Even when she pulls on her tail, Marina Anderson says she relates more to an old school Hollywood star than to a certain Disney mermaid princess.
“I didn’t want to be Ariel — I wanted to be Esther!” says Anderson, referring to Esther Williams, who swam to fame in aquamusicals during the 1940s and 1950s.
Don’t feel too badly for this underwater siren — she nets $400 an hour performing as a mermaid in events across the country.
Anderson’s career has evolved from accepting random jobs to being the boss of her own pod of mermaids. She shares how she flipped her career from a part-time swimmer to a full-time aquatic performer and businesswoman.
How to Train a Mermaid
First, Anderson makes one thing clear: “I don’t teach mermaiding.” She prefers the term “aquatic dancing.”
She heads up a troupe of women who call themselves The Aquaticats. They appear every weekend at The Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, offering family-friendly performances for the early shows and risqué “mermaid burlesque” for the later ones.
On the day of one performance, Anderson is coordinating costume delivery, ordering promotional T-shirts and dealing with a guy she only refers to as “Crazy Al.”
“I went from being the solo artist to a person who runs a show, and now it’s changed to a business,” Anderson says. “I have to worry about payroll and taxes. It’s changed to the point where I have to accept that in order to keep the art alive or to keep it evolving, I’m going to have to do this other stuff that may not be as pleasant.”
The rest of The Aquaticats arrive in full (waterproof) makeup and styled hair, looking more like glammed-up showgirls than angelic mermaids. Depending on the season, the group includes eight to 11 women — Anderson has trained every mermaid that’s come through her pool since she started the show in 2006.
The mermaids hang out at the water’s edge, taking turns diving, dancing and play-acting catfights — all while engaging the bar crowd that’s peeping at them through porthole-style windows built into the side of the hotel pool.
One of The Aquaticats who calls herself Ama San says she never planned to be a mermaid when she reached out to Anderson — she was afraid of the water.
“I contacted Marina, and I said, ‘Listen I have this fear I need to work through,’” says San, who’s also a belly dancer. “I had no intention of being in the pod.”
After a few lessons with Anderson, San overcame her fears enough to submerge her head under water and even start swimming.
“Once I started getting kind of comfortable… she knew exactly what to do in order to get me over that next hump,” San recalls.
Within a month, San was smiling at the crowds from the porthole.
Making a Career Out of Mermaiding
Anderson’s tail… er tale, is a bit twisted by her own design. She lists a long line of jobs she’s held over the years, including pilot, drummer, EMT, zookeeper and fire-eater — she even gobbled flames as part of her mermaid act for a brief period.
She tours the country, getting paid to perform as a mermaid for events, lead workshops on aquatic dancing and sometimes… just sit by the side of a pool.
Anderson recalls one gig when she was hired by a hotel in Hawaii to appear in her mermaid costume and greet guests at a poolside event. But the hotel was not prepared for Anderson’s more grown-up — and voluptuous — version of a mermaid.
“They sent me away to sit on a lava rock way on the other side of the pool and just wave,” Anderson says, mimicking the guests squinting to see her from a distance.
Because the pay and consistency of the solo gigs is unpredictable, Anderson notes it’s been a long swim upstream for her to be successful enough to quit her other jobs and perform full time.
“It took me 10 years to finally be able to say that I can pay my rent,” Anderson says. “My husband would remind me every week, ‘You know, you’re spending more than you’re earning,’ and he was right.
“Where people would spend their money on bowling or movies, I’m spending my money on making this work.”
How Long Can You Hold Your Breath?
Considering the many types of dances she’s performed over the years, Anderson views mermaiding as just another style in her repertoire and wonders sometimes why it has to be her identity.
“The fish tail is just another outfit,” she says. “If you’re dancing ‘Swan Lake,’ no one’s going to call you a swan.”
But even though Anderson is passionate about figure swimming and performance art, she gets why her career might still elicit a few chuckles.
“I don’t take myself seriously because, c’mon, I hold my breath for a living,” Anderson says.
So how long can she hold her breath?
“Long enough to get paid,” Anderson says with a laugh. “Long enough for you to worry.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer with Codetic. She likes to share interesting ways to make money, but she admits sometimes she can be a little shell-fish.