In 1947 the United States looked like a bit of a different place than it is today. The average cost of a new house was $6,600. The CIA was just opening its doors. And mermaids were living in Florida.
Thirty-five mermaids could be seen performing eight 30-minute underwater shows daily at the Newton Perry Underwater Theater in Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida (outside of Tampa). By the 1960s, the Weeki Wachee mermaids' popularity had grown so much their audience swelled to between 500,000 and 1 million tourists each year, including famous visitors Elvis Presley and Don Knotts.
Twenty-first century Weeki Wachee mermaids aren't the popular attraction they were several decades ago, but they continue to impress their audiences with underwater shows. Those include a ballet adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" in addition to a variety show showcasing synchronized-swimming routines and underwater feats, performed for about 250,000 annual visitors [source: Sole-Smith, Schiller]. Can you drink a soda under water? These mermaids can.
The Weeki Wachee mermaids aren't the only enchanted ladies of the sea. In addition to performing in shows or at resorts and special events around the world, professional mermaids also perform at birthday parties and other celebrations, in swimming pools and tanks. They're seen on the beach and at Hollywood parties, corporate events and modeling shoots.
Being a professional mermaid is a real job, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people are called to the part through modeling or acting. But, while it's work for all who do it, mermaiding is also a lifestyle for many. The women – and men – who are drawn to such work often talk about how they were fated to shimmy into that tail.
Ah, yes, the tail. That's kind of the hallmark of the mermaid, isn't it? And no professional mermaid would appear without hers. Tails need to look good, but they also need to be functional because they're used for propulsion and speed in the water. One of the most well-known professional mermaids, Hannah Fraser, fashioned her first tail from an orange plastic tablecloth packed with pillow stuffing; things have changed since she was 9 years old, thankfully. Hannah now has several mermaid tails, some of her own creation – such as one built from polyurethane board, and some professionally tailored. And, yes, there is an orange one in her collection. (It's an orange-and-white Koi tail, but this grown-up version doesn't have the pillow stuffing.)
Tails not only vary in color and decoration, but also in function. Some are designed specifically to help propel a mermaid's body through the water, while others may be better suited for underwater acrobatics. Some, such as the one Lady Gaga wore as her alter ego Yuri in 2011, are perhaps best suited for posing, modeling and music videos. Professionally made tails, such as those made by a tailor or special-effects artist, are custom made of materials such as high-grade silicone, urethane, latex rubber and spandex – and it wouldn't be unusual to see detailed work such as hand-sewn scales. And they have a price tag to match: Custom tails cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.