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October 21, 2014

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First mermaid convention goes swimmingly at Silverton

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Sam Morris

Mermaid Diana Godin poses for photos during the first annual International Mermaid Pageant being held as part of MerCon 2011 Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, at the Silverton.

2011 Mermaid Pageant

Mermaid Kathy Gfeller from Minneapolis poses for photos during the first annual International Mermaid Pageant being held as part of MerCon 2011 Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, at the Silverton. Launch slideshow »

Silverton mermaid

Map of Silverton Casino Hotel

Silverton Casino Hotel

3333 Blue Diamond Road , Las Vegas

As a child, Malena Sharkey tied her feet together and jumped into the deep end of a pool. She wasn’t trying to drown herself; the curious youngster simply wanted to see if she could swim that way. Thankfully, she could.

Given this, perhaps it should be no surprise that Sharkey would (after becoming a successful free-diver and instructor) find herself among a group of men and women — but mostly women — who enjoy dressing up as merpeople, the gender-neutral term for mermaids.

“It’s an escape,” said Sharkey, who has been dressing as a mermaid for eight years. “It’s about getting to dress up and bring out the personality of your mermaid. There are spunky mermaids and moody ones — everything.”

It is a hobby, and though it may seem strange, there’s enough interest in it that someone decided to host a convention, MerCon, dedicated to the practice.

The first mermaid convention was held in Las Vegas on Friday at the Silverton, which houses a 117,000-gallon aquarium filled with sharks, fish and performers dressed as mermaids.

Before now, those interested in mermaids have taken their hobby to renaissance fairs or pirate-themed events, said Stephanie Sims, operator of InternationalMermaid.com, which hosted the International Mermaid Pageant at the convention.

That enough interest exists to attract vendors and some 800 guests suggests mermaids may be growing in popularity, Sims said.

Sharkey, who began dressing as a mermaid for underwater photo shoots, said there is “a natural performance element to this.”

Not surprisingly, when dressed as a mermaid, people will naturally stop and stare. “Being at a mermaid-themed casino helps, though,” Sharkey jokingly said from Silverton’s Sway pool.

The Silverton mermaids, along with Mermaids casino downtown, are two examples of businesses embracing mermaids. Culturally, the fantasy creatures have gotten their fair share of pop culture exposure, perhaps most famously in the 1989 Disney film “The Little Mermaid.” More recently, mermaids and mermen have appeared in the “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises.

For MerCon attendee Renee Rettick, it was “Peter Pan” that started her lifelong interest in mermaids. “They are just so beautiful,” she said. “They are so feminine, and they embrace nature.”

Rettick has never bought herself a fin and attempted to swim as a mermaid. Instead, she is content watching others perform and sharing her love for the creatures with her daughter, Starla.

“She used to put both of her legs in one side of her pants in order to pretend she was a mermaid,” Rettick said with a laugh. “She is very into it.”

The Retticks drove from San Jose, Calif., for the convention after seeing it advertised on Facebook. For them, it felt like a long journey, but they are locals compared to many attendees.

Mermaid performer and tail-maker Renee Chidiac traveled from Australia with her two young daughters, Isabella and Angelina, who also perform as mermaids. Another vendor came from Denmark.

Chidiac said the journey was worth it to support her family’s passion and to be a part of what she sees as a big step for mermaid enthusiasts. Mermaid-specific events are rare, save for one great exception: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in central Florida has world-famous mermaid performers and hosts a yearly Mrs. Weeki Wachee mermaid pageant.

Kylee Troche is the reigning Mrs. Weeki Wachee. “It’s an amazing experience,” she said. “My favorite part is interacting with kids.”

Almost daily, children ask the blonde beauty if she will go home with them and live in their backyard pool. Sometimes the ones old enough to know mermaids aren’t real will badger her with questions in an attempt to get her to break character.

“Once someone asked me how it’s possible for me to be Ariel’s sister when she lives in saltwater and I live in freshwater,” recalled Troche, referring to the title character “The Little Mermaid.”

But being a performing mermaid is more demanding than many realize. Troche can hold her breathe for more than three minutes, necessary for some of the lengthier dives in the Weeki Wachee show.

Performers must be SCUBA and CPR certified and be in peak physical condition. Troche co-owns a dance studio with her husband, which helps her stay in shape.

“This job is very hard,” Troche said. “It really makes you think on your feet.”

She probably meant to say fins.

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