Now we understand why Ariel wanted legs. "Our legs are tied together, the fish are running into us, and it's dark," a professional mermaid tells Fast Company in the magazine's look at the seldom-discussed profession. Rachel Smith entertains guests at the upscale Sacramento lounge Dive Bar, where mermaids frolic in a tank above the bar. "Our tails can weigh up to 35 pounds, but the saltwater makes us float, so we have another 5 to 10 pounds strapped between our legs," she adds. Still, despite the exhausting physical aspects, the number of people doing it has kept up with popular demand, according to "mer-community experts," who estimate there are nearly 1,000 full-time mermaids and mermen in the US industry.
Part of the draw is the idea of putting on a magical show for audience members—many of whom arrive with less-than-wholesome ideas of what their tails entail. "They wonder if it's a topless bar," Smith says of her venue. "I hope people who go in with licentious ideas … think, 'That wasn't what I was expecting, but it was really beautiful." The pay can be nice, too, with the going hourly rate for a kids' party running $250, Fast Company notes. Of course, if you're in the business, some of that money has to go toward buying a customized tail, which can run from a couple hundred bucks to more than $25,000. Fast Company has more: on the woman who is "something of a mermaid pioneer," and on the flourishing "mermaid economy"—costumes, toys, and classes devoted to the genre—that caters to the rest of us. (Read more mermaids stories.)