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Carlye Wisel

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Learning to Be a Mermaid, One Tail Flip at a Time

In Los Angeles, a school of fish(people)

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In Hollywood, you can be whoever you want to be — even if that someone is a lagoon-dwelling aqua-person. Welcome to Mermaid School, a whimsical monthly course in deep-sea swimming, tail-flicking and all sorts of underwater glamour.

It’s Easter, and due to a chlorine level kerfuffle, our location is swiftly changed from a community pool to a country club on the very northwestern tip of Los Angeles. Throughout class, children clutching egg buckets, families taking a post-brunch stroll and even the Easter Bunny come by to see what in the world is going on in this pool-turned-aquarium. Mermaid Malibu — whose real name is Orit Karni, but this is way more fun — instructs us six sea wannabes in a series of style exercises and swimming techniques. As the passing throngs of children stop in awe, you can actually see their tiny brains attempt to comprehend what’s going on, knowing they’ll one day reference "that time they saw a mermaid" as their heart breaks upon realizing they’re not truly real.

Our school of fish-humans is ready to learn, and the first rule of mermaiding is to smile. The second, like a mom yelling at her teenage daughter in church, is keeping one’s legs and knees glued together. The transition from human to mythical sea creature requires a deletion of joints; your body no longer creaks and bends, it moves like a worm, flicking from the chest to the torso to the hips in slow-motion.

We began the hour-long lesson by doing drills while holding onto the wall, trying to reprogram our brains to operate two legs as one. It takes a lot of core strength as well as some spine flexibility, like you’re trapped at an underwater disco doing an endless body roll. "Mermaiding is the best ab workout you’ve never heard about," Mermaid Malibu tells us. "If your abs don’t hurt by tomorrow then I’ve done something wrong!"

It was at this point, I must mention, that I nearly puke in the mermaid educational pool.

It was at this point, I must mention, that I nearly puke in the mermaid educational pool. I’ve had the panic sweats since reading the night before that we have to be able to swim 120 feet without stopping — which I can do for survival, sure, but I neglected to realize that meant while submerged. I have never successfully been underwater without plugging my nose, and now, at mermaid school, I was expected to be an otherworldly princess while choking down throatfuls of chlorine.

Whether it was the pressure of not failing while reporting the story or the fact that I’m a grown woman who didn’t want to be taken down by voluntary Saturday school, I did it. I blew bubbles through my nose! I swam like an elegant she-creature! And once we put on our practice fins, I mermaided the shit out of that class. The last time I dove underwater without holding my nose I rose to the top in a fit of tears and fought with my high school gym teacher; now I was giving Ariel a reason to watch her throne as I flitted through the shallow end of the Sunset Hills Country Club swimming pool.

The skills we master during the second half of the class progress at an unbelievable speed; just minutes after attaching the ankle straps within our sock-like fins, we were elegantly diving down in the deep end, rolling sideways through underwater hula hoops and holding handstands to effectively show off our tails. But still, our accomplishments were nothing compared to Mermaid Malibu’s, flicking her body through the water with ease despite the weight of an estimated 35-pound silicon tail strapped to her torso, attached only with the aid of lots and lots (and lots) of baby oil.

For every bit of disbelief — "I’ve never met a mermaid" — she has a "You know, I don’t know many humans, are you a real human?" retort.

As a lifelong swimmer, lifeguard and water safety instructor, for her, it’s no big deal, but we mermaid freshman would have a long way to go before being "real" mermaids. It sounds silly, to aspire to don a silicon walking inhibitor, but the glistening tail is pure magic; surrounding children's’ eyes explode like a Snapchat filter when she wiggles through the pool, telling them "when I was born, [my tail] was a lot more white, and then I got blue on it!" to play up their sense of wonder.

It’s no surprise that Mermaid Malibu is the go-to for children’s parties; she’s bubbly and friendly, and loves playing underwater games and having fun with the kids. (For every bit of disbelief — "I’ve never met a mermaid" — she has a "You know, I don’t know many humans, are you a real human?" retort. ) Parties and events are a lot of the mermaiding business, though it’s only one of the many offerings Sheroes Entertainment brings to Los Angeles-area events. There’s standard fare like face painting and pirates and balloon twisters; for the extra-special party, they even offer fairies and zombies and hula dancers and unicorn rides atop a glimmering white horse.

The company was founded in 2012 but the LA Mermaid School "finsctruction line" came in 2015; when you have a staff of lifeguards and skilled mermaids and party attendees wearing fabric tails in the water and not quite knowing the technique for swimming in them, an educational component just sort of makes sense. The school helps for safety, sure, but also for honoring the long-held and often unexpressed dreams of half-fish enthusiasts; one merman in my class (yes, men take it too!) arrived from out of town with his own fins, and swam so well that at first I assumed he was a ringer.

"Mermaid School is always a unique adventure based on each class! We've had surprise birthdays, weddings, corporate friends, date days, and others decide to day trip with us," Sheroes founder Virginia Hankins, a stuntwoman, knight, and archery instructor, among other things, tells me. "The people who attend mermaid school are normally pretty adventurous, fun loving, and up for a silly time which makes the classes a lot of fun."

Truly "fin-tastic," as she puts it.

Which begs the question, of course: where does the modern-day mermaid suit up?

There are five fellow mer-thusiasts in my class as well as an MIT — Mermaid In Training — who participated in our class, slipping into the big fin for her first time at the end. MITs have been approved through interviews and certification checks, but are in the process of developing skills like character work, presentation while swim training, and multi-tasking while speaking. Virginia tells me this is in order to "turn out exceptional, safe, and confident talent to deliver the best possible service to our event and party clients:" it’s clear that for how silly the concept of mermaid training is, they take it incredibly seriously and professionally.

All of Sheroes’ mermaids are also lifeguards, and they never attend a party alone; partly because they can’t use their legs and are instead rolled in on "mermaid carts." Which begs the question, of course: where does the modern-day mermaid suit up? "We either sneak in… early to change or I’ve actually changed behind a car, in the car, in random alleyways, behind stores, and then driving there," Malibu tells me, with a laugh. Dunking your legs in baby oil in the backseat and then driving in a fin — Ariel had it so much easier.

There’s an etiquette, too — being a mermaid is all about grace. "We come up and we breathe elegantly with a smile!" Malibu announced throughout class, "Because mermaids are always pretty!" This mermaid, in my American flag-print one-piece Speedo and too-tight goggles didn’t really fit the bill, but I notice Malibu’s lipstick stays put throughout class like a Sephora employee’s. The mermaids share makeup tips, and her swear-bys include red lip stain, liquid eyeshadow, cream blush and layering waterproof mascara under a waterproofing mascara for double-duty staying power. Since she does more parties instead of Hollywood gigs, she doesn’t have to glam up too much, but the other mermaids have to straighten and then curl their hair for glamorous waves. Her seashell bra top, covered in fishnet and shells like a Hollywood costume that she happened to make herself, truly looks like the real thing.

While we human SeaMonkeys conquer the class’ final challenges, flipping our neon tails in the four feet of water, Malibu glides through the water with ease, lipstick unsmudged, outfit intact, two legs propelling as one. Modern-day mermaiding really is magic after all.

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