Creative Capital: Singapore’s first professional mermaid not only performs but also teaches
Cara Neo is a mermaid, teacher and owner of two companies. She also started the Singapore Mermaid School which, she says, is the first in the world to offer a progressive syllabus integrating theory and physical learning.
If someone were to ask you to name some of the physically most-demanding professions, top of mind might be things like ballet dancer, MMA fighter, or even bricklayer. I’ll wager you’d never think “mermaid”.
Firstly, it’s not a profession that is ever top of mind, and secondly, if you’ve ever seen a professional mermaid show, the young lady in the tail doing acrobatic flips under water looks like she’s have a wonderful time.
But the reality is that that young lady is probably in much better shape than you or I. And to be able to manipulate her body; hold her breath long enough to give you a good show; and smile with her eyes wide open (under water!), you have to be pretty darn physically and mentally tough.
These are things I have learnt from Cara Neo, aka the Singapore Mermaid aka Syrena. Neo is our country’s first professional mermaid, having begun her career part time in university and diving in full-time upon graduation.
She performs, teaches, and owns two companies. That last part is important. While Syrena is a performing mermaid, 27-year-old Cara Neo is a smart, passionate and determined entrepreneur with a heart as big as the pools she swims in.
HOW DID THE SINGAPORE MERMAID GET HER START?
It’s been a lifelong journey. I like to think that there are myriad little moments that have led up to everything that has happened: little Cara curled up on a stormy night reading her favourite books about mermaids, faeries, and myths under the covers; little Cara gazing out over the ocean view at a bayfront restaurant and imagining the glimmer of mermaid tails through the water; and little Cara running in a sunlit garden with her siblings and cousins and playing innumerable games of pretend.
All of these moments have led to me becoming the person I am today, a person who takes a hard line that there is space – and indeed, a necessity – for magic in this world of steel and chrome. And then this person dipped her toes into the wonderful world of “mermaiding” when she was in university. I stumbled upon this thing called a “swimmable mermaid tail”, which I thought sounded like an absolute dream come true. I got my first tail, and started carving out a niche for myself in whimsical, novel mermaid performances.
I really was blessed, because what started out as a part time job and a hobby grew to the point that as soon as I graduated university, I turned it into a full-time business.
Kids parties and corporate events were my staple, but after a few years I decided I wanted to expand and expose more people to this wonderful world of fantasy, fitness, grace, and strength.
That’s how the Singapore Mermaid School was born. It’s the first mermaid school in the world to offer a progressive syllabus integrating theory and physical learning. And more than that, it’s a family, and a movement.
WHERE DID THE NAME SYRENA COME FROM?
It was a name from one of my childhood mermaid books. I loved the way it sounded and rolled off the tongue. Later, when I watched Pirates of the Caribbean, I loved even more that it was also the name of the mermaid who took a chance on humans and believed that there was good in them.
It was only further on in my career, while performing for a Polish client that I discovered “Syrena” actually means “Mermaid” in Polish. So all the times I’ve introduced myself as “Mermaid Syrena”, I’ve been saying “I’m Mermaid Mermaid”! But I guess it’s a bit too late to change my name now!
I UNDERSTAND YOUR FIRST SERIOUS TAIL, PURCHASED BACK IN 2013, COST S$5,000. WAS SPENDING THAT MUCH A LITTLE SCARY FOR YOU? WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS THINK AT THE TIME?
A little scary? At the time, it bordered on terrifying! It was something so new and unexplored on the market, and no-one I knew personally had done it before. I can say, though, that it was an investment I don’t regret.
A beautiful bonus is that I got to know my tail-makers, who are now some of my closest friends. They’ll be flying to Singapore next year as bridesmaids for my wedding! They’re incredible, and we’ve been through a lot together. It’s nice to come full circle like this.
At the inception of my career, my parents were naturally concerned. “Are you sure about this? Can you make a proper career out of it? Why don’t you do marketing or PR or content creation instead?” But through it all they remained supportive and loving. They trusted me, which meant a lot.
Not once did they put their foot down and say “no, you can’t do this”. And funnily enough, my job has incorporated, in some way or other, aspects of all the various job disciplines they’d suggested to me.
It’s meant the world that they’ve trusted me and supported me all this while, because in business you endure so much, and it is so important to have people to give you second opinions, and to lift you up when you need it.
Their support, and the support of my amazing entrepreneur fiancé – who was the one who broached the possibility of this career choice in the first place – have seen me through a lot.
HAS THE BUSINESS EVOLVED THE WAY YOU PLANNED?
Yes, and no. I’ve achieved milestones that I set out for myself, like founding the Singapore Mermaid School, or becoming the premier professional performing mermaid in Singapore.
At the same time, no, because it’s exceeded all my expectations! I came into this with a love for doing what I do, and I had hopes for it, but, and I can say this now, I didn’t dare to hope too much. I thought that with Singapore being a place without the type of natural waterscapes and landscapes that usually encourage a belief in and inclination towards things like myths and legends, like for example Ireland and Iceland, and being a country with an emphasis on pragmatism and realism, it would be difficult to blaze a path here. And it was, but it’s also been so, so rewarding. I’ve expected trees and have been blessed with forests.
I’ve been invited to perform at history-making events that have been the first of their kind in Singapore. Recently, I performed in a custom-made tank at ION Orchard for their 10th anniversary. It was the first ever time such an installation had ever been done here.
I worked with the Singapore Zoo to choreograph, direct, and perform in Singapore’s first ever mermaid aquarium show. This year, we just wrapped up our third iteration. I have a weekly show at JW Marriott South Beach’s Fishpool Bar, which is Singapore’s first ongoing mermaid aquarium-type performance.
On the mermaid school front, the Singapore Mermaid School was a first of its kind in terms of structure. It’s known for being an industry leader in training and nurturing mermaids, as well as providing some of the most desirable “finternship” opportunities with some of the biggest names and brands for our students.
Last year, I also released the world’s first mermaid class to be taught in a performative aquarium setting.
WHAT’S BEEN THE TOUGHEST PART BEING A MERMAID AND RUNNING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
A lot of people see the end product and think that mermaiding is easy. It’s actually really hard. The trick is to make everything look effortless.
There are plenty of physical challenges that come with this job. When performing, you can’t see anything clearly. The water is burning your eyes and sinuses, and you’re holding your breath for any length of time. You have to endure all of that and make it look like you’re enjoying it, so your audience enjoys themselves.
At kids’ parties, you have to do all of the above, while keeping up constant interaction with little ones who are tugging at your tail and bombarding you with all sorts of fabulous and often mystifying questions. It’s definitely multi-tasking on a different level, and it takes dedication, practice, talent and skill to make it work.
I have a personal performance motto I live by, “Expect pain, make magic.” Train in the hardest conditions, learn to stop fearing discomfort, push your pain threshold a little further each time, challenge yourself in a new way each time, and you’ll be prepared to make magic well in any situation.
DO YOU THINK PEOPLE SOMETIMES UNDERESTIMATE YOU OR MISJUDGE YOU BECAUSE THEY CAN’T SEPARATE BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR AND A MERMAID?
I’ve been lucky to meet people who, for the most part, know of me and what I do. So they always come armed with plenty of questions. I suppose mermaid life can be quite intriguing!
If anything, I take it as a compliment when people conflate the businesswoman and the mermaid. What I create and what I sell is a fantasy, a promise, a path out of the everyday and the ordinary into the extraordinary and the magical. I’m more than happy when people subscribe to it and enjoy it as much as I do.
HOW DO YOU SPLIT YOUR TIME AND THE VARIOUS COMPONENTS OF THE BUSINESS?
It’s also always a challenge to balance the admin work and the physical work. Lesser known fact, being a professional mermaid is 90 percent admin, 10 percent glamour. I juggle replying emails, managing PR, generating social media content, with deploying mermaids to gigs and performing at gigs myself.
You need to be able to balance the creative side of yourself, with the more detail oriented, logistics oriented side of yourself. And that’s a tightrope that’s consistently challenging to walk.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SATISFYING THING ABOUT BEING THE SINGAPORE MERMAID ALL THESE YEARS?
Surviving, and thriving, despite the initial odds. There’s a great quote from Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
When I started out, the idea of an Asian mermaid didn’t exist in the modern cultural collective consciousness. I didn’t know what chances I had. But I took that “what if”, and I weaponized it as one of the key tenets of who I am as a businesswoman, as a performer. I was unapologetic about who I am and where I come from. I worked it into my branding.
And now, to see the Singapore Mermaid and Singapore Mermaid School brand recognized and loved by our local clientele and in the international mermaid community, that’s incredibly rewarding.
It’s been wonderful seeing how far the mermaid trend has come as well. The landscape when I first started and the landscape now are completely different. And with that changing landscape, some pretty amazing clients and students have walked through my doors. It’s been such a great journey, and I know there’ll be more adventures to come.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THE SINGAPORE MERMAID SCHOOL
We have two demographics: kids and adults. For kids, honestly, big kudos to their parents. I have so much respect for parents who let their kids live their dreams, and encourage them to pursue creative learning. And the kids? They’re hands-down one of my favourite things about this job.
For adults, we get students from all walks of life and of all ages. Each class is incredibly diverse. You might have an accountant, a lawyer, a childcare teacher, a Pilates instructor and a homemaker all in the same batch.
They all share one thing in common, though. They are beautiful and intrepid souls, every single one of them. They are beyond brave to follow their dreams.
Our students all have various reasons for signing up, such as fitness, or an interest in mermaids, or wanting to learn a new hobby. But I’ve found that one overarching reason is this, a drive to find a place where they belong.
Social connection gives our life meaning, and purpose. Yet so often, especially in the cutthroat corporate world, we don’t find it. Or we find ourselves ensconced with toxic friend groups.
At the Singapore Mermaid School, we place massive emphasis on sisterhood. We’ve created a community-building culture of love and of raising each other up.
Honestly, my girls are amazing. I am continually blown away by the capacity of love they have for each other. It just shows how full of love and goodness human beings can be, when they’re encouraged to thrive in the right culture with the right values. So people find a family here. A tribe.
And I truly believe that a big reason for our success is because we’re not just a business, not just a brand. We’re a community and a movement with heart.
HOW BIG AN INVESTMENT IS IT TO BE A MERMAID LIKE YOU?
If you’re in this professionally, and not as a hobbyist, it’s a huge undertaking. One would perform in a hyper-realistic, custom-made silicone mermaid tail. These are the couture pieces of the mermaid world. They’re handcrafted, realistic, and start at several thousand dollars.
Having done this as long as I have, I have a few different tails, to suit different looks, client requests, and performance environments. All of them are works of art, and require dedicated maintenance and upkeep.
Then you need the rest of the look – the collection of custom-made, matching mermaid tops and mermaid crowns, all of which usually cost a few hundred dollars apiece, and have waiting lists of months because of their quality.
You need the mermaid makeup, which, for me, at least, has involved hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of trial and error to determine which products work best underwater. To say nothing of the wigs, hair extensions, necklaces, bracers, and other accessories!
The Singapore Mermaid School’s inventory also requires constant updating. I have a large collection of lighter-weight, fabric tails that I loan to mermaid students.
Because of the sheer frequency of use, these have to be replaced often, which isn’t a cheap endeavour. Then you need to factor in other costs like venue fees, transportation, etc. It all adds up really quickly. It’s a massive undertaking.
GIVEN YOUR BUSINESS, YOU MUST END UP DEALING WITH THE OCCASIONAL SLEAZE BAG. ANY GOOD STORIES TO TELL?
Actually, in mermaid lingo, we call them “mer-verts”! There have been a few uncles who have followed me to various public events. They’ll pop up with their cameras and stay for hours snapping away, often a little too conspicuously.
Then they’ll hang around after the events, for a little too long. There was also one time I encountered an older, obviously extremely wealthy man who made very serious attempts to set up me up with his equally old, equally wealthy friend.
I just try to smile and be polite, but not engage too much. I always have my mer-tender with me at events too, so that helps.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
My love for old myths and legends has stayed with me from childhood to the present-day. You’ll find that it’s had a healthy influence on many of the Singapore Mermaid School theory modules. There’s a lot that these dusty old legends can teach us about life. It’s a bit of an exercise in introspection.
For example, one of the Singapore Mermaid School theory classes teaches about the Selkie – a mythological creature that swims as a seal in water, but shifts to a woman on land. Often, the Selkies would have their sealskins stolen by farmers and fishermen wanting to make them their wives, and so they could never return to the ocean.
That sense of loss of identity resonates with a lot of us; we’ve been taught to quash certain vital aspects of who we are. We need to recognize that loss, so we can work on finding ourselves again.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT SWIMMING AROUND, WHAT ELSE ARE YOU PASSIONATE ABOUT?
When I’m not a mermaid, I’m a princess! Two years ago, I founded my second company, the Academy of Enchantment. Kids deserve the best kind of magic, so the Academy of Enchantment focuses on bringing immersive, premium princess entertainment to birthday parties and events.
The emphasis on immersion means training and deploying a team of highly interactive, trained performers who love kids and who have talents in acting, singing, and dancing; curating movie-grade wardrobes worthy of a real princess; and conceptualizing party programmes and set lists for each princess.
It really is a dream come true to be in a business that comes full circle from the very magical childhood I had; I just wish that 4 year old me only knew what was going to happen!