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Frigid water and a $2K tail: The life of a Northern California mermaid

Ares performs in the tank at Dive Bar in Sacramento on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. | Chris Kaufman for The Standard

A mermaid sharpened their trident as fish swam by their halo of curls, and their tail shone a mesmerizing shade of blue through the glass of their tank. Elsewhere at this Downtown Sacramento bar, patrons ordered gin and tonics and sang along to Doja Cat as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

A mother FaceTimed her child, whose face burst into an expression of awe at the magical, underwater scene. It was only a few days after the release of the The Little Mermaid trailer, showing Halle Bailey as the first-ever Black Disney princess in a live-action film. 

For Ares Taylor, braiding shells into their hair and sifting through a shipwreck for thingamabobs is just another Friday night.

“Being a Black trans mermaid is dope,” they said. 

Ares poses for a portrait at Dive Bar in Sacramento on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. | Chris Kaufman for The Standard

The Only Mer Bar in California

In preschool, Ares used to tell their friends they wanted to be a mermaid when they grew up. In 2022, it became their job.

“I told myself that I want to dance for people who want to love themselves,” they said.

The saltwater tank that Ares performs in every weekend hangs over rows of bourbon and Ciroc vodka at Downtown Sacramento’s unceremoniously named Dive Bar

Some 15 species of fish call the 40-foot tank home, and unlike Ariel’s cabinet of snarfblats and other dry-land curiosities, a team of aquarists has to clean it every week. According to head mermaid Rachel Smith, Dive Bar original owner George Karpaty took inspiration from 1930s-era “porthole bars.”

Friends dance together at Dive Bar in Sacramento on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. | Chris Kaufman for The Standard

“It’s vintage with a splash of Vegas,” she said.

During one shift, Ares swam across the glass, blew a stream of bubbles in the shape of a heart and took a call on their shellphone. Their makeup was otherworldly.

They looked effortless—godlike, even—but being a professional mermaid is a lot of work. It takes a ton of training and breathwork, not to mention the psychological duress of trading your voice to a sea witch for … what are they called again? Oh yes: feet!

While Ariel had forsaken just about everything for a pair of legs, Ares gets water-ready by squeezing theirs into a two-piece silicone tail that costs thousands of dollars. They step into it one leg at a time and strap weights between their legs, so they’re not too buoyant. Sometimes Ares draws on scales with makeup or bejewels themself with rhinestones. For the most part, they call themself a mermaid, but occasionally use terms like merperson, too.

Even more important than any part of Ares’ look is the rigor of their job requirements. They take deep breaths and prepare for two 20-minute sessions of intermittently holding their breath in frigid water. It can’t be heated, lest les poissons become entrees. 

The professional mermaid industry is competitive—there’s a San Francisco Mermaid School and an annual California Mermaid Convention held in May. Dive Bar’s auditions are selective, Smith says, since professional mermaids love their jobs and rarely give up their spots. 

“It’s surreal,” said Ares, “When I’m underwater, and I see the blue and purple lighting above the surface, I’m like, ‘You can’t beat this.’ There’s no other way I’d be able to experience this other than being here.”

“In my performances, I get to blend masculinity and femininity and make it myself,” Ares says. | Chris Kaufman for The Standard

I Wanna Be Where the Merpeople Are

Back home, Ares had ditched their tail for a neon sweatshirt and was sitting in their backyard in American Canyon, backdropped by lemon trees.

“It’s definitely tiring, and it’s terribly cold in there,” they laughed. “And I can’t really see or hear anything.”

To Ares’ mother, a mermaid is the perfect embodiment of who her kid is as a person—fluid in their creative expression and their gender.

“Ares being a merman, a mermaid, a mer-Ares, it allows for their fluidity under the water,” Carolyn Taylor said. “Even before they came out, watching them in water was freeing.”

Called a “fish” when they were little, Ares used to bring their own flippers to hotel pools. When they were 2, Ares snagged their sister’s tap shoes, scooted a tap board into the middle of the room, and just started dancing. Later, on their high school water polo team, they were crowned MVP. 

“When I watch Ares swim, it’s like watching them dance underwater,” said their mom.

Even over FaceTime in December, Ares was grooving. 

“Oh, I always hear music in my head,” they said. “It’s giving classical beats, and sometimes jazz. It’s giving ambience.”

Swimming and dancing have always defined how Ares moved through the world. But when they moved back home to the Bay after studying design and dancing hip-hop at Syracuse University, they didn’t know what would come next.

Looking for work, they stumbled upon an audition call at Dive Bar, and emerged into the world of professional mermaidhood.

Artwork at Dive Bar in Sacramento on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 | Chris Kaufman for The Standard

Mer Fluidity

“In my performances, I get to blend masculinity and femininity and make it myself,” Ares said.

Ares is certainly not alone in expressing their identity through their mermaidhood. Gender fluidity is a big part of mer culture across the industry and across lore. In Cornish folktales like The Mermaid of Zennor and the legend of Syrian mermaid goddess Atargatis which can be traced to 1000 B.C., queer communities across the world have cited the gender fluidity of the mysterious creatures.

“I expected mermaids to just be cisgender women, but it’s actually more diverse,” said Ares, who also pointed out that there’s a Society of Fat Mermaids founded by a Black woman.

A professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst even wrote about the “persistent” phenomenon of trans children drawing themselves as mermaids.

“The fluid nature of merfolk is sort of nongendered in this way,” head mermaid Rachel Smith said. “Merfolk as an archetype exist in this fluid space, because they’re sort of always in transition.”

Video by Chris Kaufman for The Standard

For some, the mermaid aesthetic is a mirror into transness from their magical, human-piscine hybridity to accusations of both mermaids and trans women luring cis men to their demise.

For Ares, slipping into their tail is another avenue into exploring who they are and giving themself the grace to make mistakes along the way.

While they used to be hard on themself when they’d slip up during a performance, Ares said they’ve learned greater acceptance of where they’re at emotionally and physically.

“In this job where I’m a mythical creature, I am pushed to accept very real parts of myself whether that be my hair, my body, my attitude,” they furthered.

Back in September, Carolyn Taylor captured the moment a mother FaceTimed her child during Ares’ performance.

“I said to Ares, ‘You’re touching people’s lives as a merperson of color,’” she said. “You’re opening the door and saying, ‘Hey, you can be whatever you want to be no matter how you identify, no matter the color of your skin.’”