By Deborah Schoeneman
ON a sunny December afternoon, Karri Holliday was sitting on the dock of her parents’ home on a tiny island here along Florida’s Gulf Coast, about 50 miles northwest of Tampa. She wore a strand of pink fake pearls, sparkly face stickers and purple eye shadow — remnants of the costume she wore earlier while entertaining children at a birthday party.
That was a freelance gig; her main job is appearing at Weeki Wachee Springs, a beloved tourist attraction in a nearby town, where she performs as a mermaid, swimming underwater in a 15-pound glittery tail alongside manatees, turtles and fish in a freshwater stream. At Weeki Wachee, she usually plays the role of the heroine Ariel in a production of “The Little Mermaid,” which was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
“I tell them, ‘Ariel is our sister and she works at Disney and is really famous,’” Ms. Holliday said, explaining how she responds to the young admirers who ask if she has ever met Ariel, the mermaid who longed to be human.
Ariel the fable is coming to Broadway this Thursday, the official opening of Disney’s musical version of “The Little Mermaid.” But spending time with Ms. Holliday offers a peek at what life is like for a so-called real mermaid.
“We’re girls who take to water better than the land,” said Ms. Holliday, 23, referring to her clan of, as she calls them, mer-sisters, a group of about 10 past or present park mermaids who have knit themselves a distinct social scene. The daughter of a crab claw fisherman, Ms. Holliday grew up cuddling baby alligators and wearing live salamanders as earrings. “Some people are born with the urge to be in the water, where life is calmer,” she said. “I’m most comfortable there.”
She’s always felt a special connection to the water. “I remember being 8 or something and going to the bottom of the pool,” Ms. Holliday said. “I remember being able to control my body, laying down on the bottom of the pool, looking up at kicking legs on top of the swimming pool and holding my breath. A lot of us had the same feeling.”
Weeki Wachee mermaids tend to be in their early 20s and work there for a few years. They often go on to become waitresses, police officers, nurses or full-time mothers and wives — most sticking close to the park and maintaining a mermaid lifestyle.
“Karri’s always wanted to be a mermaid,” said her father, Ronald Holliday, whose hands feel like sandpaper from years as a fisherman. “I want her to be successful but I don’t see a lot of future in it as a career. Maybe when she gets a little farther along, she’ll go to college.”
On a recent Monday, Ms. Holliday was having lunch at Jade Fire, a sushi restaurant in a stucco temple on the highway, with three mermaids she met at Weeki Wachee, though none still work at the park. The restaurant owners recognized them and sent over a sushi roll and a banana tempura dessert, which the women accompanied with rounds of sake bombs.
“We drink like fishes,” Ms. Holliday deadpanned, as though describing a social set spawned from someplace other than mythology. Denise McGrath, 23, an aspiring dive master, and Virginia Connolly, 21, a reed-thin former lifeguard, watched the clock so they wouldn’t be late for their shifts at a nearby barbecue restaurant. Abigale Anderson, 27, excused herself a few times to answer phone calls from her job with a sinkhole company. All four women wore enough makeup to look appropriate on a stage — or rather, an underwater perch.
“I dressed up today,” Ms. Holliday said. She wore tight jeans, a plaid blazer and the pastel eye shadow that’s part of her permanent mermaid look. If she had been working at Weeki Wachee, she’d be sporting wet hair and wearing a sweatsuit while grabbing a salad at a nearby sandwich shop, where mermaids get a 15 percent discount.
Mermaid culture has been going strong in this part of Florida since the park opened 60 years ago, training young women to swim in an underwater theater and breathe compressed air through rubber hoses while performing cabaret numbers.
The performances, which now draw about 200,000 visitors a year, tend to appeal to the very old or the very young. Back in the park’s glory days in the 1960s, when it was owned and well-promoted by the ABC network, the mermaids got to warm up in a giant hot tub after shows.
The park fell into disrepair in recent years, but attraction officials took it over and started a fund-raising campaign that staved off its closing. At the end of 2007, state officials entered a tentative deal to take it over, potentially resolving a host of legal issues over its operation and preservation.
Today, the mermaids perform 30-minute shows before a 400-seat glass-walled theater that is submerged 16 feet below the surface of the springs. The women act, lip-sync and dance underwater, while smiling, pointing their toes, and turning back flips while holding one another’s hands and feet. Senior mermaids like Ms. Holliday, who has worked at the park for two and a half years, can hold their breath for almost four minutes while diving down as much as 117 feet for a specialty show. Ear infections, and loss of some hearing, are common, along with sinus pressure, colds and nose bleeds.
“The number one rule is ‘Don’t panic,’” Ms. Holliday said. “When you think you can’t hold your breath anymore, you can for another 15 to 20 seconds. Fear takes your breath away.”
Mermaids work for roughly minimum wage and their duties include cleaning the performance tank, where they have to swim without coming into contact with an alligator. The occupational hazards make for close friendships, and the mermaids like to play pranks, like filling the park’s fountain with soap or dumping neon dye in the shower heads.
“It’s like being in the closest sorority you could be a part of,” said Ms. Anderson, whom Ms. Holliday still calls Mermaid Abby. “When I meet a woman in her 60s or 70s who used to work at Weeki, we don’t have to say a word to each other, other than we were mermaids, and we’re hugging and bonding over that.”
The Weeki Wachee mermaids often visit local elementary schools. Ms. Connolly, who left the park in 2006, said children would often ask “‘What do you eat underwater?’ ” She would try to be imaginative in her response. “I’d say ‘I eat seaweed sandwiches,’ and they’d think that’s so cool. I made their day. They believe in mermaids.”
MS. HOLLIDAY was recently the subject of a show at Photo Miami, a satellite fair during Art Basel Miami Beach, where the New York photographer Michael Dweck debuted three large prints from his new series, “Mermaids.” The large $15,000 black-and-white photographs featured Ms. Holliday swimming at Weeki Wachee at night, nude save for a stream of long, blond hair and lattice light patterns reflecting on her limbs. Prints from the series are now being sold at the Robert Morat Gallery in Hamburg, Germany, and the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York.
Mr. Dweck, known for his art book “The End,” about Montauk, N.Y., also photographed other Weeki mermaids and is taking the series on an international tour and working on a book about the mermaids. He invited Ms. Holliday to the Art Basel Miami Beach opening, but she didn’t go because gas would’ve been too expensive and she was busy dealing with the stresses of life on dry land, like a recent wrangle with her ex-husband over their possessions.
The night of the sushi lunch, the mermaid sisters met at the house of Ms. Holliday’s parents for a slumber party. Ms. McGrath carried a fake Chanel bag and wore a green T-shirt that said “Mermaids” on the front and “Bad Girls of the Sea” on the back. Ms. Holliday lighted a cherry-flavored cigar, then got the engine revving on her motorboat for a ride in the springs near the house.
The night sky was spotted with shooting stars. The white glow of a new Wal-Mart store emanated in the distance. Ms. Holliday pulled up to a small island and started a campfire. The mermaids who huddled around it were bundled up, looking more appropriate for a December night in New York.
It was around midnight when they headed back. There was some dissension in the ranks about who was to blame for running out of alcohol. At the dock they restocked with tequila, beer and vodka before heading to a neighbor’s BB-gun range, decorated with black lights and neon paint.
“Everyone thinks mermaids are girly girls,” Ms. Connolly said, cocking her gun and firing at empty beer cans. She hit every target.