From Daryl Hannah shattering TV sets of the Bloomingdale’s electronics department…to little Ariel using a fork to comb her hair…to whatever the heck this is on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills…mermaids have permeated media and popular culture for decades. Dating back to ancient mythology, the idea of merfolk, a species of magical underwater people with the head and torso of a human and tail of a fish, has been around almost as long as man himself. Today the idea of mermaids has come so far as the performing arts, with professional mermaids hired out to perform at special events, swim in aquariums and pools, and be photographed alongside real marine life.

The term mermaid originated back in the 1300s from the French word for ocean mer, and maid referring to a girl or young woman. The terms merman and merfolk are also commonly used to refer to the male version of the creature as well the species as a whole. Ancient depictions of mermaids usually display a topless female figure with a human head and human arms, but the torso and legs of a fish. Historically mermaids have always been topless, but with the advent of censorship within the last hundred years, modern versions are commonly clothed in bikini tops, bras constructed of seashells, or covered by their long hair.

While the abilities of mermaids vary from culture to culture, most abide by these commonalities: mermaids live and breathe underwater, they sing beautiful hypnotic songs that can entrance and distract, and they can provide aide or cause destruction depending on their mood. Many depictions describe mermaids as malevolent creatures trying to lure men to their demise, either by singing them into a hypnotic trance causing them to shipwreck, pummeling their ships with massive waves, or luring them into the water with their sweet song, only to then squeeze the life out of them or drown them. Other portrayals present mermaids as helpful yet absent-minded beings, trying to rescue sailors who have fallen overboard, but mistakenly drowning them due to their obliviousness of the human need for oxygen.

Evidence of mer-folklore can be found throughout every civilization in the history of mankind. In the Ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, the brave Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so as to resist the luring song of the Sirens, mythical creatures whose depictions are often in mermaid form. In China fishermen attempted to catch mermaids because myth had it that not only did their tears turn into pearls, but they also possessed the ability to create beautiful translucent materials. Legend had it that if a fisherman listened to the songs of a mermaid, he could be hypnotized into a coma for the rest of his life.

In Africa, the water spirit Mami Wata was often illustrated in mermaid form, and could heal and bring good luck to her followers when she was in a good mood, but cause illness and drown people when she was in a bad mood. In the Caribbean a similar spirit known as Lasirèn who was always drawn holding a mirror with which she could admire her own beauty, could also help people in affairs of money, love, work, or health, especially if her spirit was invoked in the practices of Voodoo. Other mermaid legends from around the world include the Scottish Ceasg, the Irish Merrow, and the Indian Suvannamaccha.

No matter the culture, mermaids have always symbolized the animalism of humanity; the fact that humans, being a large part of the animal kingdom, display some of the same types of behaviors and characteristics of animals. The mermaid is simply a physical representation of that idea, an image of the inner animal within us all.

That being said, today a handful of individuals on our planet have chosen a career not often explored: professional mermaid. These individuals, mostly women, dress in mermaid tails and other mermaid regalia and perform special routines at private parties, swimming engagements, and modeling photo shoots. Seeing as a giant tail can be quite cumbersome and anchoring, most mer-performance entails holding various poses, flapping, singing, and swimming.

Mermaid performance has been growing so fast in recent years that on August 12th and 13th of 2011, over 200 professional mermaids gathered at the Silverton Hotel in Las Vegas for the first ever annual mermaid convention: Mer-Con. Mermaids in all age ranges from toddlers to adults, came from around the globe to meet, mingle, and mer-out in all things mermaid. The event features a mermaid pageant where mermen, mermaids, and merbabies all compete for crowns in several categories including Best YouTube video, Youngest, and Most Environmental. Although pageant contestants often require the help of strong men to pick them up and carry them onto stage, that doesn’t stop them from displaying their many mer-talents in displays of flexibility, dance, and costume. The mermaids pull out all the stops showcasing their finest and most extravagant tails, made of shimmering sequins, scales, and other iridescent fabrics, all for a chance to win the coveted Miss International Mermaid.

The event ended with the World Mermaid Awards and pool party, in which all attendees jumped into the Silverton swimming pool, breaking the record for the most merfolk swimming together in one place. Other highlights of the 2-day event include books and readings about mermaids, mermaid art, post-pageant Q&A’s, autograph signings, and photos. For a video highlight reel of the event head here.

Also in attendance at Mer-Con was Zen Arts resident mermaid Hannah Fraser, world-renown for her efforts in marine environmental protection. Having a fascination with mermaids since a young age, Hannah made her first mermaid tail when she was 9 years old. As an adult Hannah got into modeling and eventually transformed her career into becoming a professional mermaid, traveling the world to perform and be photographed as a mermaid. Throughout her career Hannah has swam with and been photographed with dolphins, whales, sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, and sting rays.

Flapping her self-made luminous rainbow tail, Hannah unveiled her newest venture at Mer-Con, a 3D underwater film of herself swimming with sharks off a shipwreck in the Bahamas, where she frequently works at the Atlantis Resort. To shoot the scene Hannah went down 40 feet into a shark farm without a cage, taking gulps of air from a nearby air tank. One of the curious sharks even tried to take a bite off her tail fin, but quickly released his jaws after the taste of bland plastic. To catch a snippet of the thrilling shoot head here.

The convention culminated in a mesmerizing fire performance by Hannah, who then dove into the pool inviting all the other mermaids to join in. Hannah is probably the most multi-talented mermaid on the planet, skilled in acrobatics, fire arts, and dance, all in her mermaid persona. Hannah is also a premiere mermaid activist, working with Surfers for Cetaceans, The Whaleman Foundation, and other various anti-whaling charities to put an end to the slaughter of innocent wild whales and dolphins. Together with her husband, Hannah organized a surfer’s paddle out in the dolphin killing bay of Taiji in Japan to put an end to the heartless killing of these beautiful creatures, contributing to the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. It’s no wonder that at last year’s Mer-Con, Hannah won awards for World’s Greatest Environmental Mermaid, a Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as World’s Greatest Environmental Mermaid Film. Hannah continues to be an inspiration to other mermaid activist with a passion for all life under the sea.

In honor of Hannah, the epitome of a real life mermaid, we’ve compiled a list of the top ten qualities we believe constitute a great professional mermaid:

1. Able to Hold Breath – Since most professional mermaids are required at some point or another to take underwater photos or perform underwater acts, they must learn to hold their breath for long periods of time, ranging anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.

2. Underwater Acting – There’s more to being a mermaid than simply wearing a tail and being pretty. Since they are underwater, mermaids must also learn to express emotions without the ability of speech. They must look magical, compassionate, and joyous, not like a puffer fish struggling to hold air in.

3. Tall – Although height is not necessary to be a mermaid, it just makes things easier. Tails are heavy and difficult to maneuver. Having a tall figure gives a mermaid more leverage to work with the tail, both in and out of the water.

4. Athletic – Obviously since mermaids are typically described as beautiful angelic creatures, and a large part of being a professional mermaid involves photos and modeling, so a great figure can go a long way for booking mermaid gigs. But aside from simple aesthetics, mermaids usually require strong legs and a strong core to be able to swim with their tails in underwater performances.

5. Flexible – Posing and flapping a heavy plastic tail takes a lot of intricate bending, so flexibility is also key in mer-performance.

6. Versatile – A lot of mermaid acts will require the performer to jump into water, then back onto land, then back into water. Professional mermaids must be versatile in their abilities and attire, to be able to look pretty and believable, both wet and dry.

7. Passion for the Sea – Any professional mermaid with a dislike for the ocean and marine life is clearly in the wrong profession. Mermaids should feel comfortable swimming with fish, turtles, dolphins, and various other marine life, as well as actively contribute to charitable marine organizations.

8. Great Singing Voice – Throughout our exploration of mermaid folklore, it’s evident that many cultures around the world believe mermaids to have enchanting voices, able to captivate and confuse with their spellbinding songs. With the modern invention of lip-syncing, it’s not always necessary to have a great singing voice, but if ever called upon for a singing gig, clearly it doesn’t hurt.

9. Great Smile – The modern mermaid is gentle, friendly, and kind, so most professionals would agree that when performing a smile needs to be plastered on.

10. Great Tail – There are cheap tails and there are expensive tails, but no matter the price a tail must simply look believable. Scales, shine, and iridescence are all qualities found in real-life fish that should be present in a good tail. Many professional mermaids choose to construct their own tails for a truly unique look.

The mermaid has come a long way, from mythological monster to potential career choice. Fifty years ago no one could have ever guessed we’d be having actual mermaid conventions. And fifty years from now, who knows where the professional mermaid business will be. One thing’s for sure…the hunt for the elusive creature is still on. In recent years sightings of a mermaid off the coast of Israel has resulted in a one million dollar reward for anyone who can prove its existence. And if discovered…the career of the mermaid professional could soon be obsolete.

To book a mermaid for your next event, call 855-ZEN-ARTS or email at [email protected].

* All Mer-Con photos provided courtesy of the Las Vegas Sun. For more photos of Mer-Con 2011 head here and here.*