Ariel comes to life | Visit Halifax | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Ariel comes to life

How Stephanie Brown transforms into Raina the mermaid.

Ariel comes to life
Raina in her natural habitat.

Raina the Mermaid has communicated with seals on the eastern shore, dodged jellyfish in the Atlantic Ocean and been chased by snapping turtles in the lakes of HRM. Raina has wavy red hair and wears a seashell bra. From her head to the tip of her scaled, orange tail, she is more than seven feet long.

"It's so incredibly magical to be under the water and feel like that is your environment and your element, and to be a part of that space," says Stephanie Brown, Raina's semi-secret alter-ego. "One time I was in my tail for some photos and there were some seals nearby and I was flapping my fluke, and a seal started slapping his belly, and every time I'd flap my fluke, he'd slap his belly."

Raina "mermaids" at birthday parties, fundraisers, business functions and public events multiple times a week, year-round, which comes with its challenges. "The biggest thing I have to worry about is jellyfish because when you're underwater and everything's so blurry, you don't see a jellyfish until it's stinging your face---I usually just get away from them in the nick of time, or they just hit up against my tail."

When she takes off her silicone tail and becomes Stephanie Brown---the elementary school teacher in training---she still faces the tribulations of mermaiding.

"It's not just from the wildlife, I mean, it's the people too," says Brown. "I've had people online who are just obsessive, like, really into holding-your-breath-underwater fetishes and stuff like that."

Brown also has to deal with online harassment from mermaid-haters---last year she had to involve the police because she was being stalked.

As a child, Brown hated swimming, but she fell in love with mermaids when she saw The Little Mermaid. Later in life, while bedridden with chronic illness, she discovered that professional mermaiding was a growing industry.

During her illness, Brown had leg pain so intense that she couldn't walk down stairs. She also had a low lung capacity because she was born prematurely. Mermaiding was a motivation for her to get stronger. Years later, she now trains in the pool of a local hotel, where she can swim the circumference in a single breath.

"When I put that costume on and get in the water, I'm not klutzy," she says. "I'm strong and graceful, and it's really empowering and amazing."

Despite having two bachelor's degrees, Brown doesn't anticipate that she'll be able to find work as a teacher: "It's kind of funny; I have all of this education and I can't teach in a classroom, but I can teach in my tail. That's what I do."

Raina teaches children about environmental issues, which, she says, are generally presented in ways that can be scary for kids. She explains some of the issues with pollution and climate change to children in a way that is less apocalyptic and more accessible.

On June 8, World Oceans Day, Raina sits on a display table at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to talk to kids about ocean life.

A half-hour before the event was scheduled to start, Brown walked into a storage closet in the back of the museum, carrying her 30-pound costume. Five minutes later, there sat Raina on the floor, gems adorning her face, legs bound in her glistening tail, casually flapping her fluke on the concrete. Her assistant came and lifted her, bridal style, to carry her to the marine-motif display table they had set up.

The first guest, a little girl with her parents, arrives at 9:30am. Ten feet into the museum, she notices Raina and hides behind her mother's legs.

"It's kind of like a little flirty thing---they look and then look away," says Raina.

Within a few minutes the third-grader has gathered the courage to come over to the mermaid and say hello. "You can touch my tail if you like," says Raina. The girl gingerly pokes the fluke, prompting a twitch.

"Oh that tickles!" squeals Raina, sending the girl bouncing backwards, giggling.

Another half-hour later, a group of nine preschoolers enters the museum. They each glance around at the displays set up by various marine organizations until they find the life-sized fairytale creature 30 feet away. All nine slowly approach Raina and plop down, a safe distance away, in a tightly packed ball of curious amazement. Within seconds, their curiosity overcomes them and dozens of fingers start prodding and grabbing at Raina's fin and tail.

Over the next 15 minutes, dozens more children enter the room and follow the same path over to the mythical wonder. Raina talks for awhile about the misunderstood nature of sharks and the importance of recycling before asking the children to take an oath in exchange for seashells and mermaid stones.

Raina has also taught children about mermaids in other cultures. In Japanese mythology, there is a fish with a woman's face. In Inuit folklore, Sedna---the mistress of the animals, whose fingers were chopped off by her father---lives in the ocean. Brown says that the current perception of the mermaid is a Disney creation, one that has become a hip icon in the last few years.

"It's really getting to be a big thing in pop culture right now. You're seeing mermaids in music videos," she says. "Lady Gaga's doing mermaids. Katy Perry's doing mermaids. Beyoncé calls herself a mermaid."

Last year the first mermaid convention, Mer-con, happened in Las Vegas with 800 attendees. Brown says that four years ago she was the first professional mermaid in Nova Scotia. Now there are five or six, and at least 20 in Canada.

This cultural trend has made a big industry of mermaid tail tailoring---an industry with a single employee 30 years ago. The tails sell for anywhere between 100 and many thousand dollars. At the higher end, the features include a professional monofin built into the fluke, special effects grade silicone, hand-molded and painted scales and decorative dorsal fins.

Because she doesn't expect to find work as a teacher, Brown is looking for other ways to exercise her passion for working with children. "I think if you're someone who is a teacher, you're gonna be a teacher no matter what," she says, "and you're gonna adapt that to any job you do."

Brown is applying for an internship on an island called Roatan, in Honduras, where 75 percent of the population is children and youth, and mothers feed their babies Coca-Cola because the drinking water isn't safe. The group doing work on the island specifically requested Brown come to teach and also do educational work as a mermaid. "They need people to come in and do prenatal and neonatal care. I think it would be really meaningful work. And it's sort of the cherry on top that they were like, 'We want the mermaid!'"

Brown is already almost fully booked for private functions for the summer, but she's still making time for public events, which she regularly posts on her website and her Facebook page.

She can be sighted at the Multicultural Festival, opposite the Seaport Market, on June 22-24, and she'll be at the Mahone Bay Pirate festival in August.

"Last year was really fun," says Brown. "They tied me up on a plank and took me through a parade."

Sam Littlefair-Wallace is a freelance journalist who was once saved by a mermaid in the Halifax harbour. True story.

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