Maria Russo calls herself a “serial entrepreneur.”
When she lists off her jobs, many of which she runs with her boyfriend, Jason Darling, she casually ticks them off one by one, like she’s listing groceries. There’s an event-staffing company, a lollipop business, running a rental home, breeding bulldogs and opening a nail studio. Yet, none of the five jobs are as important to Russo as Sirenalia, the professional mermaiding company she and Darling started six years ago.
The couple, who have matching pink hair and fingernail polish, have integrated mermaids into much of their daily life. Talking about mermaids is so customary in their household that they use the word as a verb.
“Mermaiding is really athletically challenging,” said Russo, describing what it’s like to be a professional mermaid. “So it’s kind of like this weird combination of extreme sports and pageantry.”
Growing up next to Lake Austin, Russo always loved the water.
“I could swim before I could walk,” she said.
Russo binged on the movies “The Little Mermaid” and “Splash,” a 1984 comedy centered around a mermaid.
“This really beautiful imagery of women who were actually a part of the ocean was just really appealing to me from a young age,” she said.
At the age of 12, she made her first mermaid tail out of garbage bags and duct tape, using her younger nephew as a model. Around 20 years later, she now sells “super-realistic, movie-grade prosthetic” tails for roughly $2,000 each.
The couple said Sirenalia has come a long way from the first time they attempted to create a silicone tail. They still keep the first tail they ever made in their “sticky room,” where they keep all of the raw silicone and molds that they need to create the tails.
“I don’t even know why we keep it,” Russo said as she looks down at the tail in her hands. “We just do. It’s an unusable mess, but we keep it around.”
The tails that the couple makes now are nothing like the small, light-blue tail they made years before. Each of the intricate tails takes nearly a month to make. The pair records 27 measurements from their clients and creates customized sizing sketches. From these, they create fiberglass molds for the silicone. Lastly, Darling paints the tails, which can take up to two days.
He got his start painting the tails when Russo was pregnant with their child — who is now 2 and has her own mermaid tail and shock of pink hair to match — and couldn’t breathe the fumes from the paint.
“For a while, I tried to have some artistic license, but I realized pretty quickly that I can’t see what’s in (the customers’) hearts,” Darling said.
In recent years, the couple has expanded Sirenalia to include mermaid appearances at events, rental tails, mermaid retreats and even temporary mermaid transformations. The company itself has expanded its client base worldwide, with people ordering from as far away as Germany, Canada and Colombia.
“It’s kind of hard when you send (the tails) overseas,” Russo said. “They get caught up in customs a lot because they’re so weird.”
But despite the growth, the couple isn’t yet seeing a huge profit from the business because of the pricey cost of the tails.
“Right now, our tails are really expensive because they are so labor-intensive and because the materials themselves are so expensive,” Russo said. “People will save up for years to buy a mermaid tail from us, and we don’t really love that. We want for anyone who wants to feel like they are a real mermaid to have access to that.”
What the pair hasn’t made in money, they’ve made in experiences, they said. One of Russo’s favorite memories is when she was hired to surprise a girl on her birthday. Russo slipped into the water and snuck up to the girl while she was snorkeling.
“The birthday girl cried a whole lot, and I think she was actually a little bit scared,” she said, laughing.
The young girl ended up being pen pals with Russo for several months afterward.
Working with children and being a professional mermaid makes day-to-day life exciting, Russo said.
“Sometimes I look around and me and, like, three of my best friends are in mermaid tails looking totally beautiful and playing underwater tea party with a 2-year-old who has her mind blown,” she said. “It’s just magical, and it’s rewarding. And also, you know, I’m still hoping that one day we’ll make some money.”