- By Nancy Flores American-Statesman Staff
When Maria Russo told her kindergarten teacher that she wanted to be a mermaid when she grew up, her teacher said it wasn’t possible. Russo, 32, has managed to prove her wrong.
As co-owner of Sirenalia, a local mermaid tail-making company that also offers mermaid experiences, Russo has been a driving force in the burgeoning local mermaid scene.
In recent years, mermaid mania has been on the rise across the country. From mermaid retreats in Hawaii to mermaid conferences in North Carolina, our society’s love for the mythical creature has spread in unique ways. A swimming class in Michigan offers students a chance to stay fit by wearing their mermaid tails in the water. Closer to home, the newly-launched Mermaid Society of San Marcos will celebrate Mermaid Week in September.
Russo says her connection to the water and passion for environmental activism draws her to mermaid imagery. After wishing she could be a mermaid as a girl, she now describes herself as one.
“That’s a funny thing in the mermaid community when you meet other mermaids,” Russo says. “They are not like, ‘I want to pretend I’m a mermaid,’ or, ‘I want to put on a mermaid costume.’ They say, ‘I’m a mermaid.’ I hear it again and again.”
At a recent mermaid retreat in Belize, nearly 20 mermaid enthusiasts joined Sirenalia for a getaway that involved mermaid-themed yoga, swimming in the ocean with mermaid tails, underwater photo shoots and raising money for the Ocean Academy, a high school in Caye Caulker with an emphasis on environmental conservation.
Russo describes swimming in a mermaid tail in Belize, near the barrier reef, and the ocean life around her as a “surreal magical experience.” Many of the other mermaids she knows enjoy the opportunity to live out a childhood fantasy. “You get to be like the mermaid from ‘Splash’ or ‘The Little Mermaid’ or the storybooks when you were little.”
Russo and Jason Darling, her partner in life and in business, have been helping both men and women fulfill those childhood fantasies in different ways. Aside from making custom silicone mermaid tails that start at $1,800, Sirenalia also partners with underwater photography company Flashpool Productions to offer mermaid transformation photo shoots.
Since the birth of their daughter, Felix, their mermaid lifestyle is now a family affair. Felix even has her own custom baby mermaid tail.
Sirenalia also offers mermaid performances at events through a partnership with her other business venture, Austin Occasions. And Darling, who also runs gourmet lollipop company Lollyphile, now features mermaid-inspired lollipops that taste “kinda like a tropical drink after a quick swim in the Caribbean,” according to Lollyphile’s website.
“We’re all able to work together and make mermaid dreams come true,” Russo says. “I can’t believe it’s really my life, honestly.”
In her early 20s, Russo traveled around Mexico with a nonprofit organization that offered circus workshops and shows for children. She later performed circus shows at Playa del Carmen hotels with pools, where she started incorporating mermaids in the performances and began making mermaid costumes.
When she later met Darling in Austin, she says he helped her elevate the mermaid tails with his artistic skills. “It was really interesting to me to make a costume that works in the water,” Russo says.
While Sirenalia’s lifelike mermaid tails have been featured in music videos, television shows and worn by professional mermaid performers, Russo says most of her clients “just really love to swim in mermaid tails and want super realistic prosthetic mermaid tails.”
When she puts hers on and swims, she says she feels like she transforms into a half sea creature and can shoot through the water. “It’s definitely only for strong swimmers, though, because your legs are bound,” Russo says. Sirenalia plans to organize mermaid swim lessons in the future and develop a more affordable fabric for the mermaid tails.
Other signs of mermaid mania are popping up around the city. On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Austin Aquarium, a little girl in pigtails stared in awe at a mermaid performer who sparkled in her body glitter and magenta tail. The mermaid perched inside of a large aquarium, smiling at passers-by as stingrays swam around her.
The girl touched the mermaid’s scales and asked her questions about her starfish headband. “I like mermaids!” shrieked another little girl when she spotted her.
An Austin Aquarium mermaid performer makes appearances there from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. every weekend. Families with annual memberships tend to plan their trips around times when they can see a mermaid, says Alui Cleaver, the Austin Aquarium’s chief operating officer. “It’s unexpected to see her,” she says. “I think it (sparks) another element of the imagination.”
Many Central Texans still have fond memories of watching “aquamaid” performers in San Marcos at the former Aquarena Springs submersible theater, which entertained families from the early 1950s to mid-1990s.
“The mermaids of my childhood helped inform my creative sense,” says San Marcos native July Moreno, who earlier this year co-founded the Mermaid Society SMTX. The group is bringing the mermaid spirit back to the city through a weeklong cultural arts celebration that will also help raise environmental awareness about the San Marcos River in September.
Russo also aims to continue to make environmental awareness part of her mermaid mission.
“In order to swim in natural water we have to make sure it stays there,” Russo says. “I know that whatever happens (with the trends) we’re going to continue being mermaids. We’ve been mermaids a long time and will be far into the future.”