Inside the Southern California subculture of mermaid enthusiasts

Jack Laflin likes to remember the moment he wriggled into a 9-foot-long, 30-pound blue mermaid tail. He had discovered similar pieces backstage at acting gigs he was trying to land, but this was his first attempt at maneuvering his way into a silicon tube.

He wondered if using a little water would help ease the process, and so he did, until the water dried up, further constricting his legs and torso. Alone in his apartment and lying on his living room floor, Laflin considered his lack of mobility and thought, “If there’s a fire alarm, I won’t be able to get out of here.”

Laflin had bought the custom-made garment from Mertailor when he was considering a career change. “When I first moved to LA, I was modeling and acting, and I found out very quickly that I didn’t like the way the industry saw me,” said Laflin, who is mixed race. “I was cast as a bully, a gangster or a piece of meat at the nightclub.”

Among other props, the mermaid tail represents the possibility of change. He was a competitive swimmer growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and was confident in his aquatic skills. Why not marry that experience with your interest in entertainment and try that newt character in other settings? Why not try to have more fun with it? After all, he reminded himself, this is los angeles.

Jack Laflin wearing a mermaid costume while posing in a body of water

Jack Laflin runs Dark Tide Productions, which employs men and women who perform at events such as birthday parties, corporate galas and Renaissance fairs.

(Photo by Mermaid Wrangler)

Jack Laflin, dressed as a merman, goes by the stage name of "Merman Jax."

Jack Laflin goes by the stage name “Merman Jax”.

(Photo by Mermaid Wrangler)

Laflin writhed and thrashed on the floor for 45 minutes that first time. When he was finally able to sit up, he looked down at his torso to inspect himself. Half fish, half man, it was a transformation that turned out to be life.

Ten years after first sampling the scene in her apartment, Laflin, 40, is a full-time newt, part of a core of mermaid enthusiasts in Southern California who inhabit characters that express everything from the desire to play and have fun in childhood to environmental advocacy and gender identity. Under the stage name “Merman Jax,” he runs a business he calls Dark Tide Productions, which employs a crew of about 10 men and women who perform at events such as birthday parties, corporate galas and Renaissance fairs, sometimes on the water. , sometimes posing by a pool or at the entrance to an event.

Mermaids tend to be in higher demand, Laflin says, because most customers prefer to go with a female performer. But he loves the moments when he is swimming in a tank or lounging by the pool for the sense of wonder it can inspire.

“It’s one of those magical things,” Laflin said. “No matter who you are, most people turn into a child when they see you.”

Sammy Silva’s childhood bedroom was a sea of ​​redheads, filled to the brim with “The Little Mermaid” toys, figurines and blankets. the 1989 Disney animated film.

The lifelong mermaid fan realized their obsession could amount to more than just a collection when, as teenagers, they spotted a boy wearing a monofin, which resembles a pair of swimming fins fused into one single flat panel, to move. a public swimming pool. Silva, who identifies as gender nonconforming, was inspired. They searched YouTube tutorials on how to make a mermaid tail and made their first using green neoprene material and a wad of duct tape.

“This [felt] natural,” said Silva, 34, recalling the first time they swam in costume. “It’s liberating and playful and a lot like the inner joy of a child.”

That joy blossomed into a practice, and Silva has been an active part of the mermaid community for the past 15 years.

“It’s one of those magical things, no matter who you are, most people turn into a child when they see you.”

– Jack Laflin, newt

They helped launch MerNetwork, a forum that has been prominent for mermaid enthusiasts over the years. “There was a time when I met everybody with a tail,” said Silva, who lives in Anaheim.

The community has become a global phenomenon, but Silva says the new additions are welcome, as are the increased queues and accessories for purchase.

Today, it’s not uncommon to see monofins for sale near the beach or an assortment of mermaid dolls lining the shelves of gift shops attached to aquariums. Silicone mermaid tail makers, once an accessory only found in Hollywood, can now be ordered and custom fitted for thousands of dollars. Other companies offer entry-level queues for around $50.

Sammy Silva poses on Victoria Beach in Laguna Beach, wearing a mermaid monofin.

Sammy Silva has been part of the mermaid community for the past 15 years.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

While much of the subculture has moved to Facebook, MerNetwork’s pages are still filled with advice on how to build a shell-laden crown and suggestions for “tail-friendly” swimming spots in cities across the US. A forum section dedicated to “queuing” has an archive of 1,600 conversations and 47,100 individual posts on the topic.

Mermaid gatherings are organized into geographic “pods.” The MerNetwork forum hosts pages for the Cali Pod, the Rocky Mountain Pod, the Chesapeake Pod and the Union of Northern Pods, which represent mermaids across Canada. Facebook groups range from a dozen to more than 2,500 people looking to buy and trade mermaid tails or organize meetups in cities across the United States.

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One of the largest, the California Mermaid Convention, is held in Sacramento. What started as the “Mermaid Walk” among a few friends in 2011 turned into a three-day gathering of newts that drew 350 attendees in May, according to Rachel Smith, one of the convention’s co-founders.

This year’s convention it marked the first time that Silva came with a new identity. During the pandemic, they came out as non-binary, changed their name and had top surgery. It had been a year since her operation, and even though the surgical area had healed, Silva was nervous. “I existed as a mermaid for so long. I didn’t know how people would accept me.”

Entering the pool area on the first day, Silva wore a rash guard and a surf trunk. But as the convention continued, which included a diversity panel with other transgender Newts, her confidence grew. Until the last day, encouraged by the good wishes of the convention organizers, Silva entered the pool in full mermaid attire, with a tail and shirtless.

Sammy Silva, dressed in a mermaid outfit with a tail and shirtless, poses on the beach.

Sammy Silva, who came out as non-binary during the pandemic, helped launch MerNetwork, a forum for mermaid enthusiasts.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

That old feeling of playing in the water is back, that feeling of being an older child playing “mermaids” in the pool.

It was, Silva said, “liberating.”

When Gabrielle Rivera puts on her mermaid tail and crown, she becomes Nymphia, a persona she developed for the performances.

According to Rivera, 27 years old, Nymphia is the reincarnation of a Greek goddess of the sea, Amphitrite. In human form, she falls in love with a Viking prince, who begins to drown in the ocean. The sea god Oceanus will allow Nymphia to save him if he sacrifices his memories and his human form and becomes a mermaid.

The character combines some of the plot points of “The Little Mermaid” with elements of fantasy and Greek mythology, he said.

Rivera first dabbled in the mermaid scene as a cosplayer. She grew up in San Diego and as a teenager filled her summers attending Comic-Con and spending long days at the beach pretending to be mermaids with her friends. “I was always trying to swim cross-legged even if it didn’t get you that far,” he said.

Then she tried a new role based on Ariel, the main character of “The Little Mermaid”. At the time, Rivera, who is transsexual, presented himself as a man. But in disguise, Rivera used her pronouns and discovered a new sense of self, beauty and power. “I realized that I was not representing a character. I was portraying an extension of me.”

She began her transition soon after.

Mermaiding has become a complete social community for Rivera, and as she performs professionally, it is also a source of income. Her costume includes a red coral tiara, a necklace with red gems, a bikini top decorated with plastic seaweed, and a 35-pound silicone tail. (In case you’re wondering, many performers pair up with a partner, sometimes called a mer handler, who will help them navigate from point A to point B. A large fin is conducive to flipping, twisting, draping, and posing. ? Not so much.)

Emily Jordan demonstrates how to sink to the bottom of the pool like a mermaid.

Emily Jordan demonstrates how to sink to the bottom of the pool like a mermaid at Mermaid School in LA.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Virginia Hankins, owner of the LA Mermaid School, has many clients who are performers and event actors. Over the past two years, however, he has seen a shift as more individuals and “hobbyists,” rather than paid artists, contact his company.

The school offers safety courses for mermaids-in-training, covering everything from swimming techniques to breathing work to how to make heart-shaped bubble kisses. The company works with approximately 900 clients a year, including teenagers looking for a new look at swimming lessons and artists looking for safety certifications.

Smith, the convention’s co-founder, says people are drawn to the mermaid for many reasons, the most prominent of which seems to be the longevity of the archetype. (She’s been fronting Sacramento’s Dive Bar, equipped with its own mermaid tank, of course, since it opened in 2011.) water,” he said.

Others appreciate the athleticism required in the hobby. The 25-minute underwater routines choreographed by Smith require the performers to swim with joy and ease, while balancing the buoyancy of a mermaid’s tail with the timing of rising into the air.

The best part? That, Smith says, is when it looks effortless.

Hannah Jimenez, left, and Maria Espitia, right, take a mermaid lesson from instructor Emily Jordan.

Hannah Jimenez, left, and Maria Espitia, right, take a “mermaid” lesson from LA Mermaid School instructor Emily Jordan.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

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