So Dive Bar opened up last January in Sacramento (check out their Facebook page here) and features a 7,500-gallon tank hanging over the bar, with mermaids swimming, smiling, and elegantly blowing bubbles and kisses inside. There are now three shifts of mermaids swimming seven nights a week in front of lushly patrons, and a total of five performers, including one merman. The head mermaid is one Ms Rachel Smith, who is an illustrator as well as mermaid and mermaid (and merman) wrangler. Below, I talk to Rachel about her singular position and general mermaidliness.
So how did you become a mermaid—and the head mermaid—at Dive Bar?
I was chatting with a friend, who asked me if I had heard about ‘that mermaid bar’ in Sacramento yet. She knew of my interest in mermaids and had seen my amateur mermaid videos and photos before. I was so excited that I rushed online and found the job postings for Dive Bar immediately. I applied to all of them with my mermaid resume (it’s sort of astounding that I had one). Dive Bar is an incredible place to work, and the folks there are all really close-knit—especially us mers. Dive Bar is the brainchild of George Karpaty, who is the owner of the successful nightclub Ruby Skye in San Fransisco. It is one of three new businesses he opened on K St in Sacramento last winter. Because of my experience and rabid enthusiasm, Lynda Karpaty—our mermom—promoted me to head mermaid. I’m in charge of scheduling, costume building and repair (our tails are by the Mertailor), props, hiring/training new mers etc. You know, regular manager duties, but with a mermaid tail!
Can you tell me what a typical night there is like?
Every night is a different experience at Dive; you never know what the crowd’s energy is going to be, if the fish are feeling frisky, what live music is going to be playing. It’s seriously a blast! Typically, a mermaid arrives an hour before she has to swim to put on her makeup and costume and get settled. Our makeup is waterproof, safe for our fish friends, and very, very sparkly! There’s an interview of me floating around the web where I have insane Cher-esque glitter all over my face, but we don’t go that far for our makeup anymore. After a mermaid is ready, she dives into our enormous fish tank and starts the show! We flirt with bar patrons, blow kisses, search for sunken treasure, comb our hair and primp in a mirror, write messages, ‘drink’ beer, do barrel rolls and generally have a lot of fun.
What was it like working with Linden Wolbert?
Linden is an incredible woman, in and out of water. She’s sweet, caring, energetic and SO incredibly knowledgeable about all things mermaid. I honestly can’t say enough good things about her; she’s really taken the Dive Bar mers under her wing and been so supportive of us as we emerge as her little ‘sea stars.’ Linden helped us become more comfortable under the water, taught us how to take care of our tails, how to move and interact with our audience and most importantly, how to be safe!
Were you a mermaid before working at Dive Bar?
As I mentioned before, I had done a lot of amateur mermaid videos and photos before I was hired at Dive Bar, and I’m so glad I did. One of my first Halloween costumes was a pink mermaid fin, and I remember being sad that I couldn’t swim in it. I made my first swimmable tail my freshman year of high school out of swimsuit material, double flippers and a lot of glitter. I remember being physically unable to stop grinning when I took the tail for it’s test swim; it was so much fun. Now, I get to swim and entertain people doing something I had only done for fun before. It’s so cliche to say, but it really is a dream come true.
Have you always been interested in mermaids?
I’ve been interested in mermaids forever; but my story isn’t unique. Like most mers today, I loved Splash, The Little Mermaid (Anderson and Disney) and the brief mermaid part in Hook. When my mom was pregnant with me, she would swim up and down the shoreline at Ala Moana Beach Park on Oahu and I suppose that might have something to do with my love of water. I love the beach, rivers, lakes, pools, tubs, barrels, anything! Because of our connection to Hawaii, I have also been doing professional Polynesian dance since I was 12. I feel like being a mermaid is an extension of dance sometimes; the motions I have learned in yoga, ballet and hula all blend together to help me move through the water. I’m also an illustrator and mermaids have forever been a source of inspiration for me. There is so much to draw (literally) from life underwater, mermaids are open to imagination and interpretation. Recently, I did a few ink and watercolor drawings of the mermaids at Dive Bar, and we exhibited them right under the tank. It was so much fun to swim that night, knowing that my illustrations were showcased underneath me.
What do you think the allure of mermaids is? And why do you think they’re so popular right now?
There’s something in the collective consciousness that is returning us to the sea. I think for a long time, the ocean was so much more of an integral part of human life than it is today and humans are really missing it. We used to depend on our water sources a lot more than we do now; communities were build up and around water as sources of life, trade, and spirituality. Now, we just go to Safeway and buy water—the connection to water as our life-blood is quickly disappearing.
I also think that the mermaid represents something that many women wants to embody; the mermaid is aloof yet enchanting, dangerous and sweet, sexy and vulnerable. There is a certain amount of delicate awkwardness to mermaids; they can’t function as they should above land. Because they are unable to ‘fit in’ I think they appeal to everyone who has ever felt alone (so, everyone). I saw the SF Ballet do a production of The Little Mermaid this spring that was a perfect example of this side of mer-life. The mermaid was gangly, pained and tortured, but still captivating and lovely. To be utterly corny, the mermaid is a reflection of ourselves, on the surface of a wave.
How do people tend to react to you while you’re at work?
I never knew there could be so much screaming! Every time we appear in the tank, it sounds like a frenzy below. I feel a little bit like I’m being followed by the paparazzi, I can see camera flashes all over the bar when I am under the water. People absolutely gape, and if they catch me as I’m heading out of work, even though I have wet hair and usually look terrible, they beg for photos and love asking questions. It’s even more fun when we swim with our merman; everyone is always really excited for him. A few nights ago, I heard a grown man yelling, “She’s real! She’s a real mermaid!”.
What about when you tell people, outside of work, what you do?
When I am asked about what I do, I always say that I’m an illustrator first. If they seem of like mind, I mention the mermaid job as well. They are always incredulous as first, but come around when I explain about Dive Bar. I think having an establishment that we are based out of helps people to understand what we are doing, and except it a little more readily. I usually explain that Dive is sort of a re-write of the aquatic bars from the 1960’s, something that prompted a friend’s mother to ask, ‘What?! You mean you’re all topless?!?!”. I made sure to set the record straight.
As head mermaid, how do you keep all those other mermaids (and mermen?) in check?
Lots of love and bubbles! As I mentioned before, all of us mers are very close; we keep each other in check! I know that working at Dive wouldn’t be as much fun without my mersisters and brother, and we have an awesome manager too!
What’s a requirement for being a mermaid at Dive Bar, anyway?
The very first requirement is to be able to swim, and swim well! It’s so, so important to be safe whenever you are swimming, I cannot stress that enough. I also look at if you have had any acting, dance or modeling experience and if you can fit into our tails. You have to be able to entertain our patrons and be charming and playful. Stamina is a must! We currently have three full-time mermaids (myself, office manager Aimee Alejandre, and model Ellen Hancock), a merman (vegan chef Antwan Lashay) and two reserve mermaids (model Annie Alvarez and actress Teressa Freas) to fill in for any mers that can’t make it in that night. They are a great team!
And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Swim, swim, swim—and be safe doing it! Remember that even the silly things you do today could become your dream come true tomorrow. And please, make sure that sea shell bra is on tight ;).