So in yesterday’s interview, when Weeki-Wachee-mermaid-camp-attending bellydancer Kristal Mize talked about how she wants “to still be swimming as a mermaid when I’m in my 70′s just like Vicki!” you might have wondered who this mysterious Vicki character is and if she in fact really exists. She does. Kristal was referring to the very extraordinary 71-year-old Vicki Smith, the oldest still-performing mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs. Vicki is one of the “Formers” at Weeki Wachee, the older mermaids who were first reunited in 1997 for the park’s 50th anniversary (it opened in 1947, for those of you less mathematically inclined) and have been performing once a month ever since. The formers also run the “Sirens of the Deep” mermaid camp that yours truly is attending this weekend (and that raises funds for the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, a non-profit citizens support group whose mission is to promote the use, preservation and enhancement of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park). That is how awesome they are. The head of these former mermaids, by the way, is the fabulous Barbara Wynns, and I will have an interview of her up tomorrow. Because I feel it that this should be WEEKI WACHEE WEEK! At least on this blog, not to mention in all of our deepest hearts.
Weeki Wachee was, by the way, just featured on the Today Show this past weekend.
Anyway, I met Vicki back in January for lunch, and she is completely charming, dainty, and delicate, totally beautiful, tiny tiny, and she speaks with a lilting Southern accent. She had bright blue toenails and a mermaid tattooed on her ankle (her 70th birthday gift to herself! And for her 71st last fall? She went skydiving and loved it so much she’s been back at least once since). And she performed for ELVIS, back in 1960.
Here we are together at said lunch:
And here is Vicki back in the day, when she was first performing at Weeki Wachee:
I saw Vicki again last month when I was at the Pier Aquarium and she and her daughter came. Here we are:
Aren’t they beautiful?
So back to January: it was amazing, hearing Vicki speak about Weeki and her love of its crystal water. She told me how after she left Weeki in the early 60s and until she returned decades later, she never spoke about her time as mermaid, but she dreamed about it, and now, when she gets into that water, suspended and without gravity, she feels exactly as if she were 17 again and stepping into it for the first time. She talked about the way the light hits the water and streams through it, and how when you’re in the “deep hole” down at the bottom of the spring and the light hits just right, “you feel like you’ve been blessed.” She said many more things besides, very beautifully and movingly (as did Barbara Wynns, whom I met later that day at her mermaid-filled riverhouse) and that is why yours truly is now writing a novel about some Weeki ladies.
But more on that another time.
Here is our Q and A.
When and how did you become a Weeki Wachee mermaid?
Back in 1957, in Brooksville, Florida, where I lived, when you graduated from high school, you either got married, went off to school… or you became a Weeki Wachee Mermaid! I graduated from high school on June 5, 1957, and began my training as a Weeki Wachee Mermaid on July 7, 1957. Swam my first show that same day. I became a mermaid because my best friend, Elsie Jean Wernicke, was a mermaid and encouraged me to try out. She was my trainer and we remained very close until her death in 2009.
How did becoming a mermaid change you – and how does it affect your life still?
Having been raised around Weeki Wachee Spring and its mermaids, becoming a mermaid was no big deal for me but when you are 17 and you start getting fan mail, getting your picture in newspapers nationally, people asking for your autograph…well, it gets to be a lot of fun! I never thought of myself as beautiful or talented but becoming a mermaid at Weeki made me feel like I was! I appeared in movie premieres, spoke before audiences for Weeki, swam for celebrities that were in awe of our underwater talents. Even today, at 71 (that’s interesting… I started at 17 and now I’m 71!) even today the Former Mermaid group that I perform shows with once a month? We still awe people with our underwater talents. Not much youth and beauty in our shows, but a whole lot of heart and history!
How would you describe the appeal of mermaids to ordinary humans?
What is one of your favorite Weeki Wachee memories?
My favorite memory is not cutting the ribbon for the new million dollar theater with the Governor of the Florida in 1960, nor is it swimming for Elvis Presley in 1960. My favorite memory is being 17, sitting on the platform getting ready to dive into the Spring, seeing the pink azaleas in full bloom, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face then diving into that fluid aquamarine world of liquid diamonds. Today, I still feel blessed to experience this miracle of nature in its purest form.
What advice do you have for aspiring mermaids?
Go with the flow and never stop swimming!