Among the many wondrous gatherings we’ve explored in our Conventional Wisdom series—a trek through unique conventions across the US with photographer Arthur Drooker, as he prepares for a photography book on the subject—nothing is quite like Merfest. This costumed celebration of the mythological mermaid is run by the NC Merfolk, a group that swims together as merfolk three times a week. The Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, North Carolina—where the group normally convenes—played host to roughly 300 merfolk at this year’s convention. There, Drooker observed workshops, poolside vendors, plenty of spirit and even a few surprises.
“For many attendees, the desire to be a mermaid was spawned in childhood after seeing a movie, reading a book, going to the beach or an aquarium,” Drooker shares with CH. “A mermaid embodied an idealized self: beautiful, graceful and confident. To emulate a mermaid one developed a mersona, akin to the fursona that a furry at Anthrocon inhabits to model an animal character s/he aspires to be like.” Merfest is a place for both those with fully formed and fledgling mersonas, where merfolk can foster this and “feel accepted doing so… without fear of the judgment they might get from their own family.” Of the 300 in attendance, only 10 were men, and they also had a mission: increase awareness of the mermen community and the joy within.
The programming this year “offered workshops on underwater modeling and breath-holding; a swim with Hannah Fraser, a professional mermaid and environmental activist; and a ‘Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’-themed ball,” describes Drooker. Meanwhile, “poolside vendors sold mermaid paraphernalia, including tails, which cost $80 for one made of fabric and between $2700 and $4000 for a custom-fitted fluke made of silicone, whose skin-like feel and neutral buoyancy make it the preferred material of discerning divas of the deep.”
All the while, merfolk are often “in tail” in the pool. This is the convention’s core experience and the embodiment of attendee wishes. “It’s a rush. What better way to be in touch with your love for the water than to be kind of a part of it,” Christian Obrocki, a merman from Baltimore, explained to Drooker. “When the tail goes on, the human side goes out the door.”
Another crucial set of attendees happens to be the “mertenders.” As Drooker notes, “A few merfolk have mertenders; usually a friend, boyfriend or spouse to assist them getting their tails on and off and to carry them around. Mertenders also assist other merfolk, not just the one they came with.” This year, the Merfest welcomed the first ever mermaid wedding. “Cookie Ramirez, known as the Harlem Mermaid, married her mertender, Ralph de Jesus, in the pool at the nearby Embassy Suites Hotel.”
The bride wore a shiny tail while the groom donned a tuxedo T-shirt and black swim trunks—attendees splashed their congratulations as the ceremony came to an end. “Like many merfolk, Cookie feels transformed when she puts on her tail,” muses Drooker on why Ramirez chose this occasion to tie the knot. Being a mermaid is a position of freedom and creativity and it’s broadened her perspective on life. And that was Drooker’s primary takeaway throughout: there’s empowerment in the transformation and Merfest nurtures it.
Cool Hunting was invited to follow Arthur Drooker behind-the-scenes as he continues to survey and photograph conventions around the US. All images in this ongoing series are by Arthur Drooker.