October 2, 2020

From Alfred Lord Tennyson to William Butler Yeats, mermaids have been a subject of fascination for many literary greats because of their mysterious demeanour and captivating presence. Cara Neo, also known as Syrena, has managed to do the same—but in a more public fashion with her eclectic brand of “magic” and performances. As she cuts through the water and moves in silken undulations, one can sense the palpable connection between her and the water, almost as though they share a symbiotic relationship. 

J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote about his need to be taken seriously. He said that while the creation of a fantasy world was like a higher form of Art, it was difficult to achieve—requiring labour, thought and a kind of elvish craft. Syrena has spent the last five years rigorously building the Singapore Mermaid School and amassing a following of 38.2k followers on her Instagram page @thesingaporemermaid. Today, she’s created her own empire of mermaids, a legion of strong females who support each other and believe in the enduring charm of fairy tales. Her lessons of wisdom are uplifting—reminding us that magic is everywhere, around us, within us, even in the darkest times. Who says mermaids only live in our imagination?

High Net Worth: What inspired you to start the Singapore Mermaid School and the Academy of Enchantment?

Syrena: Both came from the same place of wanting to create magic and inspiring imagination. I started the Singapore Mermaid School first, because I had achieved some form of success and recognition in my career as a mermaid—which led to requests from people interested in learning how to be a mermaid too. The Academy of Enchantment came later when I was trying to decide how to bring magic to people. It was hard work, but I enjoyed every challenging bit of it. I invested large sums into custom-made, movie-grade gowns and wigs for maximum authenticity, auditioned numerous aspiring princesses, and assembled and trained a team of wonderful performers. To date, we’ve performed at kids’ parties and corporate events all over Singapore.

Your Mermaid School has become quite a huge sensation. Why do you think it has been successful?

The Singapore Mermaid School is an industry pioneer and I’m very proud of the reputation we’ve worked hard for. Structurally, we have something very different and comprehensive to offer. We are the first Mermaid School in the world to develop and offer a holistic syllabus that encompasses not just the physical part of mermaiding, but also teaches a syllabus. Our school believes mermaiding is an art, and it’s a culture with its own history and mythology behind it. Being a mermaid is something that can’t be rushed. It takes time, a lot of practise, and a lot of dedicated mentoring. I also want to do my students justice by helping them become the best mermaids they can be: confident and skilled, with a solid foundation. One of our most advanced levels involves being in a performative aquarium-type setting, which is incredibly thrilling for our mermaids. However, one of the best things about the Singapore Mermaid School is that it is a community. When you have an environment that encourages sisterhood, love and body positivity, people resonate with that. My mermaids are one of the greatest blessings in my life. You should meet us for yourself!

What were some of the difficulties and challenges you faced when you started the business and how did you circumvent them?

When I first started, mermaiding was still a relatively new movement internationally, and it certainly unheard of in Singapore. It took a while for people to understand what I did, and at the initial stage, bookings were sporadic. I remember wondering if I had made a mistake because I wasn’t 100 per cent sure that Singapore was a climate conducive to the concept of magic, myth and all things whimsical. It was a process, but I slowly built up a good client base and was also lucky enough to be first featured on Yahoo! News. That triggered a chain of local and international media publications who picked up my story thereafter. The inventory side of running a mermaid school is financially and logistically rigorous: I have to constantly maintain equipment, repair and replace them because of wear and tear. I took a long time to test which were the best kinds of mermaid tails for such intensive school use as well as the equipment that could value-add to our classes. I’m still on the lookout for new ways to make my classes more interesting.

What’s admirable about you is that you perform too. Some people may dismiss the entire concept of being a mermaid as complete fluff and nonsense. What’s the toughest part being a mermaid and what would you say to such people?

Performing has always been my first love, but I’d be lying if I said it was a breeze! Most people are shocked when they learn that we can’t actually see underwater. Everything is blurry underwater; all you see are nebulous colours and shapes. I’ve had a few unfortunate instances where I tried to blow bubble kisses to my fiance from inside a glass tank and accidentally got the wrong man! I’ve also executed performances in environments that have wildlife in them (the wildlife aren’t involved in the performance). There’s always an element of risk, because you never really know how the animals are going to react. During our River Safari shows, manatees would swim up to us and try to hug us. This sounds adorable, but it’s still a 500kg animal, who doesn’t realize how strong it can be. We are trained rigorously to be able to learn how to react safely and calmly, and have a wonderful aquarist and safety diver team to extricate us if needed. You’re still a performer, so you still have to know how to make it look like it was completely planned. Wearing multiple hats as a performer, businesswoman, teacher, mermaid and real-life human being is a challenge in itself. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

On the surface, you seem to lead a life of fantasy. But is there a dark side to it?

Yes, absolutely. After a long day of mermaiding, all I want to do is go home, get on my laptop and have a marathon session of retail therapy.

Are you more of a performer or a businesswoman? And how do you balance between the two?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a dichotomy between the two, because if you’re truly good at what you do and have a genuine heart for it, it shows. People will see. And the business will come. You just have to be prepared to handle it. It’s not an easy process. There’s a lot more involved in running a mermaid company and school than most people realise.

What do you think sets you apart from the other mermaids out there?

Everyone has value and their own unique strengths. It’s important to carry yourself through life with grace, compassion and passion. Break your limits, be firm when you have to, and always be kind—that’s my motto.

Was there ever a time when you wanted to call it quits?

Never. A smooth sea never made a formidable sailor.

How has your business been impacted by the pandemic?

Around this time of year, I would be busy with weekly shows at JW Marriott, performing at parties and high visibility events and teaching. This time last year, I performed in front of the Tiffany & Co. store in a custom-made tank for ION Orchard’s 10th anniversary and at the Singapore Zoo River Safari with a team of my Singapore Mermaid students. Those performances attracted hundreds of people every showtime. I remember seeing a video of the audience at one of our River Safari mermaid shows and it looked like an arena at a rock concert—it was absolutely packed. Those large-scale events are most probably not going to happen this year.

What are you doing to stay afloat? Are you conducting classes and events online?

We’re still making magic now that the circuit breaker is over, just in a smaller, more controlled capacity.During the circuit breaker, it felt very odd slowing down, but I realised it was the reset I’d needed. I missed performing and teaching, but it refreshed the magic for me. Now, I’ve been making my usual appearances at parties, though it takes more planning to ensure that everything complies with government mandates. I’ve also resumed several of our Singapore Mermaid School classes as well. I have had to divide my classes into smaller batches and teach for longer hours. It’s tiring, but my mermaids love the lessons, and they, in turn, rejuvenate me when I see how happy they are to come to the Singapore Mermaid School.

We hear a lot of talk about female empowerment these days and women championing each other. Does that apply to the mermaid community as well?

It’s definitely an ideal the majority of the community tries to uphold. There are always going to be a few bad eggs, but I’ve been very fortunate to find a group of kindred spirits who are beautiful and kind-hearted. Throughout my journey, I’ve made an effort to raise our Singapore Mermaid School pod in an environment that encourages community building. At the very first lesson, every student learns about our three core values: Strength, Beauty and Love. And I reckon it has stuck, because the people who form the Singapore Mermaid pod are some of the most beautiful souls.

Students start out as total strangers on the first day of class, and by the end of their first course, develop lifelong friendships. If one of our mermaids is having a bad day and asks the pod for advice and support, she receives an outpouring of advice. The girls also constantly share their tails and accessories in a way that is so generous. We live in a metaphorical pool of love and shared empowerment. When overseas, mermaids have come up to me to express how they wish they could be part of the Singapore Mermaid pod, because our reputation is that of being a tribe and a family who live happily and lovingly together.

Cara and Syrena. What are the differences/similarities between you and your mermaid persona? Do you feel some kind of identity crisis at times?

They did start out being slightly different. During my early days, Syrena was the performing persona I actively projected. She was bubbly, confident, charming—not that I’m not those qualities—Syrena was just more consistent in coming across that way. Now, I think I’ve grown into her. Or maybe she’s grown into me. Whatever it is, we’re a happy hybrid. I don’t perceive much of a difference between us now. Being Syrena is just like putting on a good red lipstick.

I understand that you’re naturally introverted by nature. Does it drain you when you have to put yourself out there and perform for the public?

The paradox of an introvert performer is a strange one. On one hand, you have the introvert who gets drained from extensive projection and socialising. On the other hand, you have the performer who loves their craft and what they do. As a professional mermaid, you’re not just putting your body through immense physical stress, your mind is also constantly in high gear. Sometimes I’ll head to teach a mermaid class feeling tired and then emerge with my girls later buzzing with endorphins. Other times, if I’m doing a type of performance that doesn’t involve physical audience interaction, such as a tank performance or aquarium performance—there’s a freedom in being this unknown, mysterious entity behind the glass. You’re untouchable and free to be whoever you want the audience to think you are.

You have been to mercons (mermaid conventions) and met many different mermaids from all over the world. What were some of the best experiences and worse experiences you have had attending such conventions?

Anytime I’ve been invited somewhere to make an appearance, the people there have always been wonderful. Earlier this year, I flew to the States to headline an international mermaid convention. It was the first time an Asian mermaid was headlining an overseas convention. The masterclass I hosted filled up quickly and everyone was so excited to learn, plus the meet-and-greet gave me the chance to connect with mermaids from all over America.

I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting many different mermaids from all over the world and becoming friends with them. One time I went  to Hawaii to attend one of the most lovely weddings I’ve ever seen, as my mermaid friend danced the hula in front of the setting sun. Another time, I went to Florida and the wonderful mermaids there drove two hours just to meet me. I even mermaided in the Pacific Ocean with some of my best friends! All in all, the friendships I’ve made during the course of my mermaid life are by far one of the best things about this journey.

Where do you see yourself and the business five years from now? 

The future can seem like a distant dream with everything that is happening around us. But I’m looking forward to resuming performances and bringing more magic to audiences. I will be continuing to evolve the Singapore Mermaid School’s existing syllabus as well as expanding our range of offerings with new levels, opportunities, photoshoots, specialty classes and workshops. I’ve also just received and listened to the first demo of an ocean-themed song I wrote—and we’ll be finalising and releasing it soon. I’ve been working on other songs all revolving around legends and magic. Hopefully, the future of my business will involve more music.

Image credits: Joshfather Photography