We Went To The Miss Mermaid Final So You Don't Have To
The Debrief: There’s a very real risk of blackout if you don’t know how to hold your breath, and there’s a whole technique to swimming in a mermaid tail…
Photography by Sophie Davidson
Mermaids make us believe in the impossible. ‘Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above.’ This is where Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid lived – legions below the horizon, away from the grinding misery of the two-legged world. Well, until she gets turned into foam.
That’s the thing about mermaids – too pure for this ugly world. If you would like to see this in real time, I you can always attend the Miss Mermaid UK final, as I did last weekend, to see women who passionately love mermaids walking on stage in front of a mix of adoring little girls gazing at them and their bald dads openly staring at their tits and saying “I’d give her one”.
Miss Mermaid UK is a competition (for which read: beauty pageant) for women who like mermaids. They compete in heats and make it to the final, which is held in the dining hall of a leisure centre in Northampton, which is one of the furthest places from the sea in the United Kingdom.
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The women – The Mermaids – are obsessed with mermaids and marine conservation. The 12 competitors represent a glorious spectrum of what mermaids are like – long wavy hair, improvised bras, sense of aquatic adventure. All of the women competing have this vibe, and none more so than Grace Page (aka ‘Mermaid Grace’) who won last year’s international competition and is in charge of the 2017 mer-xtravaganza. Being a mermaid is about lots more than the right haircare regimen and waterproof foundation, although it is also a bit about that. You need crazy core strength to do it, too. ‘There’s a very real risk of blackout if you don’t know how to hold your breath, and there’s a whole technique to swimming in a mermaid tail,’ she says. You have to do something called a ‘dolphin kick’ which is a powerful belly roll. Grace, 25, also runs Mermaid Camp – a three-night course for women wanting to learn the basics of mermaiding - as well as Hire A Mermaid UK.
Perverts are able to ruin pretty much anything, and mermaids don’t get off the hook just because they know how to do a belly roll in a silicone tail. ‘You do get some strange requests from “merverts”, which is a group of people, usually men, who have a sexual obsession with mermaids,’ says Grace. She’s come across two attempted rape traps, where men have tried to get the women to come to their home and attack them. Thankfully, Grace realised something was wrong before the bookings were made.
Back to Miss Mermaid UK, which 200 women entered, and is a natural follow-on to being heavily into The Little Mermaid as a kid. ‘Lots of this generation is inspired by Ariel, and Splash! as well as the old folklore. When I was five I asked my mum to sew together swimming costumes so I could have a tail,’ says Grace. ‘She said no but I kept my interest in mermaids ever since.’
The 12 finalists don’t fit a spec, and they range from a size 6 to 16, but there’s no doubt the whole thing is very pageant-y. The most egregious part of the event is that none of the mermaid wear their tails. WHAT IS A MERMAID WITHOUT A TAIL? She’s just a person. A person taking part in an ‘eveningwear’ round with a vague under-the-sea theme. Anyway they did an underwater photoshoot the day before and they had their tails on then, but I can’t help but feel slightly cheated. ‘It’s about preparing for the internationals in Egypt,’ says Grace. ‘The internationals are 10 days, and instead of doing a bikini round I did a beachwear round as I wanted it to be inclusive.’ Looking at the photos of the Miss Mermaid international competitions, it doesn’t look that inclusive, mostly svelte women being looked at by a table of mustachioed male judges.
I’m not that familiar with mermaid lore, so I can’t be sure if it’s written anywhere that mermaids are supposed to have lovely personalities, but I don’t speak to a mean mermaid. All of them are sunshine-y, friendly and just really like mermaids – one of them makes her bikini top for the beachwear round out of two discarded polystyrene burger boxes to make a point about ocean pollution. It is so sweetly earnest I blink away tears.
Sophie Loy, 20, is Miss Mermaid South Coast and is the youngest mermaid competing. She says mermaids make her feel special. ‘I like being magical and feeding off mythology – it makes you feel creative.’ Lucia Hughes, 21, Miss Mermaid Newcastle, adds ‘you’re always a mermaid in here,’ while touching her heart. Sophie’s talent is singing – and she’s excellent – while Lucia’s is doing push-ups while Under The Sea plays in the background. Don’t say mermaids just sit on rocks and comb their hair.
Lauren Taylor, 31, is the Miss Mermaid repping Kent. She’s the one who has the burger-box bikini and is visibly nervous while getting ready for the pageant in the Premier Inn nearby. ‘My mer-journey is that I just love going underwater and going to the beach,’ she says. ‘I feel so unnatural walking on stage like I think I’m better than everyone else and I’m some stuck-up bitch. Out of everyone I’m the most scared.’
One competitor tells me she saw the advert for the event online, which just asked if you wanted to be a mermaid and if you wanted a free trip to Egypt. ‘Then I realised it was pageant and I freaked out – I feel tricked,’ she says matter-of-factly arranging sparkly starfish in her hair. ‘There’s a little-black-dress round in the regionals. What’s that got to do with mermaids?’ She’s got a point.
My heart is in my mouth when, later in the evening, I see them walk along the small stage in the leisure centre, so far from the sea and their homes, wearing swimming costumes in a room that smells like swimming pools and chips. As they gamely parade themselves on the stage, the little girls at the front of the 400-strong crowd learn little about the core strength and perseverance and deep passion you need to be a mermaid, and their dads get an eyeful and make loud remarks about the ones they think are the fittest.
Mermaids make us believe in the impossible, but as these brilliant and batty women are stared at by men who don’t understand the power and mythology that drives them, I wish everyone in the leisure centre would turn into foam. We’d be washed away, and gone.
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