Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Mermaid

Their lavish costumes and group swims provide a community they could never find on land — so much so that they don’t identify as human.

Secret Life of a Mermaid

The mermaid sits with perfect posture, delicately nibbling a croissant in a Portland, Oregon, cafe. Her fingernails are long, painted a bluish green. Her dark hair is cut in a crisp A-line bob. She introduces herself as Una the Mermaid, though her given name is Gina Ricupero.

She is a 39-year-old mother, works in education at a prison, and is one of Portland’s most well-known mermaids. As she sips a cappuccino, she talks about the path to finding herself, a story of hurt and healing, of pirates and sirens, of toxic masculinity and the power of play. She recounts the moment she realized that though she may have been born on land, an ordinary human, her true identity revolves around the sea. Through a gap-toothed smile, she talks about the beautiful things she’s experienced in the community of mermaids, a world where imagination flourishes and weakness turns to power.

A world in which a homemade tail can bring both joy and solace.

“I know it sounds silly,” she says, “but we don’t identify as human.”

Now, it’s true that underneath the cafe table, Una has legs, not a tail. She wears not a seashell top but an ordinary black dress. The ocean is 80 miles away; the only water in sight was poured by a waiter.

But she repeats a key part of her life’s thesis, an idea that invigorates her and the larger mer-community that exists all around the world.

“Mermaids,” she insists, “are real.”

Today, you can buy some 90,000 mermaid-related products on Amazon. There are mermaid tails for kids and mermaid tails for adults, mermaid tails for swimming, mermaid blankies, mermaid luggage, mermaid party supplies, and on and on. A lot of this, no doubt, has roots in Disney’s 1989 hit The Little Mermaid, which is still vivid in the public’s mind. That story, of course, was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 fable.

Children listening to Una the mermaid as she reads to them during the Spring Fairy Festival in Tacoma, Washington, on May 2019.

But this world is much deeper than those products. There are online mermaid communities, mermaid schools that teach how to swim with a monofin, YouTube tutorials for applying mermaid makeup that will survive, smudgeproof, underwater. You can hire a mermaid to perform at parties. There are “famous” mermaids, such as Mermaid Melissa, who not only showcases her talents at events but also has trained to perform difficult dives. Truly committed mermaids can buy made-to-order silicone tails, running into the thousands of dollars — extra for glitter.

All around the world, there are local mermaid “pods,” each with its own distinct identity or ethos, and members, like Una, who say being a mermaid is an essential part of their identity.

Una’s entry point was somewhat unique. It happened a little over a decade ago, at an Oregon music and arts festival called Faerieworlds. “Wizards, fairies, elves, orcs, you know,” she says.

Walking among the vendors hawking fairy wings and wands, she noticed a crowd around one of the booths. A costumed woman lounged out front, obviously stationed there to attract attention. “It was a lady mermaid in a little tub,” Una says. She recalled dressing up as a mermaid as a youngster, but that was for Halloween. This was the middle of the summer! Even more amazing, the woman’s tail was submersible. “When I saw her, I felt like a little kid, like I was seeing a real mermaid,” she says. “I remember watching how other people were getting excited, too.”

It was a moment of recognition. The way she sees it now, “I had spiritually identified as a mermaid all my life, but that part of myself was no longer active and alive.”

Una had grown up in Hawaii, swimming in the ocean, feeling a connection with the fish and seashells. But she also describes a childhood marked by a sadness so profound that even at age 10, she thought about taking her own life.

Hair and nail details on Una’s costume as she performs for children at the Spring Fairy Festival on May 2019.

“I never thought I could smile or express joy,” she says. Her escape came through a fertile imagination — and the water was part of her spirit. As an adult in Oregon, living two hours from the Pacific Ocean, “I was feeling really disconnected.”

Standing in front of the festival booth, Una remembers looking at her husband and vowing to come back and be a mermaid, though she didn’t know exactly what that meant. He said, “I know you will.”

Within a few years, she had a pod of mermaids around her and had bought her first lagoon. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

At this point, Una was already a part of the pirate community. Yes, it’s a thing. Modern pirates dress themselves up with eye patches, breeches, maybe some grog and a parrot, and perform make-believe reenactments at festivals and parades. Some pirate groups have real tall-masted ships and make a show of coming ashore. But the truth is, it was mainly her husband’s thing, and she was increasingly uncomfortable with it.

“Even though it’s an imaginary world, a lot of the social issues creep in,” she says. “Heavy drinking … the way women are treated isn’t always very good. [Pirates] are about violence, really. It was sort of the antithesis of what I wanted to do in my personal life.”

As the annual pirate festival approached, she had an idea. Pirates plied the seas and so did mermaids. She could be like the woman at Faerieworlds. And she would do it with her daughter, who was about 6 years old. They picked up iridescent fabric from the craft store, sheet rubber from the hardware store, and made their own mermaid outfits. Slipping into the glimmering tail and tucking her own brown hair under a silvery wig, she began to see herself in a new way: Una. Her daughter was Mermaid Oula.

Even at a young age, Una’s daughter seemed to be so different than Una had been as a girl — very task-oriented, focused on logic and facts. That was fine, Una said, but she didn’t seem to know how to play. Una tried dolls, fairies, forts … none of them seemed to engage her daughter in the way she expected.

Una swimming in blue waters.

As a child, Una had taken shelter in the playground of her own mind. “I really believe imagination is important,” she says. “The moment we stop imagining is the moment we can’t visualize a solution for the future.” Wired in very different ways, the two had a hard time connecting.

Una believed that mermaiding at the pirate festival was an opportunity for her and her introverted daughter.

Now, if you happen to be an introvert, this might strike you as torture. Put on a costume, in public, where people can stare at you — or worse, talk to you? But Una said it actually had the opposite effect on her daughter.

“I think what she found was a safe way to assert an identity and be herself, but still remain at a distance,” Una explains. “She found a sense of power and engagement. Also, it was fun. We didn’t have to take it too seriously.”

Then something significant happened. At the festival, a couple of the pirate women came over, tapped Una on the shoulder and whispered, “We’re mermaids too. Want to join us?”

“That’s how I got brought into the world of mermaids,” Una says. Eventually, a public-facing mermaid community formed, and in time, Una was surrounded by like-minded people. They’d put on their mostly homemade tails for pool parties and lake swims and fountain raids (forget the Pacific — it’s way too cold). The interest was great enough that she asked the Faerieworlds organizer for permission to set up a mermaid lagoon. Well, really, a collapsible pool, decorated to look like an underwater hideaway. At the festival, the mermaid pod hung out all day, interacting with the fairy crowd, telling stories, and giving out treasures. Una’s Traveling Fanta-Sea Cove is now a regular part of the festival.

Mermaids being playful with other mystical creatures during a festival.

“It started off as me dressing up,” she says. “Until I started tapping into a power.”

Now, some people may stop here and say, wait a minute, these are grown adults, putting on costumes and frolicking in collapsible pools. They’re delusional if they think they’re real mermaids. But Una and the others believe there’s real meaning in what they do. She has a master’s degree in conflict resolution, and she peppers her conversations with references to things like archetypes and identities, referring to the pod’s “deep values” of inclusiveness, support and acceptance.

She sees this community that she’s helped build as a kind of antidote to toxic masculinity — the sexism, the coercion, the judgment — that has had a profound effect on women’s lives. When men asked to join the pod, she initially balked (it turns out you have to protect against “mer-verts”). Then she realized that if mermaiding is about being accepting, one’s gender shouldn’t be a barrier. Mermen were welcome, as were gender fluid mer-people. Before joining, everyone has to craft a short bio — a mer-sona.

“It’s not for you to just come and party,” she says.

The mer-folks in her pod come in all shapes, sizes and colors. But she’s noticed some shared traits. Many are in helping professions, such as teachers and social workers. Many struggled in the past to fit in. Some were survivors of trauma.

“We’re finding family for a reason,” she says. “We’ve found self-healing in what we do.”

Girls gathering around Una as she swims in a lagoon at a festival.

Preschool teacher Janet Axton, also known as Mermaid Murenn, says it has been a boost to her self-esteem. As a kid in California, she searched for mermaid books in the library. At the beach, “I was always hoping I could meet a dolphin that could be my friend,” she says

“All through my life, I felt like a clumsy tomboy that nobody liked,” she says. When the other girls had boyfriends, she was still “dressing like a boy.” She felt like she wasn’t good at anything. Family members cracked jokes about her clumsiness. “It hurt badly,” she says. “I was like, I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.

“Then I got to be a mermaid, and I found it was amazing. You don’t have to be a beauty or skinny or anything.”

Volunteering at an aquarium, she’d pull on her tail and talk with kids about sea creatures, about picking up litter. She had found a purpose.

On her honeymoon, she dove into the warm Caribbean waters with a spectacular blue tail.

“You feel like kind of a superhero, like you have amazing power. Looking down at that tail and seeing you’re a mermaid, it does something to your brain.”

Una the mermaid in her full costume as she performs for children.

Grandmer Orchid, also known as Rose Cavett, remembers telling her grade-school classmates years ago that she had been reincarnated and was a mermaid in another life. After shepherding the last of her seven children into adulthood, it finally dawned on her: There was a whole world out there and “you can just be who you want to be.” With her tail in place, “people smile. Little kids believe. There was this magic again.”

At age 61 she turned it into a small professional gig. For four years, the city of Long Beach, Washington (population: 1,413), paid Orchid a small stipend to attend waterfront events, where she read stories and led children in sea-themed crafts.

“People just suspend disbelief and you are that sea creature. I do it because it brings smiles to other people … I think we all start out with magic in our hearts, and somewhere along the way, we lose that. We’ve kind of forgotten how to play.”

Una is also expanding her mermaid repertoire. Last year, she acquired a large tank that she intends to mount on the back of a truck. “I’ve got an aquarium guy who swears he can heat it,” she says. She intends to make the rig look like a sort of circus cart and drive around the Northwest in it, stopping to put on shows. She’ll swim around the tank in circles and interact with spectators, creating mermaid encounters without words.

“Being your authentic self can be the most radical act you ever do,” she says.

As she sips the last of her cappuccino, Una says it again.

“Mermaids are real,” she insists. “They’re just not what you think they are.”