Gossip Girls

The Life and Times of a Sarasota Mermaid

It turns out that Sarasota, like the rest of Florida, has a thriving “mermaiding” culture.

By Sarafina Murphy-Gibson December 2, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Image: Shutterstock 

Mermaids have fascinated humans even before explorers took to the seas. Beautiful and mysterious, they are also dangerous, as apt to drown a wayward sailor as they are to rescue him. This combination of pulchritude and risk captivated me even at the age of 4 when  my mother took me to see Disney's The Little Mermaid.

When I got my coveted copy of the animated classic on VHS I played it to destruction, acting out each scene with my grandmother's afghan wrapped tightly around my legs. Over the years my interest in the elusive sirens hasn't waned. Shortly after I moved to Sarasota, I saw a post on Facebook seeking performers to be body-painted as mermaids for a film festival event and jumped at the occasion. I soon learned that a group of mermaids is called a “gossip,” and that I'd been caught up in one.

Mermaiding at Jack Dusty

It turns out that Sarasota, like the rest of Florida, has a thriving “mermaiding” culture. Mermaids can be hired to entertain at children's parties, enliven events or put on aquatic shows. Performers can make up to hundreds of dollars an hour depending on the specific event requirements. Growing niche markets serve the industry with all sorts of mermaid paraphernalia from bejeweled hair accessories and biodegradable glitter (mermaids are by nature environmentally conscious) to expensive custom swimmable silicone tails. There are even classes where you can learn the art of being a mermaid. Hint: You first have to master swimming with your legs together, before you attempt graceful underwater acrobatics.

A group of mermaids is called a "gossip."

Then there's the look. The meticulous body-paint transformation process designed by Suzy Kalin of Pixie Painting takes at least two hours. The model starts in nude bikini bottoms before layers of paint, fabric, glitter, gems and a pinch of magic are all carefully applied. Kalin and her team painstakingly airbrush on hundreds of scales and hand paint details such as pearl jewelry or the occasional tentacle. A seashell tiara combined with a golden mesh skirt and a treasure-laden top complete the look.

As a mermaid, I've attended events where I’ve mingled with guests, showcased auction items, led a sing-along or posed for photographs. Other times I'm more for ambiance and lounge languidly while brushing my hair or listening to news from a conch shell. Sometimes people get a little salty, mistakenly thinking our presence is exploitative or degrading. But for my gossip and me, mermaiding is a creative outlet and an empowering experience. I get to live my best fishy-fantasy while bringing pleasure to others who embrace the magical possibilities of the sea.

Mermaid Facts and Terminology

A fork is referred to as a “dinglehopper,” a reference to the 1989 film, The Little Mermaid.

A group of mermaids can be referred to as “a gossip.”

The act of dressing up is known as “mermaiding” or “mermaidry.”

Rumor has it you can catch a mermaid by stealing a personal item such as a mirror or a comb.

Where to Find Mermaids

Florida is the only state whose government has mermaids on its payroll. Since 1947 Weeki Wachee State Park has hosted underwater mermaid performances on its submerged stage. Siren seekers can catch a live show three times a day, 365 days a year. 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee

Mermaids have been known to make weekend appearances at The Ritz-Carlton's Jack Dusty bar and restaurant. 111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota

Each fall the Longboat Key Club's Bacchus on the Beach celebration brings mermaids in to help sample the wine.

The Sea Hagg: This Cortez salvage shop is filled with décor fit for a mermaid's grotto. Find unique treasures from curios and figurines to nautical flotsam and jetsam. 12304 Cortez Road, Cortez

Siesta Key Mermaids: Open seasonally from April to August, this business makes custom swim tails and hosts themed beach events. 

Mermaid Vodka: Headquartered here in Sarasota, Mermaid Vodka routinely partners with environmental conservation efforts such as the 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project. Bottles start at $20 and can be found at local liquor stores. 

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