or will it soon go the way of the vampires?

21-year-old Singapore student Tysha Khan is one who believes it won’t last.

“I don't think adults can make their childhood fantasies a reality. Many may want to be fairy princess, but nobody actually becomes one. You can pretend to be one, but you’d better find a way to make a living, either from pretending to be a mermaid or a day job,” she said.

Business consultant William Chu, 53, agrees and says mermaid-ing is a commercial product, and it will have its rise and fall just like any other.

"It's only temporary. Attracting children like Barbie doll," said the business consultant.

But veteran mermaid Jolene, who been dressing as a mermaid for the last 30 years, said that while she's encouraged by the recent "uptick" in the mermaid trend, there will always be "the mer-community, the hardcore mer-people, if you will, that will pay them no mind and go about their swimming."

"I'd hate to think of a Kardashian in a mermaid tail. People will do anything to obtain fame, and the state of American television is a testament to that," she said.

As a self-admitted purist mermaid, Jolene said that she would hate to see the mermaid trend being trivialised, but “it would not really matter to those who view it as a philosophy or a lifestyle."

"A lot of people are going to spend a lot of money to dress up in a fancy tail and, in a year or two, it will be something else.”

In part two of our Mermaid Series, LUNA PHAM speaks to Singapore mermaid Cara Nicole Neo on why she took the plunge to become Singapore’s first mermaid.

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