August 13, 2022

Job diary: A day in the life of a professional mermaid

  • Gabrielle Rivera is a 25-year-old professional mermaid based in the Bay Area, California.
  • At the age of 19, a friend introduced Rivera to online community of merfolk, people also interested in mermaids and costuming. From there, her character Nymphia, The Nautilus Mermaid, was born.
  • Today, Rivera performs as Nymphia everywhere from corporate events and kids’ parties, to aquarium and water shows, starting at a rate of $250 for a 90-minute appearance.
  • Rivera says that as a trans woman, cosplay and working as a mermaid has helped her explore and build up confidence in her femininity.
  • Here’s her story, as told to freelance author Jenny Powers.
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the sea. Some of my earliest childhood memories as a little boy are spending time on the San Diego beaches with my mom.

Gabrielle Rivera Nymphia baby photo with beach background

Rivera as a baby during a sea-inspired photo shoot.

Gabrielle Rivera

In high school I began doing cosplay, attending my first event, The San Diego Comic-Con in 2009. I enjoyed sewing and costuming recreationally, so it was a great match for my interests. 

Early on, I made my own mermaid fabric costume compete with a swimmable version of Ariel’s tail.

I even wound up taking a mermaid class wearing the tail. The class taught us a series of basic swim styles such as the dolphin kick, flips and corkscrew turns.

I also enjoyed taking photographs so, at the age of 19, I combined these interests and took a job as a photo ambassador and wardrobe assistant at SeaWorld. It was 2014, the same year I’d begun doing pencil sketches of a character I’d dreamed up that I’d later call Nymphia, The Nautilus Mermaid.

Soon after, a merman friend of mine introduced me to MerNetwork, a merfolk community, and encouraged me to get involved. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked.

In 2016, I headed off to Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles to study fashion design. I ended up leaving after the first semester, returning to SeaWorld as a seasonal employee. 

That same year I got my first paid mermaid gig. A friend recommended me for a mermaid meet and greet at The Escondido Renaissance Faire, which was a lot of fun. I wore my Ariel tail, and together we greeted people in a grotto set-up and handed out treasure to the children. That was the day I brought my character Nymphia to life for the first time. 

It was my mom who first pointed out that this could be a business for me.

Gabrielle Rivera Nymphia full body tail photo credit Brandi Rollins

Nymphia wearing her full body tail.

Brandi Rollins

I live with my parents in Oakland and the three of us were regularly meeting in our living room, conducting informal business meetings, and discussing what it would take for me to turn this into a reality. We talked about everything from resources to costuming to budget. With their support, for the first time, I remember thinking becoming a professional entrepre-mermaid might just be an actual possibility.

From there, I joined a local group known as the Ocean Beach Mer Pod, and soon I was doing both paid and volunteer appearances. Two months after my first mermaid gig, I got certified as an Open Water Scuba Diver through PADI. I also commissioned husband and wife duo, Jim and Alicia Ward of See Through Sea, to design a custom silicone mermaid tail which cost $2,700. It weighs 36 pounds, and feels like you’re swimming with a dumbbell attached to you. It’s made of medical-grade silicone and it feels more like a prosthetic than a costume. I named her Moana. 

Silicone tails are a big investment, running between $1,000 to $6,000 depending on the maker. They are mostly handmade by small creators however there are a handful of larger companies like Mertailor which offer mass silicones.

Fabric tails like neoprene are more comfortable, weigh less, are easier to put on, and way more cost-effective ($300-$500) but they’re nowhere near as realistic looking. 

When it comes to silicone versus fabric, it really comes down to just picking your poison.

It typically takes me between two and a half to three hours to get into full costume. 

Nymphia on a log, photo credit Brandi Rollins

It can take up to three hours to get fully dressed as Nymphia.

Brandi Rollins

Getting my tail on is a process. I begin by applying a water-based lubricant to my legs so I can slide into it easier. Then I lay down on a yoga mat and put my feet into the monofin, and begin sliding it up the length of my body. It usually takes me half an hour to do and it feels like I’m wearing a giant condom on my body because silicone suctions to your skin. 

I’m a makeup geek so that part takes the longest, especially when it comes to the feminine contouring. I wear a lace front wig that I glue to my scalp and use a small army of bobby pins and a crown to anchor it down. One time it came off in the water and all my makeup smeared, but luckily it was during a practice swim.

Cosplay really helped me build up confidence in my femininity, and I feel my most feminine as a mermaid.

I didn’t come out to my parents as trans until I was living in Los Angeles in 2017. It was more of a passive kind of talk, but by then I was already using feminine pronouns to refer to myself. 

At times, it can be harder to book events as a transgender woman. 

People won’t admit that’s why they don’t hire me, but I’ve heard it through the grapevine. I’m very upfront about being trans. In fact, I recently served as an ambassador and speaker for trans merfolk at the California Mermaid Convention in 2019.

When I do work, I do it all — kids’ parties, corporate events, beach visits and meet and greets, and aquarium and water shows. My rate is $250 for a 90-minute appearance on dry land and $275 in the water. 

I always have an assistant on hand whose job is to act like my land legs. 

Gabrielle Rivera Nymphia and Pirate assistant photo credit Brandi Rollins

Rivera often has her assistant dress up in a pirate costume.

Brandi Rollins

If I’m working near the water, I can just roll into it, but if I’m on dry land, my assistant carries me — which isn’t the easiest task, considering I weigh 162 pounds and my tail weighs nearly another 40. Sometimes he tosses me over his shoulder and carries me into an event like the catch of the day. It’s also helpful to have him with me in case some drunk guy tries to play let’s drown the mermaid. Fortunately, I haven’t had any run-ins with that personally, but in my industry, we’ve all heard the stories. 

In addition to my mermaid work, I work as the lifeguard instructor for Bay Club at The Gateway, a private fitness club in San Francisco. 

Both my jobs require me to be at my mental and physical best.

This means plenty of sleep (8-10 hours nightly), lots of protein (eggs are my best friend), practice swims, vocal warm-ups, and deep breathing exercises. I can hold my breath underwater in a static position for two minutes and 25 seconds, and my active breath-hold is between 45-75 seconds if I swim really slowly on a good day. Once during a photo shoot, the legendary mermaid model and activist ocean ecology activist, Hannah Fraser, joked I almost killed her underwater photographer because I held my breath for so long.

Since COVID-19, business is a lot slower because no one is hosting events, but I’ve found ways to branch out. I’ve begun offering virtual storytime, as well as personalized videos for special occasions or simply to say ‘shello’ for between $35-50. The pandemic has also provided me with the downtime I needed to create a free YouTube channel for kids storytimes, as well as a podcast called Nymphia: Legend of the Sea. 

For me, this is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. 

Whatever methods I can use to encourage people to dream big through my work, I use. 

It’s especially important for me, as a 25-year-old woman of trans identity, to spread the message that anyone can achieve their wildest dreams.

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