At the Mermaid Parade
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
“The rainy Mermaid Parades are without question the best Mermaid Parades because we get the hard-core Mermaid Parade people,” shouted the announcer over the torrential downpour.
Saturday’s wet weather not only brought out the hard-core Mermaids but set the scene for a gathering of sea creatures on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue and Boardwalk. “You know how we sea creatures do in the sun,” said Celine Tolu with a sly smile.
Dressed as Ursula in purple fishnets, a large tentacle skirt, and a Little Mermaid bra, “ because it looks better on me,” Tolu sucked her Ring Pop and chatted excitedly with a “kinky Sebastian” and a “gender-bender Poseidon” about the cool weather and the 35th Annual Mermaid Parade.
“Seeing all the creativity around here, people have the most hilarious and insane costumes,” said Annie, the ‘kinky Sebastian,' in a red corset with two craps strapped to her chest. The colorful costumes and characters are a few of the reasons for the annual nautical event’s reputation as one of the largest art parades in the country. The parade attracts burlesque dancers, performers and anyone wanting to play dress up. Sometimes nothing more than glitter and a thong, costumes range from mermaids to seahorses to unicorns to pirates.
As the rain befits the sea creatures, the location, Coney Island, embodies the playfulness of the parade. Nicknamed “America’s Playground," the boardwalk next to the sea has been the home to amusement parks and sideshows that celebrate the unusual since the late 1800s. “I can’t think of anywhere else it should be,” said Tolu. “Coney Island home of the weird,” added Annie.
And because of Coney Island’s reputation of inclusivity, it’s no surprise that the parade goers are all different sizes, colors, shapes, and genders. There are mermen, drag mermaids, topless mermaids and veteran marches and first-time mermaids.
2017 was Tolu's first parade. Annie is scuttling in her second parade but has been to three. “The first year I went I just watched...The second year I marched with Kostume Kult,” said Annie with pride. Other marchers mentioned a similar timeline. “We admired everybody else’s and were inspired by the creativity,” said a couple of mythical land and sea creatures who watched the parade last year and participated in the festivities this year.
Everyone has a reason for why they march. A newlywed couple danced to celebrate their union. Some strut their creations in hopes of winning 'best mermaid' -- the judges welcome bribes. And some do it just for fun.
Others dress in costumes to attract attention to their missions, products or causes. The Alliance for Coney Island, a nonprofit established in 2012 marched to share their commitment to the care and revitalization of Coney Island. NYC Organic pulled cartoon recycling characters and food scrap waste tubs to promote the launch of their organics collection program at Coney Island. “Litter ends up on the beaches, ends up in the oceans, so we’re trying to do our part,” said Bridget Anderson Deputy Commissioner of Recycling and Sustainability.
Sage Sovereign, a fire performer, painted entirely in gold dressed as “Miss Solar Energy” to send a political message. “Each one of the mermaids in our float had a different message. They were a different Miss something to represent something that might be lost during this current presidency or something that we would like to see continue,” said Sovereign. “I decided to go on the positive side of things so I’m Miss Solar Power or Miss Solar Energy, some people were Missogyny, some were MissInformation to highlight things that were problematic and things that could be improved upon,” continued Sovereign.
Sovereign and her fellow mermaids were bound to their float pleading for freedom from a Donald Trump impersonator who chanted, “Build the wall!” and called for the mermaid ‘aliens’ to return to the sea. In front of the judges’ booth, Lady Liberty wearing a 'Resist' sash answered the mermaids’ cries by cutting their ties to the float. They dumped Trump.
Sovereign and her fellow Miss mermaids weren’t the only ones making political statements. One man dressed as the Babadook, a new gay icon, did so to show his support to the LGBTQ community. One woman carried a sign that read “Mermaids resist: Drown Trump.” Other women dressed as ‘Handmermaids.’
“It feels the most politically charged this year than it’s ever been in the prior two years that I have been to,” Sovereign commented, “and for good reason.” However, she does note that the parade is not only for activists. “It’s just a place where freak flags can fly and people kind of exhibit this kind of happiness, indulgence in life for everything that is colorful and beautiful.”
“Even people not in the artistic scene, they express themselves in costumes,” added Sincerely Yours, a Burlesque Entertainer who was Miss Wasted Youth in the political piece with Sovereign. “As a burlesque performer, I find that this is the few times in the year that I can be out in the public in a family-friendly environment,” said Sincerely Yours with a smile.
Although some mermaids were topless and a lot of the costumes were not safe for work, there were still kids running around dressed up as mermaids, gleefully embracing adult mermaids or their favorite magical creatures. “They feel like you’re a Disney Princess,” said Sincerely Yours,” it’s part for me, and it’s also part for them, making them see that there’s still magic in the world.”
The Mermaid Parade is a family affair if your family had tails and wore glitter as clothes. Jean Balukas, a local who has been to every parade, carried a box of 35 mermaid Barbies to celebrate the parade’s coral anniversary. Her mother was a clown in Clown Alley of New York, a troupe that was asked to walk in the first parade because there weren’t enough people. She and her sister marched with their mom then and continued to do so on Saturday, in memory of her.
“People come from all over the world. It’s such a great day...and the creativity is just amazing, it gives me goosebumps,” said Balukas with a big smile, “I think the mermaid symbolizes freedom.”