Siki Red strips to his underwear and lubes up his thighs with coconut oil. Lying on the pebbled beach, he wriggles delicately into a beautiful pink and white silicone mermaid tail, which perfectly complements his long, silvery hair.
“If you want to put a tail on, you have to get yourself wet,” the 32-year-old tells me.
Then he lies back, triumphant; his transformation from landlubber human to elegant 'merman' complete.
He’s part of the growing phenomenon of ‘mermaiding’ (the practice of wearing, and often swimming, in a mermaid tail). It’s big business in America; in 2015, at least 1,000 people were estimated to be working as professional mermaids.
Now it’s filtering over to the UK. Northampton hosted the first UK’s Miss Mermaid competition this July, and growing numbers of people are signing up to mermaid training camps or learning it as an ‘ extreme sport’. On Instagram, #mermaid has nearly 7 million posts. Even mermaid toast is suddenly a thing.
Siki, along with 324 other real life mermaids, have gathered on the beach at Bexhill-on-Sea to set the Guinness World Record for most merfolk in one place. There’s no existing record to break, but they smash the 300 requirement.
Many have shown up in intricately handcrafted headdresses and artfully-positioned ukulele-shaped bikinis, but it’s Siki’s ‘pod’ (the mer-terminology, I learn, for a specific group or club of merfolk) that steal the show.
They found each other on the Merfolk UK Facebook group, and meet up regularly. Kitted out in scaled silicon tails that cost as much as £3,000, and weigh up to 20 kilos, this is not a hobby they take lightly.
Once the tails are on, any land-based movement becomes a feat in itself.
“If you’ve got someone to pick you up from under your arms, and someone else from under your tail, that’s ideal,” says 22-year-old Lauren (mermaid name, Lolly). “We actually have a name for the people helping: ‘mer–wranglers’.”
A recent MA graduate from Kent, Lauren has been mermaiding for four years.
“My family always called me 'The Little Mermaid', because I’ve always been obsessed with the water and the sea. Once I found out you could buy a tail – it just progressed from there, really!”
For years, Lauren suffered from severe anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, often feeling unable to leave the house. She tells me mermaiding was a huge turning point for her.
“When you’re weightless below the water, you just flow – you become part of the water. Suddenly, all the anxieties you have, they just go. You become this different version of yourself. It’s this form of escapism; as soon as I’m in my tail, everything just floats away. It’s now completely taken over from my therapy.”
When she joined her pod, they were a group of 50. Now, there’s at least 150 of them meeting up regularly. They usually congregate on beaches to swim together.
“It’s such a huge part of my life,” Lauren says. “The dream would be to make it into a career.”
That’s exactly what Lily Rose has done. The 23-year-old has been a professional mermaid for five years, doing underwater aquarium performances, paid by companies, parents, and mer-fans for events such as meet-and-greets at rock pools, or singing at private parties.
“It’s just magic,”she tells me. “That moment when you see a kid’s face light up, ‘Oh my god, there’s a real mermaid there!’ That’s amazing.
“It makes the stiff legs, the cramp in your feet, and the aching in your abs all worth it. That’s why I do it. It’s gold.”
Lauren agrees: “The ab work needed to swim is intense! And carrying 12 kilos of tail around the UK is not easy – although in water it becomes weightless.”
Siki, who is an artist, is now one of the few people based in the UK who builds and sells mertails (for around £1,500 each). Most are purchased from America.
“I make the tails from silicone rubber – the same material they use for all the prosthetics in special effects movies like Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings,” he tells me.
“Some people might want a new car – others want a mermaid tail.”
This Guinness World Record is just the latest example of our fascination with mermaids. Professor Sarah Peverley, a mermaid historian, tells me: “It might seem like there’s been a recent massive surge in interest around mermaids – but they’ve captured our imaginations for centuries across literature, films and art.
"Yet, as technology evolves, the way we communicate and share also does – giving the appearance of this sudden spike.”
She believes we’ve always been beguiled by mermaids, and that social media has simply made us more aware of how widely the mermaid allure is felt.
“There’s a real escapist dimension to mermaiding,” she explains. “They inject a bit of magic, mystery, and fantasy into what for some can be a very mundane life. That’s why so many choose to have a 'mermaid name' – it all ties into that idea of escapism.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrews explains mermaiding “chimes with the rise of adult play[the trend for grown up bouncy castles and ball pools].
"It's unsurprising people are seeking out that feeling of being carefree in the current climate of Brexit and economic uncertainty – being able to immerse yourself in that kind of fantasy is a way to escape all those stresses.
"While different elements will attract different people, there's also likely to be a sexual component for many", she adds. "Mermaids or merman are that ultimate desirable figure – though completely unavailable. Particularly for those that have felt vulnerable in past relationships, that could be quite a powerful draw."
Many mermaids have suffered some form of backlash to their hobby.
“I have been told by the odd aunt or uncle that I’m completely barmy,” says Lauren.
Louise Heggarty (mermaid name Shyla) has got no time for the haters. “You can live your life like that if you want – only feeling good by putting others down – or you can get out there, not care what people think, and enjoy yourself,” the 33-year-old says.
She’s suffered from diabetes all her life, and recently lost much of her peripheral vision. Louise knows she may end up blind.
Dressed in an elaborate emerald tail that she built herself from scratch (drawing on skills learnt in her day job handling medical prosthetics), she tells me how that led her into mermaiding two years ago.
“It’s given me a kick to do what I can, and enjoy life as much as possible,” she says.
Louise learned to swim for the first time after seeing articles about mermaiding, specifically so she could get involved.
For the merfolk I speak to, this is a passion that has become more of a way of life than a hobby.
“I love the freedom. It’s living out a fantasy, in your own world. It’s pure pleasure, pure adventure,” Siki says.
“Some people drink, some people smoke - and some people mermaid.”
Originally published 7 September 2017.