Seeing dozens of women in scallop-shell bikini tops struggling to force their legs into latex tails inside Las Vegas cabanas does not ruin the magic of mermaids. At least not for the small group of men who’ve come to the Silverton Casino, just off the Strip, for Mer-Con, the Comic-Con of mythical aquatic creatures. Like many of the men at the Aug. 12 convention—other than the old guy playing Poseidon and a smattering of effeminate mermen—Thom Shouse is dressed like a pirate. Or at least kind of like a pirate. “I’m not a pirate,” clarifies Shouse, wearing a poufy white shirt and a red bandana. “I don’t have any skulls and crossbones on me.” Shouse, it turns out, is a businessman of a different sort. “I’m the minder of mermaids. I have mermaids that get treasure for me. Pirates are my friends because I get mermaids to be with them and tell them stories and just be pretty.”
When he is not pimping out mermaids, Shouse is a special effects artist specializing in amphibious women. After creating the tail for the 1984 mermaid epic, Splash, Shouse went on to become the world’s top designer of bespoke urethane tails. And business has never been better: Shouse, who claims he believes mermaids are real, says there’s currently a six-month wait for one of his multi-thousand-dollar creations. That’s because mermaids are about to swamp vampires and zombies as supernatural rainmakers in popular culture.
Building off the buzz from this year’s installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—which featured a plethora of bad-ass, sailor-drowning mermaids played by models—mermaid-fueled projects are piling up. Twilight author Stefanie Meyer says her next book is all mermaid. Joe Wright, who directed Atonement, is planning a live-action, dark version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid; Tobey Maguire is producing a rival, also dark, also live-action Little Mermaid. In June, Disneyland launched a new Little Mermaid ride and will add one to Disney World in 2012. Photographer Mark Anderson is releasing a book—available as an iPhone app—called M: Mermaids of Hollywood, that features Anna Faris, the Kardashians, Kristen Bell, and others in tails. Carolyn Turgeon, author of Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale, has agreed to run a new magazine, Mermaids & Mythology. The Australian kids’ show H20: Just Add Water is like Hannah Montana with fins. “Mermaids are great,” says Shouse, who created a tail for a recent Panda Express ad. “They can sell hair-care products, skin-care products, seafood!”
Shouse may seem to have a jump on the competition, but he’s hardly alone; the true beneficiaries of the mermaid bull market are small business owners who cornered the mermaid market before there actually was one. Eric Ducharme, who lives near Tampa, makes about seven latex tails a month for $500 to $700 and since December has created 25 silicone ones for $1,600 to $5,000, including one for Lady Gaga. The Weeki Wachee Springs Underwater Theater, also near Tampa, started its mermaid shows in 1947. In danger of closing just a few years ago, it’s now hosting sold-out camps for adults who want to swim with tails.
With a little luck these adults can even turn pro. When Erin St. Blaine lost her dot-com job in 2001, she and her fellow tech-bust-victim husband, Darrell, formed Fire Pixie Entertainment in Fremont, Calif. In addition to fire eaters and belly dancers, they’ve hired four pro mermaids to perform at parties. Darrell, who stands by the pool dressed like a pirate as Erin swims in her tail, is not surprised his wife got in on the fad. “She’ll want to be an astronaut next year,” he says. “Or drive a fire truck.”
Other mermaids, however, can’t imagine doing anything else. Hannah Mermaid (née Fraser), the Angelina Jolie of the tail business, is a delicate, blonde Australian model who radiates a hippie calm. Fraser went pro eight years ago and performs at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas one week each month. When she’s not there, she’s appearing in TV ads for Skyy Vodka, doing events for Omega, or welcoming two new manatees to the Sydney Aquarium.
At Mer-Con, Hannah Mermaid holds court outside by the pool at the Silverton, posing for adoring fans, members of the media, and a few borderline creepy dudes. Organizers chose the Silverton partly because it’s got a 117,000-gallon aquarium in the Mermaid Restaurant & Lounge, where former synchronized swimmers put on mermaid shows daily. The tank is situated just a few feet from a mermaid art gallery where you can buy a portrait of former Playboy model Holly Madison as a mermaid. “It hasn’t become mainstream,” says the Silverton’s aquarium manager, Thomas Harder, of his mermaid shows, “but we’re not on the fringe anymore.”
Naturally, not every mermaid is a joiner. MeduSirena, a tall, wild-haired redhead who runs the weekly fire-eating mermaid show at the Wreck Bar at the Sheraton in Fort Lauderdale considers herself above the general mermaid riffraff. “I call it aquatic performance. I don’t call it a mermaid. I don’t go around saying, ‘I’m a mermaid,’” she says, doing a pejorative impression of the type of person who would say, “I’m a mermaid.” As it nears midnight at Mer-Con, the forces buoying the mermaid craze become clearer. Stars such as Hannah Mermaid and MeduSirena hang in the shallow end of a pool with the old guy dressed like Neptune, and the place starts to resemble an episode of HBO (TWX)’s Real Sex. “There’s definitely something weird with mermaids and sex, just like with vampires,” says Turgeon, the novelist tapped to run Mermaids magazine. “They’re incredibly seductive, and they could kill you. You have all the angsty stuff that you have with vampires. Except you have all this female power.”
Garrett Grioua, who does security at a club in Fort Lauderdale, felt the same way when his belly-dancing fiancée decided to train to become a professional mermaid at the Wreck Bar. “It’s an exotic thing, seeing beautiful women dance underwater,” he says. “I’m not going to lie. It’s hot.”