There is blood in the water at the Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center in Manassas, Va. Angela Murray Pavlovsky, 40, emerges from the pool with knuckles raw and red, having scraped them during a punishing 50-meter sprint with a 10-pound weight.
“That was hard as hay-el,” Pavlovsky drawls. A teacher from Tennessee, she’s the first to wash out of the Circus Siren Pod auditions this gray February morning. The competition to join the D.C.-based underwater performing troupe, she says, is stiffer than she expected. “A lot of these girls are already professional mermaids,” Pavlovsky observes.
Circus Siren Pod, established in 2016, bills itself as “the Mid-Atlantic’s Most Popular Water Artists.” The group is holding auditions for new members as part of the first MerMagic Con, a festival that’s attracted some 500 mermaid enthusiasts to Northern Virginia for a weekend of workshops, lectures and fun, including a Merlympics. The event was organized by Circus Siren Pod and a D.C. mermaid group called Metro Merfolk that began about a year ago and has nearly 400 members.
Jenna Klepper, 34, and Karen Tickner, 39, drove up from Florida in a minivan stuffed to the gills with costumes and tails for MerMagic Con and for the Circus Siren Pod auditions. Sitting poolside in a starfish bikini top, Tickner says she’s seen a marked uptick in mermaiding over the past few years — a trend that’s only going to intensify when the planned remakes of “Splash” and “The Little Mermaid” come out. Like many of her fellow pros, Tickner offers a range of services, including event appearances and mermaid-swim classes for children and adults. “Lately, it’s been more adults than children,” she says. The moment grown-ups slip on one of her loaner swimsuit-fabric tails (which you can buy online for as little as $60) they start playing in the pool like kids, “doing somersaults and just generally showing off,” she says.
So, why bother auditioning for Circus Siren Pod when you’re already running your own mermaid businesses, I ask the fish-tailed crowd.
“The tank!” several women reply.
That would be a nine-foot-tall acrylic cylinder, which Circus Siren owner Morgana Alba tows to festivals, Renaissance fairs and other events. These underwater performers are drawn to the fish tank like sharks to chum — why else would they be vying for a job that pays $100 to $500 per gig, especially when you consider the required fancy silicone tail runs upward of $3,000?
Another explanation is that mermaiding is a calling more than a job. Tickner, for instance, heard the siren’s song while on vacation in Hawaii. Her 15-year marriage had just ended, and on a whim she signed up to swim with wild dolphins in a mermaid tail. Already a free-diving instructor with a four-minute breath hold, Tickner felt more comfortable in the water in a mermaid tail than she ever had while swimming “in legs,” she says. “I went to find myself, and I found out I’m a mermaid.”
Several other women murmur in agreement and start to tell their own stories, but they’re cut off by Alba, a stern figure in neoprene knee socks. “It’s time to show your mermaiding skills,” she says.
Thirteen of the original 15 women progress to the second round of the auditions. Montara Haywood-Hewgill, a zaftig 27-year-old mermaid from Gaithersburg in a luminous, hand-beaded tail, looks concerned about the buoyancy test, which entails sinking on cue. “Can we wear weights?” she asks. Alba shakes her head no. “I want to see how you do on your own,” she says.
Several of the curvier mermaids exchange worried glances. While slim mermaids can sink by simply exhaling, women with “a little extra” often wear weights to achieve neutral buoyancy, explains Tami Baker, 38, a busty mermaid from Ohio.
As she feared, when Alba tells her to sink, Haywood-Hewgill floats like a cork. “Ta-da!” she says, arms extended, as if this was exactly what she’d intended to do.
For the final skill of the second round, Alba tells the assembled mermaids to gracefully exit the pool without taking their heavy, waterlogged tails off first, and Haywood-Hewgill struggles to pull herself free of the water. She eventually manages to flop herself sideways onto the bulkhead that separates the aquatic center’s dive well from the lap lanes, and — in an inspired bit of slapstick — keeps sliding over the divider into the other section of the pool. The assembled mermaids cheer and clap, but Alba isn’t impressed.
Eleven mermaids make it to the final round: improvised underwater performances. This is the hardest part, Alba says, because to stay under for long periods, you have to slow your heart rate while ignoring your brain’s increasingly panicked calls for air. “You have to be able to find that inner calm,” she says. “What makes a mermaid is your ability to make other people believe.”
Among the first to try is Felicia Flaherty, 24, a competitive swimmer and model from Rockville, Md. As if she has all the time in the world, Flaherty spirals her way down to the bottom of the dive well, where Alba stands in full scuba gear. Eyes wide despite the stinging chlorine, Flaherty smiles at Alba and then playfully blows a stream of bubbles like a kiss. When she finally surfaces, 45 seconds later — an eternity — the other mermaids cheer and applaud.
Klepper, whose blue and purple dreadlocks are a sea creature all on their own, doesn’t fare as well. Her first dive — a series of frenetic backflips and barrel rolls — lasts only 20 seconds. Her second dive is even shorter, and she surfaces gasping for air. “Well, that was fun,” she says brightly, trying to regain her composure for a third pass. Later, she explains that she breathed in water and “it felt like I was drowning the whole time.”
In the coming days, both Klepper and Tickner learn they didn’t make the pod. Only three people did: Flaherty, Baker and Michelle Mozdzen, 33, a competitive swimmer from Arizona who also won the weekend’s Merlympics. That brings the number of mermaids in Circus Siren Pod to 17.
After the tryouts, a lone figure with a goldfish-hued tail skims the bottom of the dive well. As she surfaces, I realize she’s the Instagram-famous Canadian mermaid known as Nerdmaid Faith, who wears the same plastic-frame glasses in and out of the water. “Look, treasure!” she says, showing me the sequins and stick-on gems she’s gathered from the bottom of the pool — mermaid scales that have shed over the course of MerMagic Con. Nearby, a woman with long blue hair and matching lipstick pulls on a sweatshirt bearing a slogan that, at this point, seems self-evident: “Mermaids are real.”