When Renee was six, her brother would gaffer tape her legs together

When Renee was six, her brother would gaffer tape her legs together. He would then throw her in their twenty-metre pool and shout, “Sink or swim!” It’s little wonder, then, that Renee grew up to be a mermaid.

From Babylonian folklore to contemporary touchstones like the Ron Howard movie Splash, humans can’t get enough of pop culture’s sensual fish-women. Don’t you want to see one in real life? You don’t have to sell your voice to a sea witch. Just shell out for a ticket to Sea World on Australia’s Gold Coast, where sticky-fingered kids climb the rails of Shark Bay to catch a glimpse of Renee, the BellaLina Mermaid. “I don’t think even Kim Kardashian gets that,” says Renee, recalling the wave of mermaid-mania that crashed over the crowd that summer. “It was full celebrity, holy bejesus.”

A corporate bigwig turned saltwater sage, Renee Chidiac has been hooked on mermaiding since 2007. From her home in Sydney’s outer suburbs, she once spent several hours on the phone to Thom Shouse, the ‘tail man’ on Splash and Splash, Too. He recommended that Renee buy a monofin, just to begin with. It wasn’t long before she was shopping for her first full tail, hand-made by the folks behind marine teen dramedy H2O: Just Add Water.

“Once I got my tail, I started swimming around just for the joy of it. It wasn’t for business,” Renee says. “I did a funny skit on YouTube, then about a week later, a TV company contacted me to do a commercial for Hungry Jack’s.” Her company, BellaLina Mermaids, grew from there. But aquatic life is a big commitment. A tail will set you back anywhere between $900 and $70,000 USD. Renee owns nine. “I’ve got three new ones sitting in my car, I haven’t even taken a photo of them,” she says of her Finfolk and Watersong tails, purchased two years ago. “I’ve got four from the movie Mermaids, one of the originals from H2O, and I commissioned one from the Mako guys.”

Almost three metres in length, the tails are strewn with five thousand plastic scales. Seven of the silicone specimens are suitable for swimming, but two are used only for photo shoots, since they weigh more than forty kilograms when wet. “You’d sink and die,” says Renee.

Likewise, some of her mermaid protégés just appear in photos. “They couldn’t swim if their life depended on it but, God, they look amazing in a tail. Then I’ve got some girls who could have a bloody tea party down there.” But it only takes a second to black out, she says. “You can drown in shallow water if you gulp air the wrong way or come up too fast.”

Though she’d previously worked as a swimming instructor, Renee learned her lesson the hard way. During her stint at Sea World, she did nine shows a day (which she choreographed herself) plus six meet-and-greets. She shared her pool with fish, stingrays and sharks. “The penguins and dolphins were only doing three shows a day!” she laughs. “There were days that we didn’t even get out of the water. It took every ounce out of us.”

One morning, TV crews from Australia’s three biggest commercial stations were all in the auditorium. Renee hadn’t warmed up or stretched before the show. Underwater, she was in her element, but on the way back up, she was struck by the bends. She hadn’t equalised her ears and suffered a nasty sinus squeeze. “I was just trying to do the best performance because all the networks were filming it,” she says.

“I was like, ‘I’ve been doing this for nine years. I’ll give myself an extra minute under the water.’ Biggest mistake ever. When I hit the surface, I was in excruciating pain, bawling my eyes out. I pushed myself too hard. I could have died.”

The idea of mermaid life may be alluring, but “you’ve got to be really sensible,” Renee adds. “It’s easy to flip a tail and go, ‘Hi kids!’ But that’s like someone dressing up as Cinderella for the weekend. To be a proper performing mermaid, you should be a really good swimmer.”

Not all mermaids wear tails, though

Not all mermaids wear tails, though. In fact, some wear nothing but a loin cloth. Across coastal Japan, there’s an historic tradition upheld by near-naked free-divers known as ama (海女) – ‘women of the sea’. Full disclosure: their skinny-dipping proclivities gave way to wetsuits in the 1960s, but ama-san still dive for hours a day without scuba gear or breathing apparatus. With their honed breath-holding techniques, they reach depths of almost ten metres and remain submerged in chilly waters for minutes at a time. They collect pearls, abalone, sea snails, lobsters, oysters and more.

From the eighth century poetry collection the Man'yōshū, to the 2013 NHK drama Amachan, these resilient women play on Japan’s pop cultural conscious. For centuries, they’ve fulfilled an important social role, unmatched by men due to their inadequate male body fat. But ama communities are drying up. Most present-day divers are sexagenarians, though some have surpassed ninety. Young Japanese women just aren’t drawn to trawl the ocean floor to scavenge whosits and whatsits galore. Soon, spotting a real-life sea woman in Japan will be about as likely as seeing a real, live mermaid anywhere.

That is to say: not impossible, according to some. Across time and tides, reports of merpeople have rolled in inexorably from around the world. In 1403, villagers in Holland were said to have assimilated a mermaid into Dutch culture, teaching her to sew and clean. Athwart the North Sea, Scotland has long been a siren hotspot, home to not only the Deerness and Benbecula mermaids, but the selkies, Morags and merrows of local legend, too. Even this millennium, mermaids have been seen in as far locales as New Zealand, Israel and Zimbabwe.

Feminine fish nymphs aren’t the dominion of simple coastal folk alone. Revered seaman and expert coloniser Christopher Columbus caught sight of several mermaids – definitely not manatees! – on multiple voyages across the Caribbean. To prove it, he recorded his encounters in the ship’s log, noting that these beach babes were “not so beautiful… for their faces had some masculine traits,” as they rose from the sea to defy patriarchal beauty standards off the coast of Hispaniola.

Just as human women are subject to social expectations that conflate cuteness with value, so too are their piscine counterparts. Such reductive mermaid representation saturated late twentieth century cinema. Madison is taciturn arm-candy for Alan in Splash (1984). Teen Ariel sacrifices her voice for a dude in The Little Mermaid (1989). Three nubile sea sprites take turns pashing Peter while saving him from a watery grave in Hook (1991).

Mermaids who rescue men: let that sink in. Such innocuous depictions are leagues away from the malevolent merwomen of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, not to mention their salty antecedents in folklore. Yet the trend endures (see Barbie: Mermaidia. Actually, don’t). Fortunately, the likes of Mora in Night Tide (1961), and the bright young women of Agnieszka Smoczyńsks’s musical mer-horror, The Lure (2015), show that – just like human women – mermaids contain multitudes. Perhaps that’s why people long to see one, be one, in real life.

To Renee, mermaids exude peace. “It’s like they’ve got an aura around them,” she says. Never is she more aware of this energy than when she volunteers for Make-A-Wish. Her first outing for the foundation was to two pintsized girls who were blind. They traced her scaly tail with their little fingertips and cried, “Oh my God, she’s really real!” Renee recalls.

“They can’t see me. All they can do is sense my presence and feel my tail. That was the most incredible day I ever had as a mermaid. The delight from those two girls just broke me, but in such a beautiful way.”

Despite their murderous inclinations of yore, and the raw deal they cop in Hollywood, modern mermaids can be role models. After all, a clamshell bra and a Bachelor of Commerce aren’t mutually exclusive.

Often Renee works in schools, teaching kids about climate change and recycling. She’s making a web series about marine conservation, which she hopes will inspire a generation of saline saviours. “A lot of little boys don’t mind being mermen,” she adds. “I’ve put a couple of boys in tails and they love it.

“Put a flipper on and whatever you wanna be – a mermaid, a pirate, a fairy, a journalist, anything – go for it.

“When you’ve got a tail on, you don’t care about anything else. You feel so happy. So whole. It’s like you’re complete.”

Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat?

Aimee writes cultural criticism and creative non-fiction. She's the Small Screens editor at The Big Issue (AU) and has contributed to Little White Lies, The Lifted Brow and more. Based in Adelaide, South Australia, Aimee's writing her first full-length work, Making A Murderino: an essay collection about women and the true crime boom. She tweets @siraimeeknight.

Art by Jason Ngai