Before they became proteges of Beyoncé, Chloe and Halle Bailey were two Black sisters frolicking in the pool and enjoying their childhood.
In an interview with Variety, Halle said she wore out the VHS tape of “The Little Mermaid.” During the Disney Dreamers Academy in March, Halle told a crowd of more than 100 teens and their parents that she found inspiration in Ariel’s journey. The curious girl who risked everything to explore the world beyond her own grotto pushed Halle to dream for a world beyond the world she knew.
Chloe and Halle’s sisterhood rose to fame as they appeared in multiple shows and movies while serenading audiences as the R&B duo Chloe X Halle. Now the little girl who pretended to be Ariel while wading in the water, is the young woman starring in that same role in the live-action remake of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” which is now officially in theaters.
“That’s why I believe that sometimes you have to see it in someone or something else before you can believe that you can do something big, and special and magical yourself,” Halle said. “So when I see little brown and Black girls, boys, and indeed everyone so excited for our live action adaptation, I cry every time because I think back about those two little girls swimming in the pool in Atlanta, Georgia and starting to believe in something big.”
But even before Bailey graced the big screen as Ariel, there were real Black mermaids who dedicated their whole careers to expanding the imagination of Black folks. This is in no way downplaying Halle’s place in history. But a community of fantasy lovers have built a Black utopia under the sea.
I reached out to a few Black merfolk who have dedicated their careers to challenging us to push back against oppression with our imaginations and playfulness.
Blixunami: The vibrant nonbinary merperson who makes sure everyone is welcomed under the sea
I really fell in love with embodying a character, and giving them life on the stage. There’s something about walking on the stage and seeing a big bright light. That light transformed me.— Blixunami
If a kickback ever happens under the sea, Blixunami is the one taking center stage.
A nonbinary merperson whose personality is as vibrant as their mermaid tail and bejeweled looks, Blixunami’s entertainment resume stretches back to their childhood in Charleston, S.C. They first started showing out during the talent shows at family gatherings – a moment that seemed small but Blixunami took seriously. If they were going to be a performer, they were going to be a performer like Beyoncé, they said.
Then they discovered drama club in high school, and it was a wrap. Blixunami still remembers the euphoric feeling that overcame them when they played a flamboyant villain during a school play.
“I really fell in love with embodying a character, and giving them life on the stage,” Blixunami said. “There’s something about walking on the stage and seeing a big bright light. That light transformed me.”
That metamorphosis was into a mermaid on a mission to make a more inclusive – and fun – world. As a queer person who came out at the age of 14, Blixunami is healing their inner child
whose dolls were thrown away because their parents didn’t want them playing with such “girly” things. Now, Blixunami swims with the toys they were once forbidden to play with as a mermaid doll influencer. They are also an aquatic entertainer who stands out from the mermaid community by venturing in the world of mermaid music, or “mersic” as Blixunami calls it. They dropped the music video for their hit “Splish Splash On ‘Em” a few months back.
Blixunami may need two boxes of Kleenex to get through the new “The Little Mermaid.” Before Halle Bailey’s role was even announced, Blixunami has been on top of the film’s development through their Live Action Ariel Instagram, which has gained more than 34,200 followers. The growing popularity of that account led to their invitation to “The Little Mermaid” premier in London. Although they missed out on meeting Bailey, they were able to catch the actresses who played Ariel’s sisters, who were grateful when Blixunami gifted the girls their own doll from “The Little Mermaid” doll set.
This is just the beginning of what looks like a very busy summer for Blixunami, who is also featured in the new Netflix docuseries “MerPeople,” which dives into the half billion dollar professional mermaid industry. If it seems like Blixunami is doing it all, it’s because they want to inspire other youth to do it all.
“I’m gonna be that voice that I didn’t have growing up,” Blixunami said. “I’m sure once a lot of the boys see me, they’re gonna be like, ‘oh, I can do that. It’s not just for girls.’ I feel like these Black boys need to know that they don’t have to always be in sports. They don’t have to be a doctor, or some thug or some rapper. They can literally dream and be whatever they want.”
Even after all of this, Blixunami isn’t done spreading their mer-magic. They are working on a comic called the “Blixunami Adventures,” which will feature a diverse cast of sea creatures, including an amputated character who has a metal crab claw, a trans sea character and, of course, mermaids. Blixunami said they want a workforce of all Black creatives working on this project, which they hope will turn into a cartoon in the future.
“Someone told me that the sky is the limit,” they said. " When she told me that I was like, ‘the sky ain’t the limit. I want to go beyond the sky.”
Chè Monique bringing body-ody-ody positivity to mermaid culture
I spent a lot of time swimming with my legs together pretending I was a mermaid. Just dreaming that dream— Chè Monique
Google images for mermaids and notice what you see.
Thin, long bodies. Most of them white. Long, wavy hair. Not many afros spotted. Few crowns of locs are seen. Even with “The Little Mermaid” release, there are few pictures of Halle Bailey herself.
Now, head on over to Society of Fat Mermaids and you’ll experience a different world. One where a variety of skin tones are praised. A world that shows range in both beauty and body types. Chè Monique, a mermaid, model and performer, in Washington, D.C., founded the group in 2018.
“As fat people, we get taught to cover up, to hide, to be quiet, all this stuff. And it’s like, Nah,” Monique said. “There are millions of fat people today. And today, I feel like they’re worthy of celebration even if they do want to change themselves later.”
Monique is creating the future she wished she saw as a kid. She had a positive connection with water before she even existed. Her parents met by a pool at Hampton University. Her maternal grandfather made sure Monique’s mom knew how to swim. Monique and her brother spent their summers splish splashing in the pool. When she became older and stressed out from school, all she needed was a nice long bath and a good book to recalibrate herself.
I’m calling up [mermaid] tail makers and being like, ‘Hey, why do your tails stop at an extra large? You know, people don’t stop at an extra large. Can we get a little bit more sizes here— Chè Monique
Monique was about four years old when she first watched “The Little Mermaid” in awe. She wanted to be a part of that undersea world even though there weren’t many mermaids who looked like her back then.
“I spent a lot of time swimming with my legs together pretending I was a mermaid. Just dreaming that dream,” she said.
Monique credits her mom for nurturing her sense of wonder as a child despite the lack of representation. Her mom had a conservative upbringing where her future was narrowed down to few choices: teacher, lawyer, nurse. The environment didn’t give Monique’s mom much space to express herself, so mama made sure her baby had what she needed to imagine big things. If that meant spending time hunting for a Black doll in the toy aisle, so be it. Monique’s mom continued to support this sense of playfulness even when her daughter became an adult. When Monique marched in a fantasy-themed LGBTQ+ Pride parade with her burlesque troupe 10 years ago, her mom not only helped Monique create a makeshift mermaid outfit, she made sure the outfit didn’t look boring.
“During that married, working and raising kids time of her life, I think my mom just felt like she got set on a path. And so anytime I looked like I was gonna deviate from the normal path, she was like, ‘Yeah. Do that. That looks fun,’” Monique said. “She kept pushing me to just explore all options for my life and play and dream.”
That sense of freedom didn’t only come in handy during playtime. It also helps when Monique advocates for the wants and needs of other plus-sized mermaids. Society of Fat Mermaids carries merchandise that ranges from an extra small to 6XL. Monique challenges the mermaid community to think the same way.
“I’m calling up [mermaid] tail makers and being like, ‘Hey, why do your tails stop at an extra large? You know, people don’t stop at an extra large. Can we get a little bit more sizes here,’” Monique said. “Or I’m mentioning to folks like, ‘All your mermaids seem to have the same body type. What would happen if you hired somebody a little bit bigger?’ I just really remind our community that fat people exist, which is weird because we’re so visible.”
That voice to stand up for herself and others - she got that from her mama.
“From a very young age, she always pushed me to advocate for myself and dream,” she said. “If she ever felt like somebody would have tried to put her flame out, she was going to either try to protect my flame, or grow it.”
While Monique said her mother is the best parent she could ever ask for, the mother and daughter have started to unpack and heal how her mom’s fatphobia affected Monique’s relationship with her body. Monique was placed on Weight Watchers when she was just nine years old. Her best friend has memories of Monique coming to school with a watermelon wedge or a lettuce wrap for lunch. She would be rewarded with clothes if she lost weight. And Monique swears her and her mom tried every diet fad of the 80s and 90s together.
Monique doesn’t have any ill will towards her mother for these things and can see why her mother thought the way she did. She was a woman of the 70s, an era that praised lean bodies. Monqiue was also born so small that her mother was afraid she wasn’t going to be able to thrive. She weighed Monique every day on a kitchen scale while praying that her baby would chunk up.
“Her prayers were answered,” Monique chuckled. “She literally did not know what to do with a fat daughter. And the medical establishment is always like, ‘Ok, your kid’s fat. You’ve got to do something about this.’”
Monique and her mother are healing that part of their relationship now. Monique also credits the healing power of community for helping her see the beauty in her body. She thought about the group of middle-aged women who loved on her as she took belly dancing classes from the time she was 16 until she was done with college. She talked about the friends in the burlesque community who hit her up to be a part of shows. She started connecting with people who centered fat liberation work in their lives and on social media. Slowly the urge to lose weight went from a road in Monique’s psyche to a whisper.
“You can’t hate your body into loving it. That just doesn’t work,” Monique said. “So I just realized how unhealthy that mentality was for me, and how much that hatred and negative ideas I had around myself being fat just made their way into everything in my life.”
Monique said she is noticing more plus-sized mermaids entering the community. Some of them have told her how she was the first fat or Black mermaid they saw on social media and how her journey has inspired them to get their first mermaid tail. While Monique feels like she is still growing in her own knowledge of fat liberation, she appreciates the fact that she is creating a space where merfolks can all grow together.
“Mermaiding and what it sparks for people is so personal and so intimate that it really feels like an honor to have created a safer space for folks and be a space to advocate for people,” she said. “There is this idea in Africana womanism that by the time you free the Black woman, you’ve kind of ended up freeing everybody along the way. That belief has stuck with me.”
Anita Riggs saves Black life with Black MerMay Day
A collision of circumstances inspired Baltimore native Anita Riggs to launch Black MerMay Day in 2021.
She was disheartened by the loss of Black life at pools and at the hands of police in 2020. But her mood was uplifted by the creation of Black Fae Day the following year. The magical event encourages positive imagery of Black people in fantasy culture every second Saturday in May. As Riggs watched Black Fae Day fans transform into ethereal fairies for picnics and parties, she wanted to create a similar vibe in the mermaid community while promoting the importance of swimming education.
Ariel is the first time we’ve had Black girl mermaid representation in hyper mainstream media. I think people underestimate how strong this movement is for older people. All of us are really just children inside with a whole bunch of older people responsibilities.— Anita Riggs
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black people are fatally drowning at higher rates than white people. The reality becomes more dire at swimming pools, where Black youth drown at 7.6 times the rate of white children. With those stats in mind, Riggs saw the creation of Black MerMay as a life saving opportunity.
“When I see a disparity in some way, I always try to see how I can impact that disparity,” Riggs said. “It’s like putting a fun veneer around the need for us to know how to swim.”
Riggs grew up trusting the water. Swim classes at the YMCA were a regular thing. Waterparks were her favorite forms of adventure growing up. So when Riggs adulted, she was shocked to learn that her experience with water wasn’t as common in her own community. In college, she learned how hair politics and the history of racial trauma became barriers in Black people’s connection to the healing sanctuary of water.
“Water is like the closest thing you can get to flying because of the weightlessness it gives you. It’s almost physically lifting burdens off of you as a person because you no longer have to hold yourself up,” Riggs said. “Water feels like it resets everything and puts things back into perspective. When you’re floating, the only thing you’re looking up at is the clear, blue sky. It’s just very calming.”
More Black representation can be part of the solution. Events like MerMay celebrate the whimsical magic of merpeople through art for the general population. Black MerMay Day, which happens the last Saturday of May, celebrates the African diaspora’s return to the water in multiple ways. Colorful crowns, makeup, shells and mermaid tails accentuate dark skin as participants metamorphose into musical merpeople. Fans can also tap into the Black MerMay Day community year round on Facebook and Instagram.
Since its founding, Black MerMay Day has grown into a platform where mermaid enthusiasts can connect with one another without the interruptions of racial trauma. Black fantasy and science fiction scholars share their research on mermaid lore. Black surfers show off how they are taking on the tides. Black professional mermaids share their trinkets and toys.
Black MerMay’s first annual event last year was a small gathering amongst friends who wanted to chill and swim together. Riggs didn’t plan for this year’s Black MerMay Day festivities to coincide with “The Little Mermaid” release. But she took advantage of the opportunity by reaching out to MomoCon, an anime, gaming and comic convention in Atlanta. On Saturday, the Black MerMay team will be leading panels about the mental health benefits of mermaiding and the history of Black water spirits. Then she’s closing things out with a meet-and- greet featuring Black mermaids.
Riggs, who gained a loyal following as cosplayer Tranquil Ashes, knows the importance of keeping Black representation front and center. She notices the side-eyes and nasty comments thrown her way when she cosplays as non-Black characters. Amplifying the existence of Black mermaids can cause a shift in the fantasy community.
“I love fantasy. Fantasy is probably my favorite genre. ‘The Little Mermaid’ is everything. It’s fantasy. It’s water. It’s pretty girls singing,” Riggs said. “Ariel is the first time we’ve had Black girl mermaid representation in hyper mainstream media. I think people underestimate how strong this movement is for older people. All of us are really just children inside with a whole bunch of older people responsibilities.”
Riggs foresees Black MerMay’s events growing. But she is also hoping Black people will become more comfortable with water. She’s not expecting them to be Olympic swimmers. She just wants to nudge them to learn basic skills and to continue to ease that sense of powerlessness she felt a few years back.
“I’m not an activist, but what I do is activism. I want to provide a space in the ways that I know how that can affect some form of change,” she said. “The first thing immediately on my mind before any of the prettiness of mermaids and all of that was saving black people. I think for a lot of us in 2020, that was all we were thinking about: we just want to live and be safe and do the things that we want to do.”