ORLANDO – Some people just know as kids exactly what they want to be when they grow up, and sure enough, as adults, they glide into that profession.
Architect. Doctor. Football player. The list goes on.
For Melissa Dawn, it was something else, something far more specialized and unique. She knew from a very young age that one day, she would be a mermaid.
“I grew up in Florida and I’ve kind of always been a water baby and had the nickname Mermaid Melissa,” she said. “That’s gone on all my life.”
The native of St. Augustine, who now lives Orlando, has a successful career these days as a mermaid. She performs at SeaWorld and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, has a new children’s book coming out in January about what it’s like to be a mermaid, and hopes to be able to read the book to children at aquariums.
“You would kind of think, how could a mermaid business succeed?” she said. “And I joke with people and say if a pet rock can sell millions, then I can find a few jobs as a mermaid.”
So how does one become …. a mermaid.
Dawn said there are two things that help quite a bit: a passion for sea animals – she’s always loved dolphins – and a unique ability to stay under water for longer than most people can.
“I got the nickname because I can hold my breath for so long,” she said. “It’s around four minutes. My record on YouTube is four minutes and 18 seconds. I’ve reached 5 minutes before, but I don’t have it on record yet, because it’s not easy to repeat. One of the tricks is you have to slow your heart rate down. That’s why I’m able to zone out and not think about being in the water.”
It also helps quite a bit, she added, to have a tail – which Dawn has – and to believe it’s possible to accomplish something that may seem like a very daunting task at first: finding gainful employment and success as a mermaid, which is not exactly something that gets advertised much in the help wanted ads.
“The easy answer would be anyone could do it,” she said. “It’s a matter of believing you are one. Then anyone can be one.”
While growing up in St. Augustine, she became a fan of the theme parks, particularly Marineland, which is near St. Augustine and bills itself as the place to swim with dolphins. It was during her many visits to that theme park while growing up, Dawn said, that she developed a passion for dolphins, and swimming in the water.
“At the theme parks, you kind of get known as a regular,” she said. “I went to Marineland, which is the oldest theme park in the world, and I even have videos of me at 8 years old running around the park there. That opened my eyes to marine animals.”
Swimming with the dolphins, she said, gave her an opportunity to practice, and perfect, her skill for holding her breath underwater, and seeming to become a true mermaid.
“My friends would call me Fish Girl, or sometimes hinting that I was part of the ocean,” she said. “When I went into the water I wanted so badly to be a dolphin, and people said I looked like a mermaid.” Hence, the nickname Mermaid Melissa.
She went on to study marine biology, but before she even graduated, Dawn got a job at Universal Studios at age 15, first as a cleaner, then eventually to working with the marine mammals at that Orlando theme park. When she turned 18, Dawn decided she wanted to relocate to Los Angeles, to consider a career in acting.
But that city turned out to be a tough, competitive place to break into the show business world, and not a cheap city to live in, either.
“It turned out it’s extremely expensive to live out there without three jobs,” she said. “I moved back to Orlando, and SeaWorld was the next progression.”
That was in 2002, and at first, Dawn said, she was hesitant about applying for a job at that theme park which she loved so dearly.
“I loved SeaWorld so much that the thought of them rejecting me was a little bit overwhelming,” she said. “So for years I kept myself from letting them pass over me.”
It was her sister who finally talked Dawn into attending an audition, and she got hired. She did killer whale training, although she added, “My passion was actually to work with the dolphins.” She eventually got moved to SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove, and got to be in charge of training the dolphins there. It turned out to be the perfect job for … well, a mermaid.
“People want to talk to the trainers so badly after the shows,” she said. “That’s where it really caught on, because then they would even announce me as Mermaid Melissa. At these shows at SeaWorld, they thought I swam through the water like a mermaid. That was when I looked into getting a tail. So I thought, why not take the Mermaid mascot and do good with it? So I started putting out videos on YouTube in 2006, and I generated this huge following and millions of people from all over the world started responding.”
Mermaid Melissa’s posted videos of her performances can be seen at YouTube.
From there, “I started collaborating with companies, and the tails got more and more elaborate,” she said. “Ever since then, it’s taken on a life of its own.”
She also decided to pursue her role as Mermaid Melissa in other ways.
“I got the acting bug again,” she said. “This summer I was at Ripley’s Aquarium, and as far as I’m aware, it’s the first mermaid show that is a seven day a week project all summer long, from May 25 to September 5. They kind of put me in charge of the whole project.”
And there you have it: a successful career, done entirely as a mermaid.
“I have taken my entertainment background and animal education field to create something new that spins a positive message, while allowing me to travel and do book events worldwide, doing what I love as a pro free diver,” she said. “I have a mermaid children’s book coming out late next month, and to be able to read this to children at scheduled appearances or at aquariums would be a dream come true.”
To learn more, log on to Mermaid Melissa.
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