Hannah Burgess gives up her legs to live dream of becoming a mermaid
Photography | David Bittner and Hannah Peterson
“I love being a mythical creature. It’s a chance for me to create magic for people and bring some magic back into the world. It’s nice for people to see something so innocent and beautiful.”
Story | Lauren Hunt
On any given day, the University Recreation Center’s pool is filled with students and faculty starting their morning off with a few laps. But on this day, the pool’s only occupant is a mermaid named Nova Sirène.
She dips under the water and kicks several times. Her tail slaps the surface of the water as she sends herself from one end of the pool to the other before surfacing in the deep end. Bubbles trail behind her and float to the top, leaving a fizzing wake behind her.
The lifeguard on duty, Hannah Houston, a graduate assistant for the aquatics department, watches with her arms draped over her red rescue tube. She’s never seen a mermaid in the pool before.
“The guy that was supposed to be the lifeguard on duty right now is running late, so I got put in here,” Houston says. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad he’s running late. It gives me the chance to do something different and this is really cool.”
Nova is filming some scenes for a short film titled “Siren” about two star-crossed lovers: a mermaid named Sirene and a park ranger named Jack who meet and fall in love despite their obvious differences, but both succumb to a tragic end.
Nova’s bleach-blonde hair fans out around her shoulders as she bobs at the side of the pool waiting for directions from senior media arts and design major and “Siren” director Adam Sidelko. Green and white scales painted above her eyes glint in the florescent lights. She rests the fin of her tail on the bottom of the pool and the tips sway back and forth in the current.
“Okay, Hannah’s first line, take one,” Sidelko says as he gives a decisive clap in front of the camera lens. “3 … 2 … 1 … Action.”
Nova takes a deep breath and dips under the water before surfacing again and staring intently into the camera.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Jack,” she says.
When she’s out of the water and at JMU, Nova is a sophomore international affairs major named Hannah Burgess.
“I’ve always loved mermaids more than the next kid,” Burgess says. “When I was a kid I would put my legs into one pant leg and go swimming. I’m not sure why my parents let me do that, but they did.”
She began mermaiding two years ago when her mother gave her a spandex tail with a blue and green scale print. Burgess was first inspired to take her love of mermaids to a professional level after seeing pictures of professional mermaids on Tumblr.
“It seemed like they were just totally free and didn’t care what anyone else thought,” she said. “It just kind of took the fantasy someone has a child and brings it to your adult life.”
Now, Burgess finds herself the subject of those photos.
“I love being a mythical creature,” she said. “It’s a chance for me to create magic for people and bring some magic back into the world. It’s nice for people to see something so innocent and beautiful.”
That magic comes from the tail. Arguably the most important part of the transformation, tails are custom made for each mermaid. Tail sculptors take measurements of a mermaid’s hips, legs and waist so that the tail fits more like a second skin than a costume.
The anatomy of a tail consists of a fluke, where the legs are, which leads into a monofin. A monofin is similar to two scuba fins connected at the heels. Silicone tails start off as liquid silicone rubber that are poured into resin molds to shape the tails and make sheets of scales that match the measurements of the mermaid. Once the resin cures, the tail is assembled and enters the painting stage. Silicone is not a paintable material, so tail artists must use various pigments and thinners to color the silicone. On average, silicone tails take five to 10 weeks to complete.
Burgess’s tail, blue down the length of the fluke with a gold tail outlined in teal, weighs in at 23 pounds and makes her usual 5’3” frame eight feet long after it’s on. But for the challenges it brings in length and weight on land, it makes up for in the water, sending her 20 feet below the surface with just a few powerful kicks.
“A mermaid tail is like a trademark for certain mermaids,” Burgess says. The colors and patterns are usually just as individual as the mermaids themselves. “People recognize me because of my tail.”
Back at the pool, she sits by the edge and covers her legs in coconut oil. Without it, the silicone of the tail can stick to the skin and leave a razor-burn like rash, or worse, rip the tail.
She dips the tail in the water and then folds it over itself before sliding her feet into the monofin. She pulls and adjusts it before moving into deeper water to pull it up the rest of the way. It’s similar to putting on tights.
“It’s a lot easier [in the water],” she says. Her tail glimmers and flicks through the water as she moves. “But I think I put too much coconut oil on. It’s a little slimy.”
Her tail has just undergone a minor repair job to fix a rip in the seam from wear and tear over the three years that it’s been in use. As she’s sitting on the side of the pool and adjusting the top of the tail, she sits up and squeals.
“I ripped it!” she says. “I put a hole in the back!” Thankfully, it’s not noticeable.
Ranging from $1,200 (which Burgess paid for her tail) to more than $2,700, mermaids have to take proper care of them.
They must be cleaned after every use with vinegar if the tail has been in water that contains organic matter, or baking soda diluted in bathwater if the tail was in chlorine. Careful cleaning of the tail can help it last up to five years before it needs to be retired and recycled.
Burgess’s mermaiding career includes providing entertainment for children’s parties, underwater modeling and short films like “Siren.” She’s turned what started out as a hobby into a part-time job, getting paid around $100 per hour for parties and appearances and around $75 per hour for modeling and other events. But to her, it’s not about the money.
“When I’m swimming in my tail I feel like a real mermaid,” Burgess says. “I mean, I don’t really think I’m a mermaid and can breathe underwater or anything, but when you’re in the tail, it just helps the illusion. It makes you feel more powerful.”
Not to mention irresistible.
“Sirene, I need to know what you did to Hank,” says Jack, played by Jordan Clifford, a senior media arts and design major. He’s crouched over the edge of the pool, staring into Nova’s eyes.
She gives him a knowing smile before shushing him.
“Join me, Jack,” she says.
She reaches up and cups his face before pulling him into the water.
“Cut! Perfect!” Sidelko yells from behind the camera and gives a final, solid clap. “And we’re done! That’s a wrap!”