Like many millennials, Che Monique fell in love with Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” when the film came out in 1989. “I watched it again and again,” the 33-year-old says. “But by the time I was 9, I was a little disturbed that it’s a tale of giving up this really cool, magical thing you have for a man.”
As it turns out, lots of little girls were bothered by Ariel’s fate, and now that they are grown up, they are out to correct the record by donning mermaid tails for fun, profit and empowerment.
“You can have the prince and the tail. You can be a responsible adult and also playful like a child,” says Morgana Alba, owner of Circus Siren Pod, a professional mermaid troupe that performs at events and aquariums.
For some reason, the D.C. area is a hot spot for mermaiding, says Colleen McCartney, co-founder of Metro Merfolk, which organizes meetups and mermaid fitness classes in Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. “So many people were coming out to our meetups, we decided to host a convention,” she says.
Thus was born MerMagic Con, a two-day festival that’s bringing more than 200 merfolk (the gender-inclusive term) to the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center in Manassas, Va., this weekend. Professional mermaids are traveling from as far as Hawaii and Australia to attend the inaugural convention, but the merely mer-curious are also welcome. “You don’t even have to own your own tail,” says McCartney, who will be renting out swimmable mermaid tails at the convention for $20.
Most of the convention will take place in the Freedom center’s Olympic-size pool. In the shallow lanes, kids can take part in activities including a mermaid meet-and-greet and a beginner mermaid swim class.
“A lot of people are concerned that mermaid tails are dangerous — and, of course, you should never let children swim unsupervised in a tail or without one,” McCartney says. “But we’ve found that swimming in a monofin actually increases children’s competence in the water. You should see them — they just start zooming across the pool.”
In the middle lanes, grown-up merfolk can just hang out, perfect their underwater tricks or slalom though an underwater obstacle course of weighted hula hoops. The deep lanes will host open auditions for the Circus Siren Pod as well as the “Merlympics,” where merfolk will race to retrieve weighs from the bottom of the pool, among other events.
However, all these activities may come to a sudden halt when the poolside DJ spins “Baby Shark” or the “Little Mermaid” ballad “Part of Your World.”
“I fully expect people to join in and sing and come up with choreography on the spot,” McCartney says.
As for dry-land activities, the complex’s basketball court will be filled with vendors of mermaid accessories, tails and other products — “mostly small, women-owned businesses,” says Metro Merfolk co-founder Anni Mielke (also known as Mermaid Seanna). That includes Monique, who will be selling plus-size tights and T-shirts bearing the name of her newly minted business, Society of Fat Mermaids.
The center’s classrooms will be the setting for workshops on topics including event production and silicone tail crafting, as well as appearances by mermaid celebrities such as Nerdmaid Faith, a bespectacled Canadian mermaid with more than 8,000 Instagram followers. There’s also a gala Saturday night (additional $75 ticket required) at the Wyndham Garden Manassas, where “people are going all-out with their land-mermaid costumes,” Mielke says.
Whether you’re a serious siren or a naiad neophyte, you’re sure to have a “fluking good time,” Alba says.
“The ocean is big as hell — come jump in,” Monique says. “There’s room for us all.”
Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center, 9100 Freedom Center Blvd., Manassas, Va.; Sat., 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun., 9 a.m.-1 p.m., $20-$75.
Meet the merfolk
The mer-curious: Pamela Crane
Tail: Fin Fun Bronzed Emerald fabric tail
A yoga instructor based in Montclair, Va., Crane, 53, bought a tail as a Christmas present for her daughter about two years ago. “But then she moved to Spain, so she never got to use it,” Crane says. Crane recently bought a tail for herself, and she and her daughter are going to break in their tails together at MerMagic Con. In addition to just swimming around and having fun, Crane is excited about meeting celebrity guest Philo Barnhart, one of the animators behind “The Little Mermaid.” “I’d go to the convention just for that,” she says. She’s also excited for the Saturday night gala. “There will be some pretty outlandish stuff out there, so I’m not sure if I want to stand out by being simple and elegant, or go bling it up.”
The aspiring pro: Che Monique
Tail: Fin Fun Aussie Green fabric tail
Che Monique, 33, has wanted to be a mermaid for “basically my entire life,” but until Fin Fun tails became widely available about two years ago, “the only tails you could get were thousand-dollar custom silicone tails,” says the Alexandria-based massage therapist. At the convention, she’ll be attending an underwater movement class led by Jayne Champagne, “The Burlesque Mermaid,” and attending workshops on social media and building a mermaid empire. “My current mermaid goals are to inspire people by going pretty places and posting videos of my fat, black self swimming all over the globe,” she says.
The pro: Katey Mermaid
Tail: Mertailor Spellbound custom silicone tail
Katey Mermaid (real name Katelyn McCann), of Columbus, Ohio, makes her living appearing at aquariums, renaissance festivals and other events. She’s looking forward to networking with fellow pros at MerMagic Con. “This is the first mermaid convention that’s really geared towards current and aspiring professionals,” she says. Though she’s already a certified lifeguard, she’s going to attend the mermaid water safety class, “to see how other people approach the topic, so I can design my own class,” she says.
The merman: Severn Kirchem
Tail: Mertailor Caribbean Dream Whimsy Fantasea fabric tail
Kirchem, 57, works at a medical lab in Houston, where he keeps his merman persona on the DL. “I don’t broadcast it; they might put me in a padded cell,” he says. A committed hobbyist since he attended a mermaid convention in North Carolina in 2015, Kirchem hasn’t always been the strongest swimmer. “Swimming in a tail was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” he says. He’s gotten much better with practice, and has signed up for an underwater photo shoot at MerMagic Con. “I’ve been going to the gym five days a week,” he says. “I want to look good.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed a less active Instagram account for Che Monique. It has been updated.