The most physically demanding shoot of Hannah Fraser's career happened several years ago in the Bahamas. She spent days on a boat with a film crew going through two-hour body paint sessions in the midst of gusty winds before each dive into the ocean. It was hard on her back and her eyes and she ended up with an ear infection. At one point, she thought she couldn't go through it anymore, but she did and the results were stunning.
Fraser is a professional mermaid, a model and performance artist who works on land and in the water. She has appeared in commercials, music videos and fashion shoots. She has swum in aquariums from Long Beach to Dubai. But there's more to Fraser's mermaid life than entertainment. She is also an environmental activist who uses the image of the mermaid (with or without fins) to promote marine conservation. The video shoot in the Bahamas was part of a campaign to protect sharks; to do that, Fraser would swim with some of the most feared animals in the ocean: tiger sharks.
She had experience swimming with sharks, but not this variety. Tiger sharks are massive and have been known to attack humans. Fraser had yet to encounter one up close. To prepare, she spent the weeks prior to the shoot free-dive training, exercising and working on holding her breath. She also had to meditate and learn to keep calm. Fraser and director Shawn Heinrichs had done their research on how to interact with sharks in a "relatively safe" way. Still, Fraser admits to having had "a lot of fear" going into the shoot.
On the ocean floor with tiger sharks moving around her, though, it turned into what Fraser says was "the most empowering, awesome experience."
"They kind of had this vibe like big hound dogs sniffing along the bottom of the ocean, and they would come up and if you give them a tickle on the nose, their eyes roll back in their heads like they were really enjoying it, and they would do a big circle and come back for more. At no point did I feel like they were interested in eating me or that I was in danger," she says. "You can't flip out. You can't make a big commotion. You have to monitor the way that you move so as not to startle them or make them think that you might be prey."
The resulting video, "Tigress Shark," was released in 2014 as part of a response to a shark cull in Australia, a government-mandated reaction to a previous shark attack. "My belief is that we should not be killing sharks, we should be educating humans about entering their world," Fraser says. "[And] changing the fishing practices so that we're not annihilating their food source." The video was a hit that helped gain signatures on a petition to end the shark cull. Fraser says she still receives emails from people who emerged from watching the video with a new perspective on sharks. "It was really cool in seeing the potential of how a human interacting with animals is more powerful than just seeing the animal itself," she says. "Because we can imagine ourselves in that position, we can create some kind of compassion for those animals."
Even in the living room of her Valley Village home, Fraser looks like a mermaid. She's wearing a long gray skirt and a blue-green sleeveless top that, together, look like the ocean on a cloudy day. When she speaks, she flits back and forth between an American accent and an Australian one. Fraser was born in England but spent her early childhood in Los Angeles before moving to Australia when she was 7. Many years later, after she had already embarked upon her journey as a professional mermaid, she returned to L.A.
Mermaids had been a point of fascination for Fraser since she was a child. "For me, the mermaid is a perfect blend of the land and the sea coming together as one," she says.
As an adult, she first found work as an illustrator, bringing mermaids into the fantasy art that marked the stationary products she sold across Australia. Then she auditioned to be an underwater model and landed her first gig thanks to an ability to hold her breath for long periods of time — the result of having practiced yoga since childhood — and Fraser had a revelation. "I look like the art that I've been producing my whole life," she says. "It's so much more fun to be it and inhabit it and be in that world rather than sit for 20 hours and draw a picture of it. That's when I started getting into creating myself as the art form."
Fraser became a professional mermaid in the days when that didn't seem like an actual career. In fact, 15 years ago, she started making her own tails simply because there weren't places that sold them to the public. The process is long and laborious — before she found people to help her, it would take six months per tail — and the materials alone are so costly that she refers to the work as a "labor of love." She now has 14.
Fraser looks at the mermaid as a "servant of the sea." She says, "For me, it's not just about being this pretty mermaid and doing whatever I want. It's about being a servant and being of service to something greater than myself."
Back in 2010, Fraser was involved with the Academy Award–winning documentary The Cove, about the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. That experience resonated with her. "It was a really amazing, empowering documentary and yet most people didn't want to watch it because it was so heavy," she says.
In recent years, Fraser has collaborated on a series of videos with director Heinrichs that take a different approach on inspiring people to act. "Tigress Shark" was one, but they've also made videos with and about whale sharks, manta and devil rays, and a baby humpback whale. "I think we're coming to a time where we need to create more positive media, more imagery that uplifts as opposed to guilting us or shaming us into changing," she says.
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In recent years, mermaids have surged in popularity. They appear at parties for children and adults. There are mermaid conventions and workshops. In fact, a few days after our interview, Fraser was set to be part of a mermaid workshop in North Hollywood. In December, she'll be part of Remember Atlantis, a five-day retreat in Maui that includes mermaid training. Some might see this as a kind of Little Mermaid nostalgia, but this is the inverse of that. Instead of a mermaid longing for life on land, humans are looking to connect with the water. Fraser thinks there's a reason for that.
"I think it's because we are reaching that critical point in our environmental evolution where if we don't make the connection back to nature, we're not going to survive," she says. "There's this calling back to the womb of the planet Earth, which is the water, the ocean."
She also sees a form of feminism in the mermaid phenomenon. "I think the mermaid is also a really beautiful sign of feminine empowerment and beauty. Even though she's very sensual and sexual, there's also this kind of innocence about the mermaid," Fraser says. "We're returning to that joyful sensuality as females, where we're not pushed down by the patriarchy. We're free to be sensual, amazing, gorgeous beings."