Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lily la Mer

Happy Earth Day to you all! Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Lily la Mer, a very talented professional mermaid from the UK. Her professional career goes well beyond mermaiding, as you will soon see. Please join me in welcoming Lily la Mer to the blog!

Cynthia: Thank you for chatting with me today, Lily. You are known by other names as well?
Lily la Mer: Within Merlesque I am known as Mermaid Lorelei, and at kids' parties I generally am Mermaid Pearl as it's easier for the little ones to say!

Photo (C) Christine Cross 
Cynthia: Wonderful, tell us a little more about yourself.
Lily la Mer: I'm a freelance international circus performer and professional mermaid. Within the circus, my specialities are static trapeze, aerial hoop, stilt-walking, fire dancing and burlesque / cabaret. As well as performing, I freelance as an artists' and photographic model and as a professional costume designer. I'm also a manager at Wildfire Production House ltd. (a UK nationwide circus agency) as well as Merlesque (the leading UK mermaid performance group). It's a lot of different roles to juggle but its great fun and very fulfilling! Every day is different which is very exciting and keeps me learning and growing.

Most people assume that I have a background in circus, dance or business, but it's actually not true. Until going to university and taking up trapeze and acrobatic rock n roll dancing, I actually refused point blank to participate in any exercise (except sword fighting, which didn't count) or anything remotely resembling performance and drama! Oh how things have changed. ;) Growing up in the suburbs of London (UK), I was a shy and mega academic kid, unsure what I wanted to do with life - maybe be a graphic designer, or a blacksmith, or something.

On a whim I chose to go to Cambridge University to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (my academic specialism is Viking pre-Christian religion!) where one thing led to another and I ended up performing circus acts part-time at the same time as finishing my degree. After graduating first class in 2010, I stayed in Cambridge, set up my first company and became a professional circus performer. Totally normal life path so far, right?

Photo (C) Vanessa Mills 
Cynthia: Of course! How did you come to join the mermaid community?
Lily la Mer: Although I pretended to be a mermaid in the swimming pool as a kid (like everyone in the mermaid community!), I actually forgot about them for years and years. It wasn't until 2011 when I suddenly became disabled in all four limbs and unable to walk that mermaids re-entered my life. As a circus performer, not being able to walk or use my hands was utterly crippling for my job and all my hobbies. Unable to perform and utterly miserable, I was really excited when a close friend (now Mermaid Melusine of Merlesque) showed me professional mermaids on the internet. Seeing Hannah Fraser and all the other stars of the mermaid world swimming and diving and moving so freely in the water, in a way that I no longer could on land, gave me the motivation to start the journey to become a professional mermaid. It started as a joke ("you can be a mermaid because they don't need legs!") and took a year, but in January 2013 Merlesque was born. It was mermaids, and specifically mermaids Melusine and Ondine, that brought me back from depression and disability. Since then, even though I can now perform my other circus disciplines again, mermaiding has been my favourite type of performing!

Photo (C) Andy Elliot
Cynthia: Tell us about your role at Merlesque, and a little about the group.
Lily la Mer: Merlesque is the leading mermaid performance group in the UK. We provide entertainment on land and underwater, including exciting and unusual acts like Burlesque mermaids with ukuleles singing naughty songs, and an aerial net double act with a mermaid and sailor. All three of us love performing and costuming so we work hard to make all our acts super shiny and polished! We work with a whole range of clients and events, from kids parties to black tie balls, corporate to cabaret, festivals to weddings. There are three of us who are the managers and main mermaids of the group: Lorelei, Melusine and Ondine. We split up work between us according to our strengths and our calendars / other commitments, and for many projects we work on them together. I usually get marketing work, as well as important sales and client liaison because I've got years of experience doing that with my other businesses. I'm also a seasoned veteran at drilling holes in shells!

Cynthia: I hear that you are also a qualified free-diver.
Lily la Mer: Yes, I certified as a free-diver (diving without SCUBA equipment) while I was in Koh Tao in Thailand this spring. It was amazing and I'm totally hooked! My current breath hold PB is 2.50 mins and I can dive to over 20m (65.6 feet) on a single breath - but there's always so much room for improvement! I'm training towards a 4 min breathhold and will be going back to Koh Tao soon to spend six weeks training as a Master Freediver. I'm also a certified SCUBA diver. Anything that gets me under the waves! It's just so free under the water, relaxing and exhilarating at the same time. Having been disabled for so long, it's wonderful to move around without restriction - and of course to explore an amazing world full of coral, fish and turtles. It gives you a real appreciation for the incredible beauty but also vulnerability of our oceans - its very common to find plastic bags floating through the sea while diving, or cans and rubbish among the coral. Every piece that I collect helps but it's better to stop it getting there in the first place! Spending so much time in the ocean while travelling this spring has really heightened my awareness of the need for better marine conservation.

Photo (C) Tori Pollock 
Cynthia: Have you done any environmental or instructional work?
Lily la Mer: I've actually only just got back to England after 3 and a half months of travelling around Australia and Asia. It was just for fun, not working, but of course I brought one of my mermaid tails along for the ride. Along with my friend Lucky (also a mermaid), I explored the waters of East Coast Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. We swam as mermaids on beaches, in waterfalls, in lakes and rivers - every piece of water that we found. We surprised a lot of tourists! And were featured in an Australian newspaper too which was amusing. It's very different being a mermaid over there than it is in England - it's so easy to find beautiful, warm and free places to swim! Swimming so much makes you really aware of how different water is in different natural places, not at all how you imagine water being the same everywhere like tap water. The water in Malaysia is very salty, on the Thai islands it's incredibly clear, and it's super strange swimming through Tea Tree lakes because the water is red from the tree oils (it seeps out of the fallen leaves) so it looks from underwater exactly like you're swimming in a giant puddle of Coca Cola! Doesn't taste the same though and contains more poisonous snakes than a usual glass of coke. ;)

While I was in Cambodia (South East Asia), I spent two wonderful weeks working with a marine conservation project on the island Koh Rong Samloem. Save Cambodian Marine Life is a small charity that is working really hard to protect the marine environment around Koh Rong in Cambodia. They need help and awareness from abroad because the Cambodian government is pretty corrupt and not really doing much about what is an increasing problem with litter and unsustainable fishing. Save Cambodian Marine Life works on several aspects of the problem but the one I was helping with was their coral farm. They're building a new coral reef off Koh Rong, in addition to protecting the existing reefs. Every day we went out in SCUBA gear to clean off the algae that grows quickly on the frames and threatens the baby corals. While they're small this algae can easily kill them, so armed with our toothbrushes (seriously) and scrubbing brushes we spent a couple of hours a day carefully and patiently cleaning around the 14 frames on the farm. After a while you get really attached to the baby corals and start to recognize individual corals as your favourites!

Photo (C) Theresa Kienitz 
On my last day there, we did a quick photo shoot of me swimming as a mermaid cleaning the baby corals. I had no SCUBA gear so was breathing off the photographers alternate air supply which was interesting to say the least. Without the gloves we'd usually use, my hands ended up cut to pieces by the metal supports of the frame (I had to hold on to avoid floating off in the salt water!) but it was worth it to create some promo images to raise awareness of the baby corals. It would be great to have more people aware of this project and of marine conservation efforts in this area of the world so if you want to go 'like' the project, visit their Facebook page.

Cynthia: What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
Lily la Mer: Honestly it's very rare for me to not be working! This period of travel was my first long holiday in years - usually I'm based mostly in England / Spain and working on a whole series of business, mermaid and circus projects. After such an amazing experience though, I'm already planning my next long trip to Koh Tao to certify as a Master Freediver. But on the rare occasions I'm not working, mostly I do what everybody does - quality time with my family and friends, reading and watching movies. Also currently improving my Spanish, learning to sing and halfway through writing my first novel, and next week am taking up a new martial art... no rest for the wicked!

Cynthia: Do you have any special or amusing stories from your mermaid adventures?
Lily la Mer: One of my favourite experiences as a mermaid happened while I was performing at a private booking in London. Confidentiality means I can't say who it was for, but suffice to say he's a very famous and high level businessman who makes my own companies look like kids' lemonade stands! Anyway, the party was for his little granddaughter and it was Mermaid themed (she has good taste already). She was absolutely adorable and introduced me to this super powerful business magnate as 'moomoo my silly grampa'. So I shook hands with one of the most powerful people I've met so far in my life, while sitting on his living room floor dressed as a mermaid and having been introduced by a four year old. It was awesome. He was totally cool and obviously loved his granddaughter so much. And he gets extra mermaid points because later when I had all the kids round in a circle doing an interactive story, he came and asked me to speak louder so that the adults could hear too. Then proceeded to sit and listen intently while I did shark impressions with the little ones and talked nonsense about a glowing magical coconut. Best party ever.

Photo (C) Michael Laing
While in Koh Tao, every afternoon after free-diving my friend and I would jump on the motorbike and head down to Shark Bay. It's a really popular tourist destination on the island but a lot of tourists leave very disappointed after not seeing any of the advertised sharks. They say it's just a name, like nearby Shark Island which is named that because it looks like a giant shark fin sticking out of the water. But they are wrong. It's true that in the area where most tourists snorkel, the shallows right in front of the beach, you will almost never see a shark. But if you know exactly where to go and at what time of day, then there are loads! Adult ones and baby ones, and the baby ones are often in groups of up to 5. The most we saw at one time was 8 in a group! They are really cute but still pretty big fish. Anyway, as well as following around giant turtles watching them eating coral... we went shark racing. The turtles are really cool by the way, they are like a moving city, there are so many cleaner fish and little scavenging fish who live on and around them!

Cynthia: Tell us more about shark racing!
Lily la Mer: This is shark racing: You swim about. You find a shark. In order to watch it because it is cool, you follow the shark. It swims a bit faster. You swim a bit faster. It changes direction. You change direction. Eventually, you are swimming as fast as you can to keep up! Sometimes you are faster than the shark, in which case you back off and let it swim away. We never follow them if they seem distressed by our presence. Also I have a policy not to race sharks bigger than myself, because I'm a coward! :D As well as being a fun afternoon activity, shark racing proves that SHARKS ARE NOT SCARY. Seriously, I've SCUBA dived with them circling around me at night, and they (various species of reef shark) are honestly not even interested in humans let alone likely to attack us. It's really really important that all mermaid fans spread a more accurate and supportive view of sharks (as interesting marine life rather than psycho killers!) because their bad reputation does them a huge amount of harm around the globe. Also please bycott all restaurants who sell sharkfin soup, and tell them why you're boycotting. It's a little thing but if lots of people do it then eventually it will remove the market for shark fins which will leave more sharks in the sea where they belong. Mermaids <3 sharks!

Hah sorry got carried away by sharks there :D Lovely chatting with you.

Cynthia: My pleasure! Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Lily la Mer: Oh, I haven't mentioned anywhere: as well as a land tail and a Magictail, I also have a custom-made full silicone prosthetic tail. It weighs 11kg (24.3 lbs) and is insured for £3000 (about $5040 US). It's name is Norbert. It is pretty obvious to identify in the photos by virtue of not being a Magictail and being made of silicone. ;)

Cynthia: Thank you again for chatting with me today, Lily! Readers, you can learn more about Lily la Mer at her Facebook page as well as her personal web site. And, you can find out more about Merlesque at its web site.

Best wishes and starfishes,
Gold Mermaid Cynthia

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