Curator Eva Neklayeva first met Blixunami aka Eric Miligan in 2017, when she invited them to the performing arts festival Santarcangelo. Blixunami identifies as a merman or mermaid – and they splashed all over the local pools of the Italian town where the festival takes place, wearing a colorful mermaid tail. Miligan, a queer Black kid from South Carolina, draws from the imaginary realms of fantasy and sci fi; but retains an astounding “tail in the water” practical take on what it means to live your dream. Being a mer in the real world, they expand our understanding of what identity might be—and serve as a symbol of freedom, with a contagious energy of simply being fabulous and not giving a fuck. No wonder that to identify as a merperson is becoming a huge trend in schools all over the US, Australia, Asia and Europe; there are mermaid conventions with hundreds of participants, and the fashion and film industry is picking up on the trend. In her interview with Blixunami, Neklayeva talked to them about the mermaid lifestyle and about the economics, the politics and the poetics it involves. Los Angeles based photographer Thalía Gochez shot the pictures.
EVA NEKLAYEVA What’s your story of origin as a merperson? How did it happen?
BLIXUNAMI I’m going to go back to when I saw my first mermaid. It was the Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie in 1995. I just remember being a little kid, and I was kind of already liking mermaids because of the Little Mermaid by Disney. We always played Disney movies in the house, so I was already a little mermaid fan.
EN It’s the one that changes the color of the hair?
B No. It was just really long hair, and it came with these little star stickers that you can put on it, but otherwise it was a really simple doll. But I remember being a kid, seeing the commercial, and I’m like, “Those are so pretty; I want one.” Of course being a boy, I couldn’t have Barbies as a kid.
As the years went on, I started to draw mermaids. On all of my test papers, on my worksheets from elementary school, all the way up to graduation in high school, they always had a mermaid on them. I even got in trouble in the fourth grade when my class went to Outback Steakhouse for a field trip. You guys have Outback Steakhouse over there?
B It’s an Australia-based Steakhouse that’s all over here in America. We went there and after coming back, our class assignment was to draw everything that happened that day. I took it upon myself to put everything underwater and everybody had mermaid tails. I remember drawing all of us on the bus with mermaid tails, sitting at the table eating with mermaid tails and fish swimming around, and then I tucked it in all willy-nilly. My teacher was like, “Eric, what is this?” I was like, “My project. You told us to draw what happened and I just added tails.” “This is a really nice drawing,” he said, “but there were no mermaids, so I’m not going to let you pass this assignment all the way. I can’t take this.”
After graduating in 2011, I met a friend on a drawing website called DeviantArt, who made me my first tail. That was ten years ago, in 2012. My first tail felt like the puzzle piece that’s been missing. I’ve been swimming everywhere. I took the tail to the beach. I remember one time I took it to my friend’s house, and I just wore it sitting on the couch while we all were watching TV. This one friend walked in. He was like, “Eric, what! I’m not even going to ask. I’m just going to let you sit there with your tail on the couch. It’s whatever.” I was just sitting there smoking my seaweed, and the rest is history. A few years later, I got my first paid gig as a mer.
EN What is a paid gig? Could you explain a bit how merpeople make money?
B They get hired for paid gigs. Sometimes a paid gig is when someone wants you at their party and they pay you for it. But then there are some that do gigs for free just to get exposure, photos, and the experience. I’ve done a lot of things for free just to get myself out there because it’s hard for me, even to this day, even with everything I’ve done so far, it’s still hard to get a paid gig. A lot of the times I’ll be like, “Yes, I’ll do it. Just let me get some free food.”
EN When you entertain at the parties, what is it that you do?
B Depends on the party. Last party I did, I just swam on my tail back and forth the whole time, spoke to people. There were people smoking weed, so I was smoking seaweed and everybody was like, you’re a cool mermaid. Yes, mermaids smoke seaweed. It was super fun. My Mermaid Mama was also at that party.
EN What is a Mermaid Mama?
B Basically a mentor, someone older who’s also a mermaid. She made the silicone tail I wore. It’s yellow. She’s like a mother figure to me in the mermaid world. She’s not actually my first one. My first one was a mermaid named Jolene, but she had a real-life child, a baby, so she didn’t have time to be on the internet as much. She barely gets on. She was actually my first mermaid mama, and then after she kind of drifted away, she went on with the tide a little bit. I found my current mermaid mama making tails—and I was like, “Oh my God, a Black woman making mermaid tails. This is new. This is unheard of.” She found me and she was like, “Oh my God, a Black mermaid. I didn’t know y’all were real.”
We met and then it was just like that since day one. I even have younger mermaids that call me their father. I have two. Their names are Gabriela and Kennedy and they’re actually trans. They both started out as boys. They’re beautiful girls now. They started calling me their dad when they were boys because they would always hit me up, and I was always the main one giving them advice and encouragement to be themselves, and if they wanted to transition I was one of the main people who was behind them the whole way. So they started calling me their merdad.
EN They’re merdaughters to you?
B Yes, they’re my merdaughters. I call them my little pearls.
EN You mentioned how rare it is to find a Black mermaid…
B Yes, at first the mermaid community was definitely white-girl dominated: blonde hair, blue eyes, or red hair, you’re automatically Ariel. As time went on, and the more I started putting myself out there with my YouTube videos, more Black mermaids started to come in. I have so many messages from Black mermaids that hit me up and were like, “You inspired me because I never saw a Black merperson before I saw you.” So yes, now it’s a lot of Black people, also a lot of transmers.
Trans people identify with mermaids because there’s no bottom half per se, and it’s kind of a play on gender. It’s a fantasy creature; you don’t know whether it’s male or female. I’ve seen pictures of mermaids with flat chests, but they’ll have long flowing hair and you don’t know if it’s a male or female. Some mers play like they’re both gendered. Now there’s mermaids of all colors.
There’s a lot of plus sized mermaids, too! I love all of my plus size mermaids because for so long, mermaids were always skinny and petite, combing their hair. Now there’s so many plus-sized mermaids, and I love every single one of them because to me, I feel they’re the most rare because people always say, “You’re fat. You can’t swim in a tail”…the whole body-shaming thing. I feel they’re more brave than me sometimes because they actually have to deal with more slander when being a mermaid, and they still just go out there and do their thing. I always tell them, like if somebody posts a hate comment, I’ll be like, “Fuck them! You are beautiful. You can swim. You have gorgeous tails. You wear gorgeous make-up and you’re swimming; you’re living your dream.”
EN How should I call you now? Merman, mermaid, merperson, mer?
B Now I identify as non-binary, but when I have my tail on, I feel like I’m everything. You can say merman or mermaid.
You can use mermaid because mermaid is more clickable. People are going to type in mermaid before they type in merman. When you see a group of mers, people say look at all those mermaids even though the correct term would be “merfolk” or “merpeople.”
EN Remind me of the term you use to call everybody who is not merfolk but…
B Two-leggers! Everyone without a tail is a two-legger. There are also other words that I use. People be like, “Are you sure?” Yes. I’m shore, S-H-O-R-E. I always spell it, and then I say, “I’ll sea you later.” I use S-E-A. For me it’s a way of life. It’s a lifestyle. I got mermaid pants on now.
EN So, what kind of tails are out there?
B There are two main types of tails, silicone and fabric ones. Silicone ones, very expensive. The cheapest ones I’ve ever seen was $1,500, and people like those because they’re more realistic to the touch. When you feel it, you can feel the scales and all the detail and all of that, but heavy as hell: 40 or 50 pounds that you carry on your back. It was hell going through the airport; it was hell going through all those airports with this gold tail. Oh my God. I can’t even begin to explain the hell on earth I was experiencing with that silicone tail. So yes, very heavy, very expensive. You have to clean them after every swim because if you don’t, it’ll get moldy. You have to take care of it like a child; you have to wash it with baking soda and all other stuff, and you have to let it dry. Some people make stands for them so they can dry upside down so all the water can leak out from after the wash, and that’s really about it.
With fabric tails; easy to clean, easy to care, you can fold them up. They come in all different types of colors. Also, you can change it, repaint, add glitter, or sequins. I personally feel you can do way more with a fabric tail than with a silicone tail. Also, another thing with silicone tails: it takes a while to put on and a lot of lube. You need a lot of lube for a silicone tail. Every silicone tail maker in their care packages says use a lot of lube because you have to lube up to get into it. It’s silicone; if you’re dry you’re not going to get through it.
EN Is there a difference in the attitude towards silicone or fabric in the mermaid community?
B Unfortunately, yes. I’ve seen certain mermaids say that you can’t swim with us unless you have a silicone tail. I’ve even had a girl in my inbox crying once because one mermaid told her she’ll never be a real mermaid because she doesn’t have a silicone tail. I was like, that’s fucked up. That’s kind of how I got my fanbase or my sugar stars lined up from YouTube because I always made videos speaking of that injustice that nobody in the mermaid community has a right to tell somebody with a fabric tail that they’re not a real mermaid because they didn’t spend $2,000 on a silicone tail.
Hannah Fraser, one of the world’s most renown mermaids, she swims in sequin fabric tails. Weeki Wachee Girls wear fabric tails. When you go to Disney Land, Ariel is in a fabric tail, so I don’t see why people have to have silicone tails to be a legit mermaid. I can make a tail out of a trash bag and people will love it because I added glitter and sequins to it.
EN How do you create your mermaid look?
B I wear the same body suit. It has the fins on my arm and on my back and it morphs into the tail. I would say that I have inspired a lot of other mermaids to wear big ears. I was the first one to do this, as I was looking for fishy ears for this look.
EN You told me last time that you are working on a mermaid figurine or something like this. Was it mermaid dolls?
B Yes. I want to have my own line of mermaid dolls. I’m thinking of calling them “seablings,” like siblings.
EN This is so good, seablings!
B I want the line to be like no other mermaid line. Looking at past mermaids, I want to do what they haven’t done, and that’s different body shapes, different colors, and articulated tails. Genders, different genders. You order online so you can choose if you want the doll to have a gender or not, if you want to have boobs or not. A custom-made mermaid so that everyone can see themselves as that mermaid they bought.
EN That’s amazing. I want one. No, I want several.
B One day. I’ve been investing in all of that, and it’s going to take some time, but I’m definitely willing to put all my blood, sweat, and tears into that line. It would be super successful. I know in marketing, a lot of times with toys and merchandise, they always say, who’s your target audience? I say: everyone. Some people have challenged me and say, “No, you have to pick which one,” and I’m like, “I’m going to pick everybody because I want it to be for everybody.” I don’t want it for a specific group because I feel like I’m bashing out all other people that would want it. Everything I do, I want it to be for everyone simply because I know how it feels to not be in a target group for something specific.
EN Wow! What else do you do as a mermaid?
B I am working on mermaid music. I have a song out and working towards my album. It is going to be called Mersic.
EN Mersic! This is too much!
B My first song is called “Splish Splash on Em.” I’m so excited. I basically just want the album to be something that you can enjoy even as a two-legga, like dancey and chill vibe. I’m so excited because there’s no other mermaids who would be doing mermaid music.
EN Tell me a bit about the mermaid conventions.
B There’s one next month in Virginia—it is called MerMagic Con. Once you go to one mermaid event, they’re kind of all the same. Friday is usually the meet and greet night. Next morning, that’s Saturday, everybody would register and get their little badges, and usually everyone would go to the designated pool area and swim. There would be photo shoots by these super high-end underwater photographers, or there would be classes, like how to pose underwater or how to make a tail or beginner mermaid courses. Then, usually on Saturday night, there’s always a gala where everybody dresses up really pretty in their best mermaid-on-land outfits. Sunday is usually that last group swim and a goodbye ceremony, and then everybody’s swims off to where they floated in from.
EN Let’s talk about role models. Are there any movies, actors, fictional characters, artists that portray being a mer in a way that you now really appreciate?
B For me, I will say Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. That was the first real mermaid movie I saw. Although a lot of people say Splash with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah was their first. I love this movie. I used to rent it on VHS as a kid every weekend.
EN Do you have any mermaid ancestors?
B My daddy told me this story: Apparently there was a crazy hurricane on the coast of South Carolina where my family’s from, in a place called Edisto Beach. He said there was this storm, big waves, all of that mess, and my great granddad went outside because they lived on the beach and he heard a wailing and somebody crying. And so he discovered it was a mermaid, washed up on shore, all bruised up and sick. So my great, great granddad took her in and nursed her back to health. Then he tried to keep her, but the sea kept crying and it caused storms and hurricanes to hit South Carolina. So he brought her back to the seashore during a storm one day and he said while she swam off, the storm swam away, like went away with her, and the sun came. I was like, “Daddy, are you serious? My great, great grandad was blessed by a mermaid?” Isn’t it insane?
I read a book in 2019 called The Deep by Rivers Solomon, and it tells about slave women being thrown off ships, pregnant, and having their babies turn to mermaid babies, who then establish an underwater kingdom.
So I feel connected to those slave ship mermaids because it’s like, who knows? Maybe that mermaid was one of the ones who was born in the water and close over here because slaves did come to South Carolina. A lot of people come to Charleston because of the whole slave thing; we got slaves museums and tours.
When I was younger, the first time I saw Black mermaid was in this book called Sukey and the Mermaid. It was based on a mermaid that was singing in South Carolina, where I’m from, on the beach. So I’m like, wait, hold on. This is starting to connect! Was it her that my great, great granddaddy saw at Edisto Beach?
EN Wow! You know all the way back in the 90s there was this Detroit techno duo called Drexciya. They did an album called Deep Sea Dwellers that they created this imaginary, sort of spin off of afrofuturism, with the same story of the powerful sea creatures, descendants of women from the African continent who were murdered and thrown overboard.
B Yes, there’s a group called Klipin that actually came out with a song called “The Deep” and it was about the slave mermaids. I wonder if they knew about Drexciya—the album was probably inspired by them.
EN What’s the main reason why you’re doing what you do?
B Because it’s what I want to do and what I have always wanted to do. I didn’t have anybody to look up to when I was younger, so my main reason is because I want to show other people that look like me that they can do it, too. That’s the big picture; it is to show people that have never seen a Black mermaid that they can do it, too. I’ve had so many kids throughout the years find my Instagram and be like, I want to play mermaid with my friends, but they said mermaids aren’t Black, so I couldn’t play. Well, tell them they’re wrong and you know the Blixunami and the Blixunami said that mermaids are Black too. Mermaids are all colors. So that’s one of the really big things because a lot of people get told that they can’t do it. I even got told at one point, you can’t do that, that’s for girls. Or you can’t do that, only white people do that.
EN Here’s a question that you probably get asked all the time, but do you have any special swimming skills? Are you an especially good swimmer?
B No, not especially. There’s other mermaids that can hold their breath for three, four, minutes on one hold. I haven’t even gotten up to two minutes yet. I think I’ve only gotten to like 49 seconds. I would say my best mermaid skill would be finding the camera and smiling for the crew. I can find where the camera is underwater, halfway blind. And I can smile really pretty underwater. It is not as easy as it looks! During a photo shoot, it’s hard to know what your face looks like underwater because on land you can move around, but when underwater it’s like, are my eyes open? Is my mouth funny? Do I look like I’m holding my breath? Do I look dead?
EN When we spent time together in Santarcangelo, I was fascinated by how people were reacting to you. You flew over from the US to that little Italian town, put on a tail, and immediately connected to everybody on such a deep level. It seemed that everyone shared the fantasy of becoming a mermaid. Is it something that you experience all the time, that people just connect to the pre-adult state of mind?
B Yes. I can say yes, every time. Even if I’m at the pool by myself swimming in the tail, somebody will be like, “Oh, wow. That’s a tail. He had a tail.” Especially because I’m Black too. That’s another thing: people get really excited because they don’t see Black mermaids all the time.
EN What is it about mermaids that is so exciting? Why?
B I think because so many people only see them as fantasy things or something that kids play with, so when they see a fully grown adult in a mermaid tail is like, “Whoa, I’m not looking at a story book right now; I’m not watching TV; this is really in my face, in person.” So I think that little kid starts knocking on the door and be like, “Remember me. Remember when you used to like fantasy creatures. Remember when you wanted to be a mermaid.” I would always get adults, “Oh, I wanted to be a mermaid when I was younger. I had all these mermaid toys, but now I work in corporate offices and blah, blah, blah,” and I’d be like: get your mermaid tail! You read The Little Mermaid; they die when they turn 300 years old, and I’m sure you’re not 300 years old yet. Mermaids don’t have an age. I would like to say to everybody that’s reading this, at the end of the day, regardless of skin tone, your weight, your age: Follow your dreams! Always follow your dreams, and it’s never too late.