Tucson isn’t known for its abundance of sea creatures, let alone water. But, somehow, in the middle of the Old Pueblo, some locals swear they saw a mermaid with long blonde hair and seashell jewelry. She was so real, some of them had even touched her tail.
As the story goes, Mermaid Odette hails from France near the Odet River. She toured with the circus to America when the tank she traveled in fell off the wagon into the middle of the desert. She was stranded under the Arizona sun. She took to the desert swimmingly and hasn’t left since.
Mermaid Odette is the alter ego of Pima Community College student Emy Higdon. Every scale on her tail, each piece of backstory and purposefully placed bit of seaweed are the creation of the 25-year-old performer.
“I got to help someone make a mermaid costume for a play and after that, it sparked my imagination,” she said. “Maybe I can make a real swimming mermaid.”
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The idea of Odette came to her while working at Valley of the Moon, a storybook children’s park, in 2009. A couple years later, she was booking gigs and making a name for herself as an aquatic performer in the desert.
Her signature pink, purple and blue tail fin draws crowds and makes believers of even the most skeptical children. A couple splashes quickly solidify her status as a magical being.
Higdon said professional mermaid tails cost about $3,000 retail and she spent about $1,000 making her own from urethane and silicon. She said a colorful tail usually takes three months for her to create.
“I decided to go further because I didn’t want it to feel like fabric for kids,” she said. “I wanted them to feel it and think, ‘This isn’t fake. This is a real mermaid tail. This is crazy.’ ”
Authenticity and a well-developed storyline are top priorities for Higdon, who regularly analyzes her character to prepare for any human interactions that could occur.
“I have to make sure my character is up to par for every question children might ask and always have to make sure my stories are smooth, fluid, easy to follow and engaging,” she said.
All the mermaid costume pieces, the decorative flips of her tail and trinkets to gift to children are paired with a story to explain them. The attention to detail is a key aspect of the customizable experience Higdon provides to clients.
“I can provide you whatever you think your little girl or boy may want,” she said. “I want to make that experience the most amazing, magical thing.”
Hanging out poolside with a group of excited children is just one of the services Higdon sells through her website. She is also available for larger events like Return of the Mermaids, where she is the centerpiece in her seashell chair and kiddie pool with pirate’s gold. Prices vary depending on how long she performs and what the event is.
She said hiring her as a mermaid will usually cost over $100, though she makes a small profit from it after her costs.
While the mermaid makes fans with her Disney princess laugh alone, what people really want to see is a mermaid swim.
“It’s by far the most fun for me, that way the kids can see the beautiful movements the tail has,” she said. “You could swim with basic dolphin kicks, but there’s other things to make it more realistic … you want to turn in the water a specific way.”
Higdon said children take to the mermaid concept easily most of the time, and Higdon’s favorite part of her job is to engage a child with questions. Even her worst days can turn golden in a moment by just seeing the level of energy from young crowds.
Higdon said she knows she needs to keep parents interested too and has worked events specifically for adults. One of her most interesting gigs placed her in a tank at H2O Discotec, downtown. She said the bright lights, pounding house music and excitement were unbelievable, but she was dealing with drinkers.
“Some of the people would tap on the glass so hard I was afraid they were going to break it,” she said. “I’d come up sometimes for air or just come up to say hi to people and people would be like, ‘Are you high?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’ve been opening my eyes under water for like three hours.’ You just have to try and play and with it in a friendly way.”
Higdon’s seemingly ceaseless ability to let it roll off and stay in character reveals a piece of her own determined personality, a separate creature from the mermaid altogether. Keeping her two personas separate is a necessity.
“If I’m doing an event, I’ll be like, ‘You know my real name, but around the kids call me Odette,’ ” she said. “It’s very important for the kids. I have also had stalkers try to get a hold of me, so it’s also a safety net.”
Emy Hidgon the business woman has just as much work, if not more, than her performer counterpart. As she pursues a transfer from Pima to Northern Arizona University for a bachelor’s degree in business, she balances homework along with the books. Every day involves accounting, keeping track of revenue and finding creative ways to market a service few know is available.
“People think it’s just put a tail on, go to an event,” she said. “No, no, you have a lot of business stuff you need to work out, a lot of insurance and everything. It was difficult starting a business, but thankfully a lot of people find me interesting. You just need to make sure when they find it interesting you keep saying, I am a business. You can hire me.”
Performing as Odette is currently Higdon’s main source of income, and keeping the business in order is what separates her from many new mermaids who start out. Currently, Higdon is starting a new social media marketing plan and might begin to make and sell mermaid tails for additional revenue, she said.
Money remains her largest challenge as she envisions new set pieces, like a tank, and pays her regular bills.
Though she wants to keep performing as Odette, her dream is to apply her business savvy to others with a creative idea for their dream careers. She wants to help hopeful mermaids or any other strange creatures be successes.
“All I ever really want to do is just make a living being happy, trying to get other people to do the same,” she said. “With my experience, I could really help people do this, too.”
Higdon manages to conjure up magic both as a bubbly and shimmering mermaid and as a young woman balancing a business, school and the stresses of life. Though she labors to keep her two worlds separate, little pieces of the hard-working college student echo in the mermaid in the seashell bra, trying hard to figure out how humans work.
“If I do a good job on my finances and make sure I keep all my books straight, I can keep going further and further and really excel this beautiful dream I have.”