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She bought a $100 tail and turned her wonder into a "magical" mermaid career

Mermaids: The myth comes to life
Mermaids: The myth comes to life 05:09

More than 70% of Americans say a rewarding career or job is extremely important to live a fulfilling life — more important than family, friends or wealth. CBS News interviewed a broad array of workers who chose unique jobs, for a series we call: Unique jobs, extraordinary lives.

A decade ago, Marielle Henault was living in Montreal and had just been laid off from her job at a large telecommunications company.

A friend of the 24-year-old Canadian knew she liked to swim and thought a video of a mermaid school in Germany could cheer her up while she was in a rough spot.

"I just fell in love," Henault said after watching the video of mermaids swimming. She said then and there "I decided I wanted to be a mermaid myself."

Marielle Henault, a professional mermaid, poses on a rock.  Marielle Henault

At that time, Henault said, she didn't know of many mermaid schools in North America so she decided to open a school in Canada – for herself and others who wanted to learn the craft. There was very little information at the time and she didn't know how to become a mermaid. She bought a basic fabric tail with a mono fin and said she "paid about $100" to begin — entering a career and a community that has brought her around the world and more joy than she ever expected, Henault said.

A mermaid's tale

Known as a symbol of luck, fertility and beauty — but also as destructive as the nature of water — mermaid tales are told in cultures around the world with the earliest legend appearing in Syria around 1000 BC. 

Humans have always had a fascination with mermaids, writes University of Liverpool professor Sarah Peverley, a medieval historian, and mermaid expert on her blog. She writes that the "medieval church used mermaids and sirens to teach Christians about sin and salvation." Books, videos, and fairy tales including Hans Christian Andersen's beloved, "The Little Mermaid," which has been made into numerous movie versions and Disney iterations have kept the public's interest alive in these sea creatures.

This fascination grew into today's mermaid economy which can range from teaching exercise classes to participating in mermaid competitions – allowing this quirky niche to become a full-time career for some. Mermaids can compete in competitions; the China Mermaid Open Championship drew 60 competitors from around the world in 2023, and the Miss Mermaid, King & Queen of the Seas competition was featured on the Netflix series, MerPeople.

A mermaid competition in Hurghada, Egypt. Forty mermaids competed for prizes in this international competition.  Marielle Henault

There is no official directory of how many professional mermaids there are in the world, but Henault knows about 1,000 mermaids, she told CBS News in an interview from Krabi, Thailand. She met some of them joining mermaid competitions around the globe, and others while building her career.

She called swimming in an aquarium "a mermaid's magical dream" and one of the most "desired positions" for the season.

A decade ago when she was first starting, she used her immediate skills — swimming and a love for the water. 

"Water is my element," she said. She learned monofin and synchronized swimming and then launched her classes. Henault charged $60 a class for people who wanted to learn how to swim like a mermaid. 

"People want to be mermaids. I need to prepare mermaid lessons and stuff. But that's what's fun about it. Because what's a mermaid class? What's a mermaid? I decide. That's a magical world. It's my own discipline, I can do whatever I want," she said.

Diversifying mermaid income streams

After teaching classes for a while, Henault was ready to try new avenues to support herself as she was just breaking even. She says the most important thing for mermaids is to "diversify their income stream." Some can be hired for private parties (children's or adults) where one can earn $150- $250 an hour, or appear at corporate events, teach classes, or sell fins, she said. Mermaids can also work at waterparks, aquariums or other event sites. 

Henault said mermaids need a "passion" for the field because the work can be psychically demanding, sinus infections are typical and there is a lot of pressure on looks — which she said can bring some unsavory people known as "merverts" into their lives. Henault said their community has developed safeguards and communication skills, but for new mermaids, there can be many "ups and downs."

Marielle Henault poses among lilypads in Thailand. Marielle Henault

When she launched her mermaid company, Aqua Mermaid, all those years ago, Henault said she had no idea what she was doing. And while things were going well with her classes, party appearance and tail sales, all that came to a halt when the global pandemic hit and all in-person events stopped. During that period, she became a booking agent for mermaids looking to get jobs, while she takes a small percentage of their fee in return. 

"People call me for mermaids all over the place from Canada, U.S. and Dubai," Henault said, booking jobs for many mermaids she knows. Next up, she's planning to develop training courses and retreats for mermaids hoping to pass on what she's learned to the next generation.

"We get to travel, make money, be beautiful and swim," Henault said. "Being a mermaid is just magical."

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