So a few weeks ago I was in Florida for familial reasons and selflessly took a day out to drive over to the city of live mermaids, Weeki Wachee Springs, which if you don’t know about now you will soon, to meet some extremely glamorous former mermaids – 71-year-old Vicki Smith and 61-year-old Barbara Wynns, both of whom are completely gorgeous and inspirational and will appear here in the next week or so to possibly blow your minds. Vicki and Barbara both perform in alumni shows at Weeki Wachee and run the Sirens of the Deep mermaid camp that yours truly will participate in in May.
I know. There is still room in said camp, FYI.
In between meeting Vicki for lunch in Brooksville, Florida, and Barbara at her mermaid-filled river home in Weeki Wachee early that eve, I drove up to some Crystal River, Florida, past manatee parks and clam shacks and signs that warn you to look out for loose bears, to meet Eric Ducharme, the Mertailor, a 20-year-old merman and tailmaker, at his home studio. It was a wet, smoldering kind of afternoon in West Florida, which is really the ideal kind of afternoon to meet brilliant young mens in their houses after being told how amazing they are by former and did I mention highly glamorous mermaids.
So Eric has performed as a merman for years, and is one of the top tailmakers in the business (there are others, too, whom I will talk to here). If you want a realistic and gorgeous-looking mermaid tail and are far too lazy to make your own a la Hannah Mermaid, you might want to get one of his. I first read about him, by the way, because he made Cynthia von Buhler’s mermaid tail for an infamous Manhattan party she threw last fall whilst reclining in a bathtub, surrounded by oil spill mermaids. More about that in an upcoming post. But when planning such stupendous soirees and in need of tail-like accoutrements, Eric would be the one to call. Super luxurious and incredibly gorgeous, his tails can range from a few hundred to few thousand smackers.
While we talked, Eric did mysterious, magical things to a black latex tail as a line of super stunning silicone tails glittered and winked alluringly in the background.
What got you interested in merfolk generally?
My grandparents lived behind Weeki Wachee Springs. The mermaids and their tails intrigued me since I was five years old. My first memory at Weeki Wachee was standing in front of the glass, so close I could hear and feel the bubbles as I watched a dark-haired mermaid swim by in a gold lame mermaid tail.
When did you begin performing as a merman? How does a 15 year old get into this line of work?
I began attending mermaid camps at Weeki Wachee in the summers and when I was nine I met Barbara Wynns, my “mermaid mother.” She is a great woman and mentor. I love her dearly! Barbara was like me and knew how much I wanted to get in that spring on the airhose [Weeki Wachee mermaids breathe through an airhose]. She saw my potential and passion. She gave me my first mermaid tail, and had me scuba certified at thirteen. After that she had permission to train me on the airhose and showed me all of the ropes to becoming an underwater performer. I learned from the best – from Barbara and the other former mermaids. On the weekends and after school, Barbara would come pick me up from home and bring me to Weeki. We would swim in the spring, practice my ballet, and work on putting together underwater routines just for fun. Those were the days!
At sixteen years old, I was hired as a merman/underwater performer. They call the guys princes, but I saw myself a little bit differently. I knew all of the ballet. I had always gotten complimented from fellow current/former mermaids on my form and underwater talent. I knew all of the numbers to each show in and out, every part, and every character. It was very unusual to get hired at sixteen. The rule was you always had to eighteen years old to become a mermaid, but they made an exception for me. It normally takes six months to train for a part in the show, but I was in my first show within a few weeks of getting hired. My biggest fear was jumping off of the roof into the water. After my first time jumping in, they could not stop me! It became one of my favorite things to do.
When did you first start making mermaid tails — and what inspired you to do it?
This is a tough question! I cannot remember the first time I ever created a mermaid/man tail, but I can think back to all of the time I tried! From garbage bags, masking tape, fabric, bed sheets, you name it, it was a mermaid tail! I guess I always wanted my own tail. Unfortunately, my parents did not understand at the time, so I got creative like every young child does. I used what I had and tried my own. My grandmother has sewn me tails. One after another. She eventually got tired and said that I needed to learn how to make me own. She taught me some basic sewing ropes and I took it over. I got pretty good with my little sewing machine!
I was making underwater costumes for Weeki here and there when I was about fourteen. I would donate mermaid tails, just to see them in the show and take photos of them! When I was fifteen, I received an order for fourteen tails from Weeki, then at sixteen, another order for fourteen tails, and it just went on from there.
What is involved in making a really great tail?
Love, passion, sweat, and tears always go into making each and every one of my mermaid tails. It’s not easy to create a workable mermaid tail. The great thing is that not only do I make them, but I also perform and swim in them myself. This allows me to make the best of the best.
Do people seem to transform when they put on one of your tails — and in what ways, aside from the obvious?
Let’s just say many of the models that I work with on photoshoots have no idea what they were expecting until they put one of our mermaid tails on. For many children, the ability to have and wear one of our mermaid tails means the world to them. That is what makes my job so special, making dreams come true.
I understand that you rent performance-sized aquariums as well. How does that work?
We do not rent the tanks. However, we hire out our traveling performance. Our traveling performances take place in a 900-gallon acrylic aquarium that is mobile. It fits into most venues with some restrictions. The tank allows us to perform short underwater ballet numbers or underwater posing mermaids or mermen. This type of performance is normally hired for night clubs and large scaled events.
You have mermaids and mermen for hire for events, right? How do you select mermaids and mermen? What makes a good mermaid and a good merman?
Yes, we do hire mermaids and mermen for events. From time to time we get phone calls from clients wanting mermaids for a pool party or a corporate event. Most of our mermaids are models or performers that we have worked with in the past. A great personality and positive attitude makes a good mermaid. It takes a lot to put on a tail and make it work.
Does it ever seem that mermen get the short shrift?
It’s funny you should ask that. When I first started out at fifteen years old, I was always put down for being a guy who wore a tail. However, with a positive attitude I am able to gain respect for what I do. Mermaids are more popular, but mermen do get a fair amount of attention! I always say; “How do you get mermaids without mermen?”
Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids and mermen?
Live your dream. Don’t stop dreaming. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot do what you want to in life. Always give 110% to everything that you do. If you want something bad enough, you will eventually get it!