Why mermaids are making a splash in Hong Kong and strap-on fish tails are the new must-have
Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus have donned mermaid costumes, schools have sprung up to teach you how to swim and pose like the mythical aquatic beings, and performers are in high demand at kids’ parties
You don’t have to look far to see that mermaids have dethroned unicorns as one of the year’s biggest trends. The mythological half-human, half-fish beings have taken over in shops and on social media, manifested through T-shirts, hairstyles, mugs, pool floats, coffee … and even shimmering turquoise toast.
For shoals of would-be Little Mermaids, wearable fish tails have become a must-have accessory for the summer. The trend has also brought a surge in businesses offering all things mermaid, including mermaid entertainers on hire for special events.
“It started as a little girl’s dream when I was five,” says Katrin Gray, better known as Mermaid Kat. The German former beauty queen performs as her mythical alter ego all over the world and is currently bringing her routines and workshops to Hong Kong shores on board a cruise ship.
Like youngsters the world over, Gray dreamed of being a mermaid after watching Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid and would pretend she was main character Ariel in the swimming pool with her friends. “I’d cross my legs, hoping they’d turn into a tail,” she says.
Now, mermaiding is a full-time career for the Perth-based entrepreneur, who runs an online shop, teaches aspiring mermaids safe swimming techniques, and models in subaquatic photo shoots all over the world.
The underwater modelling came first, when Gray found she could combine her experience as a model with her keen interest in scuba diving. She took a course in free diving to learn how to be underwater for extended periods without oxygen, and began modelling in adverts for brands, including Philips TV.
After years of practice, she can hold her breath for three and a half minutes; she can also keep a level head while posing alongside sharks in the open sea or on shipwrecks up to 40 metres beneath the waves.
The idea to market herself as a mermaid came to her when she was living in Thailand. As a first experiment, she fashioned a makeshift mermaid tail using a freediving monofin (a flipper that links the feet together) with a neoprene cover. “It wasn’t the best tail for swimming but it got me started,” she says. Soon, she was flooded with bookings for Christmas, birthday, wedding and New Year parties.
Now, performing is just one glittering scale on a whole tail full of mermaid enterprises for Gray.
In August 2012, she opened a school in Thailand, Mermaid Kat Academy, to teach others how to move as a mermaid and how to be good “ambassadors of the ocean”. She has also lent her image to campaigns against overfishing, pollution and shark finning and takes a stand against performing in aquariums with fish.
“I believe every creature should be free and not kept in captivity,” she says. “Now I’m a mermaid I have this power – I’m like a bridge between the ocean and the humans.”
The first Mermaid Kat Academy proved so popular that she has since opened branches in Perth, Australia and Hanover, Germany, and has taught more than 3,000 aspiring merfolk to date. Business is booming.
Like unicorns and cats, the mermaid craze is being fuelled by social media. Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus have all posted mermaid photos online, and wearing a tail while swimming has become a highly Instagrammable form of fitness workout.
Hong Kong business Aquaticity runs mermaid master classes at swimming pools throughout the city, with courses starting at HK$480. The academy says that sessions show students how “to become comfortable under the water, while wearing a professional merfin. We teach you how to pose, move in three dimensions, swim with your eyes open and generally to remain looking good despite everything else.”
In the wake of Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s 2016 box office hit movie The Mermaid, Hong Kong party companies have risen to meet the demand for all things mermaid. Parents swap tips online on where to find mermaid party favours and how to keep their children safe in the pool if they’re wearing tails.
Last December, Australian consumer watchdog Choice issued a warning to parents over the mermaid tail craze after a video emerged showing a small child being rescued by her mother after getting stuck underwater in a swimming pool.
“These aquatic toys could present a risk for a young child, particularly if they are not a strong swimmer,” Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey said. “The video is quite harrowing and should serve as a timely reminder to all parents to be vigilant about water safety.”
Less than a year after opening her Mermaid Kat Academy, Gray unveiled an online shop selling tails and accessories – a business move prompted by her frustration over the low-quality, potentially hazardous equipment she had encountered on the market.
“There was no professional mermaid equipment around to train my mermaids,” she says. “You could get cheap, fabric mermaid tails on the market, but I tried them and they were such bad quality. They’d break easily and were risky to use in water. So I decided to produce my own equipment.”
Starting at HK$1,040 for the fabric version and HK$16,560 for the silicone model, Mermaid Kat tails cost a lot more than some of the other toy tails on the market. Cheaper versions can be made – however they use materials unsuitable for underwater use. Gray warns against fins made from acrylic glass, which can break and become sharp, and even neoprene, a material commonly used in wetsuits.
“Neoprene is buoyant and will always float to the surface. If you have a child in the water and their feet keep floating to the surface, it will make it hard for them to keep their head out of the water,” she says, adding, “Look for separate foot pockets that don’t cause pain by making the ankles rub together.”
Risks abound in her underwater stuntwork: Gray has had brushes with countless jellyfish, freezing cold water, sharp coral, running out of oxygen, and one hammerhead shark that got a bit too playful. Mermaiding in general might be a lot safer, but Gray, who has watched excitedly as the activity has risen in popularity over the last few years, stresses that newcomers need to take care. “Everything changes when your legs are tied together,” she says.
She teaches children in her parties and classes how to stay safe and tells parents to look out for equipment that could be dangerous. “A lot of mermaid-tail companies start with mothers who have designed a fin for their daughter and suddenly decide to make a business out of it. But these are people who have no clue about water safety and efficiency. There are the craziest designs out there, it’s really scary.”
Some party companies avoid water-based risks altogether by keeping all the fun on dry land. Melody the Mermaid, for example, a character from Hong Kong party company Rumple and Friends, will perform an under-the-sea-themed magic show and play nautical games with children, with prices starting from HK$2,800 for one hour.
Melody, who is played by a number of actresses, was added to Rumple’s 13-strong cast (which also includes a dinosaur, a fairy, a princess and a clown) about two years ago, and has since become one of the company’s most-requested characters.
Melody has already hosted about 35 children’s parties this year, the majority of which were in the last two months, says general manager Amy Cannon. “Princess tends to be the most popular but the closer we get to the summer, the more Melody is booked.”
For mermaid entertainers, the most rewarding part is seeing the excitement on children’s faces.
Davina Carrete, who performs as Misty the Mermaid for local company PartyTime, describes being a mermaid as “strangely empowering”. She has separate routines depending on whether the client has a pool or not, swapping between a long skirt for parties on dry land and a tail for swimming games.
“The wonder on the kids’ faces is so special,” Carrete says. “They can’t believe that a mermaid is at their party. Some children will stand in awe; others will question my character. One boy wouldn’t let go of my hand … it was adorable.”
She adds that her favourite event so far was her first ever mermaid party in water. “I hid by the side of the pool and when the kids weren’t looking I slipped in. I started to swim around and loved it as one by one the children realised there was a mermaid swimming in the pool.”
For Gray, she doesn’t often perform at parties these days thanks to a “little army of mermaids” behind her. She is currently running a “Mermaid Academy at Sea” for guests on board the Genting Dream cruise ship, featuring live demonstrations, workshops for children, talks and family photo shoots.
“Most kids are fascinated by me, but sometimes it has the Santa Claus effect and some start crying when they see me!” she laughs. “But generally, it doesn’t matter which age – I’ll usually put a smile on people’s faces.”
Gray loves to see how adults are swept along by the mysticism, too. “They know you’re not real, but they’re still fascinated as they remember their own childhood dreams,” she says.
“It’s like a little magic world for people to go to when they’re fed up with the stresses and pressures of daily life. Switch off and be a child again.”