We’ve all experienced the magic of mermaids through movies and books, but who becomes a professional mermaid, what do they do, and what inspires them? Raina Mermaid, owner of Halifax Mermaids in Canada and author of Fishy Business: How to be a Mermaid describes her journey to become a mermaid, how it helped her overcome many mental and physical challenges, and how it helps inspire and educate those she works with.
Tell us about your journey to become a mermaid. What inspired you?
About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. It was one of those things that was taking forever to figure out. In Canada, our healthcare is covered, but there are extremely long wait times. You get triaged, and if it’s not life-threatening, you can be waiting a year or more to see a specialist. And when you see that specialist, and that’s not what’s wrong with you, you’re going right back down to the bottom of the list for another specialist. I was really sick all of the time and didn’t know why…constantly getting colds, flus, infections and constantly exhausted. I was in so much pain all of the time, and when I went to the doctor, they’d just give me pain killers, but the pain killers never did anything. In fact, I would get so desperate for pain relief, I would take them without water, and would end up burning my stomach. It was awful. I was really depressed. I was getting my first degree at university and was finding it very hard to keep up. I was so sick at this point and having trouble walking. Just walking was really hard…
I was in bed one day and the movie Splash comes on and I see Daryl Hannah swimming in a mermaid costume. I went down the Google rabbit hole and realized that Daryl Hannah had multiple costumes made and had to learn how to swim in all of them. I found this really interesting and wondered if other people have done this before. I should mention that I always had a love/hate relationship with water, so I never learned to swim properly. I loved the ocean, but I was also terrified. I googled this woman who became my muse, Annette Kellermann. She lived 100 years ago, was a swimmer in Australia, and she had chronic leg pain. A lot of the records about her were burnt in a fire. Some say she had Rickets, some say Polio…, it’s not clear what her issue was. What is clear is that she had chronic leg pain and her doctor told her that swimming might be a good way to relieve it. So she started swimming, in a dress, and she had a knack for it. And she started beating men at all these swim contests, even in dresses. Then she invented the modern-day bathing suit and was arrested for wearing it. She went on to become this amazing underwater performer. She was a mermaid and performed in aquariums and founded water ballet. She wrote the first fitness book ever, and she advised the serving president who had polio ( FDR) how to recover his strength. So I asked myself, what’s my excuse? Then I found an Annette Kellermann fan page that made and sold fabric mermaid tails, and decided I wanted to try to swim in one. I ordered one, but there was no information on how to do it or how the tail should be made. The tail comes in the mail, and it was made of this horrible orange stretch vinyl that looked like a fetish item. Even though I wasn’t a good swimmer, I made my boyfriend take me to a lake, put on a lifejacket, the mermaid tail, and got in the water, and tried to swim. Eventually, I took the life jacket off, but I found it very hard to swim in. My boyfriend had been taking pictures the whole time, so when I got home, I saw the photos and thought “WOW, I look like a mermaid! I look magical!” That’s when I decided to keep working at it. I started going to a local hotel pool, and practicing… and it wasn’t overnight for me. If you talk to other mermaids, a lot of them were already good at swimming. Not me. It took years. I kept working at it and practicing and getting better. I kept upgrading to a new tail, and every time I upgraded, the costumes were more refined and easier to use. By the time I got my first real silicone tail that had a monofin, it was crazy. I was so empowered! I could go so fast and far, do flips and felt so strong. It was very symbolic for my own physical health as well, because I couldn’t fix that overnight either.
You mentioned how becoming a mermaid helped you overcome your physical struggles. How did it affect your mental health?
I had a very difficult childhood. I had a toxic family unit, an abusive parent who was an alcoholic and also suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, so I lived in fear 24/7. When I look back and ask myself how I survived and didn’t grow up to continue those cycles myself, imagination was the key to my resilience. I would play pretend all of the time and get lost in books and movies. Becoming a mermaid helped me heal from my childhood. I’ve gotten to nurture my own inner child and have enabled my imagination and creativity. And I get to do so many fun things and spend time with kids, and I always tell people that you never know what’s going on in a kid’s life. I was an A+ student, super outgoing, and nobody knew what was going on. When I’m with kids, I remember every adult who showed me kindness as a child. I want to be that adult for kids. Whether they are having a good childhood or not, I want to be that little bit of magic in their life.
You do remember. Both the kind adults and the unkind ones.
Coming from a toxic family, I had a lot of issues with how to get the right kind of attention. I needed attention. I needed validation. Becoming a mermaid was a nice, appropriate way to get attention, feel validated and feel worthy. It gave me a purpose. It also gives you a sense of community, because the community has gotten larger and there are so many people who are in love with this hobby. You also overlap into ocean activism, so you meet people through that. You overlap with the arts and meet people from that group. My partner of 10 years and I own the business together, so it has brought us closer together as a couple.
That’s great. A lot of people go through life and never find that passion.
It’s so funny- I’m so immersed in mermaiding, but every now and then I step outside and see how people view us from the outside. There are unkind, untrue and unflattering news articles. Opportunities like this are ways to clarify that being a mermaid is valid, and even if someone isn’t doing it professionally, there is still value to what they are doing, and it’s helping them in some way.
Men do it too, right?
Yes. Men have a harder time in the media. Anytime they get coverage, they tend to become the butt of the joke. So guys feel more reserved. And it is, the industry from a professional sense, very heavily weighted in working with children. It’s a sad reality, but anytime men are working with children, no matter the profession, they are always met with suspicion. So they have to overcome that as well. There are plenty of men, but they just get a lot more criticism. But they are doing stuff that is just as amazing, including environmental education, performing in aquariums and stuff for movies and TV.
How is your swimming and physical health now?
I got a personal trainer a few years ago, because I want to continue to be a mermaid for as long as I can, and it has really helped with my chronic pain issues. I, my partner, and a few friends took free diving and cultivated the discipline of holding your breath and swimming for a long time. So I went from this girl in a life jacket and a mermaid tail to performing in aquariums and doing flips, twirls, and choreographed stuff. I got so much intrinsic award from being a mermaid that I want to do more and more and continually get better. The free diving has a mental component as well, where we do a lot of meditation. And that’s how people learn to hold their breath for a long time. So I can hold mine for 2 and half minutes, and that’s not even impressive! The world record is like 25 minutes.
Can you talk a little more about the importance of imagination and health?
Imagination leads to resilience. My first degree is in child development and so many studies show that imagination and letting kids play pretend and letting them have magical adventures sets them up for success later in life, and also allows them to cope better when it comes to trauma and bad things. I also educate adults by telling them that not only do you have to consider this for your kids, but also for yourself. As adults, we don’t let ourselves play. So I put seniors in mermaid tails and make them feel magical.
What is the significance of water and healing?
Blue Mind is a book by Wallace Nichols and shows how being involved with water in any capacity, from walking around the lake, having a bath, to working on the water, lowers your stress level. He cites the science to support it too. For me, water has always been a source of resilience. When I was dealing with trauma as a child, the only room in the house with a lock was the bathroom. So I’d have baths and lock the door and spend hours playing with my toys in the bath tub. As an adult, I have a bath every day . It helps with my chronic pain and relaxes me. When I was in the process of being diagnosed with endometriosis, before I had the official diagnosis, I had a flare when I was on a camping trip. It was horrific, and it was just one of those things, do I go to the emergency room or will it pass? So I got in the lake and rocked back and forth in the water, and it made me feel better. It has always helped me when I’m in pain. I always go to the water.
What is the greatest challenge as a mermaid?
Originally it was the physical stuff, and that’s because I wanted to do it professionally. Now, I’ve gotten to be really well known in the industry. A documentary is wrapping up, we are meeting with a streaming service, and as much as I enjoy attention, I’m not used to this insane level of attention. I’m not used to people caring so much about what I say or what I think. I can’t really have opinions and talk about it anymore, because people will take it as fact. These are the growing pains of having so many people care. You definitely get haters. You get people who become obsessive and feel entitled or think what you are doing is ridiculous. And people will imagine relationships that aren’t there. I had a stalker and had to get the police involved. I’m a very kind and empathic person and, unfortunately, because I grew up groomed to not have boundaries, that’s something I’m working on as an adult.
We definitely get a lot of sexual harassment to the point that we coined the word, MerVerts.
Merverts? In real life or online?
Both. I never had it with women. It’s always been from men. They come outright and sexually harass you or they project their fetish onto you. Underwater stuff is a fetish. I don’t judge people for their sexual fetishes, but when I post a video of me visiting a sick child in the hospital, one shouldn’t write sexually explicit stuff. At events, you’ll often hear a guy yell, “Take your top off! Real mermaids don’t wear tops!” They’ll do this at family events. One time I just yelled back, “Sir , if you’re looking for topless women, you gotta go across the bridge. (to the strip joint). At charity events, you’ll get drunk, rich men who think they can do whatever they want to you, because they are paying all this money. One time, a guy stomped on my fin as hard as he could “to see if it was real.” For one, my feet are actually in that, so you just stomped on my ankles. Two, this is a 3000 dollar costume: if you break it, you’ll buy me a new one. There are a lot of issues around consent. Now, I have security, and I have no problem telling these guys off. But it still happens.
Sadly, you’ll always have that element. In closing, is there a favorite quote or tidbit of wisdom you’d like to share?
Imagination has value. That is my ongoing message, always. It has value in every corner of our lives and at any age. The people working in this field are offering a valuable service. People often look at us and think, “Oh, you’re just a girl sitting in a costume,” but actually I planned out an entire ocean curriculum, and adapted it for children with special needs, and I’m inspiring children to care about the ocean. Secondly, children should play pretend. It’s just as every bit as valuable as math and reading. We need to nurture our creativity.