As someone who’s been around (and survived) the sea glass industry for the last two decades, I was interested to see the release this week of the new MerPeople docuseries directed by Cynthia Wade, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker.
Riding the wave of Disney’s new Little Mermaid movie, Wade details the sometimes-troubled waters of the half-billion dollar mermaid industry, scaling back the surface and exploring who’s making waves. The underwater-Tiger King docuseries centers around the lives of professional mermaids—they exist, it’s not a joke.
As much as I’d like for this four-part series to have been a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary a la Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman because it would have been more fun, this mermaiding is serious business. You’ll have to find your own humor between the lines, like when we learn creepy men with mermaid fetishes are known as merverts, or when the mermaid-in-chief, in the stern style of Donner during reindeer tryouts, elicits a group response during mermaid tryouts to the question “What’s the number one rule of mermaiding?” “No dead mermaids!”
One of the lead characters in the docuseries is Eric Ducharme, the MerTailor, who crafts custom mermaid tails for $5-10,000 and has built a mermaidtopia in Florida in competition with Weeki Wachee Springs, once the dominant haven for all things mermaid, where he started performing as a merman at age 16. In the docuseries we see Eric mortgage his house to finance his dream, holding very tough auditions for incoming underwater talent.
And the talent is talented. Facing hypothermia, severe ear and sinus infections, eyedrops to battle more infection, learning to breathe from an underwater hose and other challenges, not to mention submerged acrobatics while wearing a heavy fin. Mermaiding is a visual art that takes many hours to perfect. It’s highly competitive, as we discover from Morgana, who it’s hard not to compare to Regina George of Mean Girls who uses the words “fantastic” and “mermazing” in her daily vocabulary when she’s describing her elite mermaid clique-squad the Circus Siren Pod. In episode one she tells a bigger mermaid it’s a “safety issue” that she must get axed from the squad because she can’t lift herself from the tank. Brutal. Over additional episodes it’s hard not to respect her work ethic and clear concern for mermaids like Sparkles, an underdog mermaid who doesn’t make the squad at first but battles back in a comeback story subplot.
Possibly the best journey we see in the show is that of the beyond-fabulous Blixunami, a non-binary Black merperson whose personality transcends land and sea, gender, race and beyond as they share their passion for everything from mermaid Barbies, fashion, makeup, singing, pop culture and mermaiding lifestyle and artistry; you find yourself easily cheering on someone with such passion for what they do.
This series might not be for everyone, but Wade has done a balanced job of peering behind the curtain into an underwater space where it’s interesting at a minimum to take a glance and become part of their world.