Traci Hines looks like a Disney Princess, all big eyes and wide smile. Even with her hair fashionably shaved on the side, cherry red waves fall over one shoulder in a way that's unmistakably Ariel. Hines' resemblance to the fictional mermaid changed the course of this 29-year-old singer's career. She's the Hipster Ariel IRL, a real life version of a popular meme based on The Little Mermaid. She's a popular YouTube personality who has had success with her covers of Disney tunes, and her ability to impersonate the characters. On this particular Saturday, though, she's at Melrose Avenue boutique Japan L.A. representing Adorkable Apparel, her line of clothing and accessories inspired in part by her mermaid life.
The Orange County-based Hines grew up in Costa Mesa, but admits she wasn't much of a beach fanatic as a kid. "I took it for granted," she says of the coastline near her childhood home.
Instead, Hines gravitated towards the creative pursuits. Singing was her passion. As a young adult, she started posting videos of herself singing covers of pop songs. Her channel got some attention, but nothing major. Then Hines dyed her blonde hair red, "just for kicks." With the new hair color came the comparison to Ariel, so she decided to dress as the character at Anime Expo in 2008.
There's a video clip of her standing on a patio at the Los Angeles Convention Center, wind whipping in the background as she sings "The World Above," from the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid, a cappella. To date, that video has earned more than two million views. That same year, Hines entered the convention's singing competition, AX Idol. She didn't perform as Ariel, but she did make it to the finals. Those two events combined launched Hines amongst new audiences: convention-goers, Disney fans and mermaid aficionados.
"I noticed that people really felt a connection with me when I did the Disney stuff," says Hines.
Traffic on her YouTube channel increased and it wasn't the audience she had expected. Hines was playing fairytale characters at kids' birthday parties. Although the characters that she portrayed weren't tied to Disney films, she uploaded Ariel footage to demonstrate her skills. "I was making videos to show them, here's my singing. Here's me playing a princess," says Hines.
The intended audience for her videos were children and their moms. However, people of all ages had flipped over Hines' work. One of her biggest hits is a beautifully shot video of her singing "Part of Your World." That one has scored over a million-and-a-half views since it was released in late 2012. She doesn't stick with Ariel. "Love Is an Open Door," a duet from the Frozen, has proven to be extremely popular. Most recently, Hines channeled Maleficient for a creepy rendition of the Sleeping Beauty song "Once Upon a Dream." She also performs original work.
The Ariel thing could have faded, but then a screen capture from The Little Mermaid made the rounds on every social networking site. In it, Ariel is wearing thick-framed glasses and grimaces. Users caption the image with sayings like "I left the ocean, it's too current" and "I want to be where the PBR." Hipster Ariel was a meme.
Meanwhile, Hines had snapped a photo of herself in the car wearing her own thick-framed glasses. She struck viral gold again as Hipster Ariel IRL. "It's a cheesy selfie and I feel so silly, but, for some reason, that went all over the Internet randomly," she says. Hines went on to make a short web series, Life Lessons from a Hipster Mermaid.
Hines isn't a one-mermaid performer. She had done original characters for modeling gigs and party and convention appearances. She points to her necklace, a string of large, pastel baubles with an illustration of a mermaid dangling from the center of it. It was made by local company Locketship and Hines was the model for this marine-themed line. She has also done make-up tutorials for Hot Topic. She has performed for children at parties and adults at mermaid conventions.
She mentions a small, tight-knit subculture of mermaid enthusiasts. "I definitely feel like one foot in and one foot out," says Hines of her experience within the community. She notes that a lot of the people she met will swim in mermaid fins. "I've done a little bit of that," she says, "but I'm not very good at it." She's also a performer first and foremost. Hines' mermaid life is connected to her work as a singer.
Hines has been enamored with mermaids since childhood. "I love the siren element of it," she explains. Although she has an affinity for the look of mermaids, Hines is more interested in the lore spawned by the notion of mythical creatures luring sailors deep into the waters with song. She's not necessarily interested in romances with happy endings either. "I love sort of the dark side of mermaids too," she says.
In addition to performing, Hines was making mermaid-inspired accessories by hand - items like starfish-shaped barrettes - and selling them in her Etsy Shop, Siren's Grotto. She had a longtime interest in fashion and wanted to do something more, something that she didn't have to make one item at a time. She thought about making a seashell t-shirt to sell alongside her music on her website. Hines' brother, Cam Oden, thought that she should spin off the t-shirts as its own entity. They co-founded Adorkable Apparel last year.
The siblings collaborate on the apparel, with Hines sketching out designs and Oden turning them into graphics. Hines' husband, Benjamin Hines, is part of the team as well. They launched with the "Urban Mermaid" crop tops, which features two strategically-laced lavender seashells printed on the front. It sold so well that they added t-shirts and sweatshirts to the mix and started producing different color seashells. Soon after, they were making shirts with tentacles and dinglehoppers (that's a fork to anyone who hasn't seen The Little Mermaid). "The brand isn't just mermaids, but we definitely focus a lot on mermaids," says Hines.
The pop-up shop was open at Japan LA for one night, as part of the celebration for the Melrose Avenue shop's eighth anniversary. Adorkable Apparel is primarily sold online, although the tentacle shirt, called "Sea Witch," is available at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. There's talk of doing more pop-up events. Adorkable Apparel is still really new. "We're still getting our feet wet," says Hines before catching the sentence's double-meaning.
Inside Japan LA, a small crowd hovered over Adorkable Apparel's table. Hines' own fascination with mermaids had struck a chord with others. "You know how vampires were the big thing and zombies were the big thing?" Hines asks. "I feel like mermaids are getting their time now."
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