Name: Hannah Burgess
Major: SMAD (School of Media Arts and Design)
Relationship status: Dating a hang glider pilot who jumps off mountains for a living…we’re an adventurous couple.
Hometown: Charlottesville, VA
Campus involvement: Events Manager and staff member of Gardy Loo, JMU’s Literature and Arts Magazine.
Photo by JMU alumnus, David Bittner
What got you into wanting to dress up as a mermaid?
I loved mermaids as a kid, and during my freshman year at JMU I found pictures and videos of professional mermaids through various social media platforms and said to myself “WOW I want to be the one in those pictures and videos”. For my 18th birthday I got my first fabric tail, started networking and going to mermaid conventions in January of 2014 and luckily I made friends who live all over the east coast that have given me opportunities to doing amazing photo shoots in locations like the Florida keys and shallow water mangrove thickets.
I'm assuming your favorite movie is The Little Mermaid. Is that correct?
Honestly it WAS my favorite as a kid but when I got a little older I watched the 1984 mermaid movie “Splash” that featured a real actress swimming in a real mermaid tail, and that just blew my 10 year old mind. This past year I got to meet the man who designed and made the mermaid tail for “Splash” so I would say that “Splash” is definitely my favorite. That being said, Ariel will always hold a special place in my heart and VHS collection.
Have you always loved mermaids? Why or why not?
I had about 15 mermaid dolls as a kid, swam with my both of my legs crammed into one leg of my floral 90’s leggings, and watched my Little Mermaid tape so often it wore out and we had to get a new one…so yes I guess you could say I’ve always loved them. To me they were just the epitome of a magical creature. They could breathe underwater and had long beautiful hair that swirled around in a cloud around them so to me that was just amazing.
How did you become the JMU mermaid? Who named you that?
I became the unofficial JMU mermaid when the SMAD film and journalism students found out about me at the beginning of sophomore year. I was featured in two film students’ film projects that involved me sitting in the Burrus fountain and of course the bystanders whipped out their phones and the JMU mermaid was born. I also do photo shoots at Blue Hole quite often which is a favorite swimming spot of JMU students in the early fall and late spring semester.
How many tails do you have total? What is the average cost?
I currently have one tail that is made by the company “The Mertailor” that I bought used from a third party. I guess you could think of tails as cars, the brand new custom ones are super expensive but you can score a used one for a lot cheaper. I paid $1,200 for my used tail but the new ones usually start around $3,000. My current tail is beautiful but it doesn’t fit me quite right which leads to a lot of extra physical strain over time. I am in the process of having a brand new tail made for me (exactly to my measurements and foot size) by a relatively new tail maker named Mermaid Jessica in florida for $2,100.
Why did you get involved in doing photoshoots dressed as a mermaid? How?
The best way to promote a business or service is by doing product photo shoots. So one of the ways I promote myself as a performer is to do photo shoots. Another reason I started doing photo shoots as a mermaid is because I saw breathtaking photos of mermaids in the open ocean and in coral reefs, and I guess I just wanted that!
Most of my shoots are done by friends with cameras and gopros. I have shot with several professional photographers in studios and on location but these photographers are friends of mine through the mermaid community, I rarely get contacted by photographers I don’t know.
Lastly, getting dolled up in mermaid makeup and hair, swimming down into a coral reef, and having epic photos at the end of the day is a really fun and rewarding experience.
What does a typical shoot look like?
I spend about an hour on hair and makeup, sometimes more if I’m putting in extensions and fake eyelashes. The type of hair and makeup I put on will depend on whether it’s a wet (underwater) or dry (above water) shoot. I usually drive to the location (beach, lake, etc.) or take a scuba boat with safety divers to the open water location. We spend anywhere from 1-4 hours taking photos with breaks in between (treading water for an hour is hard). Sometimes the photographer is breathing on scuba air and doesn’t have to come up for air and sometimes they are diving down with me with fins.
Do you make any money off of this?
I do make money from performing as a mermaid. Mostly the money comes from kids’ birthday parties but for me it isn’t about the money. I like to make enough to cover my expenses (gas mostly) and to save up for my new tail but most of the student films, public appearances, etc. are just for fun and to help out my community. One of my mermaid friends told me to never forget what it’s like to swim like a mermaid for the sake of swimming like a mermaid, not for the photos or the money or the “fame,” so I always try to keep that in mind.
Did you have to take any mermaid swimming classes? Why or why not?
You don’t HAVE to take any mermaid classes but being scuba certified (I took the scuba class here at JMU last spring) and free diving certified (still working on that one) sure help you understand your limits and how your body reacts underwater. There are a ton of youtube videos showing you how to properly do the mermaid or dolphin kick as well as tricks like flips and bubble rings. I mainly learn my “moves” by studying other mermaids and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
Do you plan to continue dressing up as a mermaid after JMU? Why or why not?
I hope whatever I do after I graduate allows me to continue being a mermaid. Being a mermaid combines all the things I was good at during my childhood and early adulthood such as sports, arts, beauty, etc. I’ve never found so much joy in one activity so honestly I can’t even think about living a life without fins.
You make a lot of your costumes. How much time goes into that?
Depending on how much seaweed and bling I’m gluing on my shell top or headdress, I will spend around 3-8 hours making mermaid garb. Many Netflix series have been started and finished to aid in the crafting process. Sometimes I’ll start making a top or head accessory and totally mess up or it just won’t work out and I’ll have wasted 8 hours of my time, but that’s all part of the creative process. Since I use my costumes underwater I can’t use easy/fast drying hot glue, so I have to use e6000 craft glue which dries relatively slow and requires the use of a respirator because it gives off harmful fumes.
What is your best memory as the JMU mermaid?
I really loved appearing in the Burrus Fountain as a mermaid, the reactions that I saw on people’s faces as they passed by were priceless. Another favorite memory of mine was when a random guy came up to me in Dukes and asked to take a selfie with me because it was on his JMU bucket list to take a selfie with the JMU mermaid. It was so unexpected but very exciting!
Have you met a lot of other people doing this?
I’ve met a ton of people since becoming a mermaid. After my first mermaid convention in January of 2014 my facebook started filling up with mermaid stuff and overloaded with friend requests from mermaids and merman from all over the world. I communicate daily with merfolk from Canada, France, Singapore, and the UK and some of my best friends are people I’ve met through being a mermaid that I probably would have never met otherwise.
Do you like being so well recognized? Why or why not?
I love being recognized as “the mermaid” especially when I’m just walking around campus. I look so different sans wigs and theatrical makeup so the fact that people recognize me without all that is kind of mind blowing. Being so well known is giving me the confidence to start drawing my audience toward causes that I support such as anti-bullying. This coming year one of my goals is to be more involved in giving back to the community that has given me all of this recognition.
How long can you hold your breath under water?
I can do a static breath hold (above water in a dark silent room) for a max of 2:15 (although I’m working on that so check back in in a few months and I may hit 3min). When you swim your body uses a lot more oxygen so your breath hold significantly decreases, so actively swimming underwater I can only last for about 45 seconds. When you hold your breath for too long you risk blacking out which is extremely dangerous underwater so I try not to push myself too hard.
Do you participate in any festivals or get hired to do parties?
I could write pages and pages about doing birthday parties and festivals as a mermaid, but I’ll try to keep this one short. I work for a company called “The Real Mermaids” that is based in Richmond and we mermaids perform in a 550 gallon tank at various nautical and arts festivals. A lot of the times these festivals are pirate festivals and we’ve met some really amazing pirate impersonators along the way. I meet a captain jack sparrow at almost every festival and he is always very wary of us mermaids. I also get hired for private kids’ parties, pool swims, aquarium appearances, beach appearances, and even to sit in a giant clam shell for under the sea themed formals.
What's your favorite part about getting to dress up as a mythical creature?
Swimming in a tail allows me to swim faster, deeper, and more agile than with my legs which makes me feel almost like a superhero underwater. Dressing up as a mythical creature also gives me a lot of self-confidence (it’s basically like dressing up for Halloween every day of the year), and I think that children can pick up on that confidence and it sets a positive example for them. When they see me dressed as a mermaid (whether they believe I’m real or not), they see that you can be anything you want. I grew up with one best friend and struggled in middle and high school to fit in with everyone but when I stopped caring about what was “normal” and embraced the part of me that made me an individual, that’s when I became successful.