When Clairol set out to promote its Great Body Conditioning Shampoo in 1971, the brand landed on the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, an underwater tourist attraction that could only exist, for reasons of geology and curiosity, in the state of Florida. It was a stroke of inspired casting. Blessed with cascading, camera-ready hair—and taxed with long stints below the surface—the women had both aspirational appeal and a solid need for maintenance. How they escaped the attention of the waterproof makeup market is almost beyond comprehension.
Opened in 1947 off a sleepy two-lane road, Weeki Wachee established itself at the crossroads of fantasy and technology. Using a system of oxygen-supplying air hoses invented by the park’s founder, Newton Perry, the performers lived the life aquatic—at least for the duration of a choreographed 45-minute show. Nearly 70 years later, modern-day mermaids still do. The costumes reflect a cheery upgrade in palette, as if subliminally influenced by a certain Disney animation, and the beauty looks have evolved along with long-wear lipstick formulas. Still, there are constants, like the soda-drinking trick (in the repertoire since 1948) and the water temperature, a refreshing 74 degrees all year long.
How does one transform into a creature of pop-culture imagination? To find out, Vogue called up two Weeki Wachee talents: Brittany Fussell, who swam her first show in February, and Fiona Schwarz, a nearly-three-year veteran, whose two great-aunts performed for Elvis during his 1961 visit to the park. Here, the mermaids talk about the grueling audition, the best stay-put makeup, and what it means to be an unconventional beauty icon.
Making the Cut
“We have a 400-yard swim against the current, because we’re right there at the mouth of the spring,” says Schwarz of the first phase of the audition, a surprisingly grueling haul that quickly thins the ranks. Next comes a series of ballet moves and backflips, to gauge the range and fluency of movement, followed by a stretch of time in front of the theater windows—breath held, smiles wide. “They want to see that you’re not puffing your cheeks and squinting your eyes. You want to look as natural as possible in the water.”
Learning to Breathe
The long, winding air hoses located throughout the underwater theater are the Weeki Wachee equivalent of a rock star’s corded microphone: The performance depends on it. But, as with scuba diving (the mermaids are certified), adjusting takes time. “At first, I felt almost a little claustrophobic, being in the water,” says Fussell—and that’s not even counting the 63-foot-long tube they must swim through to get to the stage. After a month simply sitting and breathing, she tested out slow movements, then choreography. “Eventually one day it just clicked: OK, I’m comfortable. That’s really what made me show-ready.” For Schwarz, the water has become a refuge. “It’s almost like meditating. I can let myself completely relax,” she says—a state of mind that makes for better breath control, she adds, estimating her upper limit at nearly three minutes.
Mastering the Makeup
First things first: “I like to put on a CC cream—I try to take care of my skin,” says Schwarz, a fan of IT Cosmetics’s version. “It’s full-coverage, it’s anti-aging, it’s got my sunscreen and my moisturizer—and I like the citrusy smell.” She layers on powder to “lock everything in,” followed by blush and bronzer, to warm up her fair skin; some mermaids darken the brows. “In the water, everything kind of washes you out,” she says. “Just like stage makeup, you want to put more on than you think.” For a finishing touch, Schwarz will sometimes slip a fishnet stocking over her face, apply clear lip balm to her cheekbones, and then dust on iridescent eye shadow—“it’s like fish scales.”
Waterproof formulas are a go-to (Schwarz likes the liquid liners by Stila and Essence), but the right application techniques are just as crucial for staying power. Fussell calls out Urban Decay’s eye shadow primer, which helps colors last through back-to-back shows. And the longwear lipsticks by CoverGirl and Maybelline—each a two-step system to seal in the pigment—are a backstage favorite. “We can wear that for a show and get out [of the water], and our lips still look perfect,” Fussell says, who finds a sense of groundedness in her beauty routine. “For me, it’s a confidence thing. When I feel like I look beautiful, my show is a hundred times better.”
Reviving the Hair
Spending two to four hours underwater takes a toll—even if it’s a freshwater spring and not a chlorinated pool. “It definitely dries your hair out. We go through so much conditioner,” says Fussell, a cornsilk blonde. (The Weeki Wachee aesthetic calls for natural-tone hair colors.) Top on the mermaids’ list for rehabilitation: It’s a 10, a leave-in product. “We all swear by it,” she says. The fact that it helps with detangling is a bonus. “That’s just something you have to deal with when you have long mermaid hair,” she adds with a laugh.