Chris Edwards (aka Merman Lir) hopes to make a splash by opening up merculture to everyone
When little girls are fantasizing about being other characters, they often choose princesses or mermaids. And little boys? Cowboys and superheroes are the norm.
And Chris Edwards doesn’t think that’s fair.
There is actually a mermaid craze at the moment, with little girls — and grown women — jumping on board to take swim classes and inviting red-haired, green-tailed sea princesses to their birthday parties. Not so much for boys. But Edwards — a local stage actor who has worked for numerous troupes across North Texas — is giving them, and anyone who has ever wanted to pursue a fantasy, the chance to embrace it in all its diversity.
Edwards, aka “Merman Lir,” is the only professional working merman in the Metroplex, and one of a handful of professional mermen across the entire country. He is a troupe member and senior performer with The MerFriends, a DFW-based fantasy entertainment company.
And how did he get there? Well, that’s what you might call a tall tail.
“I always loved magical creatures as a kid,” Edwards says. “I read a lot of fantasy novels. I practiced swimming with my knees together, pretending all the time. I never thought when I grew up that I would really get to be a merman.” But the first time he put on a tail in 2015? “Life-changing,” he says.
Edwards has taught classes with The Mercademy, the training program offered by The MerFriends, and is always excited to see young boys who seek that magical transformation.
“It’s an investment, no doubt, to make your imagination reality. Most professional merfolk perform in silicone or latex tails costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. I may not recoup that cost from gigs as a male in this business, but there are moments that are just worth it.”
His favorite gig so far was a birthday party for a 7-year-old boy who wanted to be a merman. “We get so many little girls [as clients], but this boy had a dream. It was so cool that his parents hired me. He said it was the best day of his life, which was really cute. You can’t put a dollar value on that,” Edwards says.
The fun doesn’t have to stop when you grow up. Adults love having real merfolk and magical characters around for grown-up events, such as cocktail parties and corporate celebrations. It gives them permission to step out of their real lives and just enjoy the moment. The suspension of disbelief is a remarkably freeing experience.
“My first gig in my current silicone tail was an all-adults neighborhood pool party,” Edwards recalls. “I remember a man trying to pick me up for a picture … literally. I’m not a small man in human form, and I’m wearing a 40 pound costume that is currently full of water… You do the math!”
Though readily accepted at most events, and is even greeted with oohs and ahhs, “Merman Lir” has been blatantly denied entry to events at times. Laura Watson, owner of The MerFriends, has enforced her inclusion policy with clients time and again. The MerFriends were contracted to do a major event for a certain Broadway show that came into town, and part of the contract included the photos, names and descriptions of each performer that would appear in the theater’s lobby during pre-show and intermission. Everything was signed off and Merman Lir was scheduled along with our mermaids.
“We got to the gig and the organization’s [then-president] took one look at the merman and said ‘no,’” Watson says. “He said, ‘It would not be appropriate for their conservative patrons.’ Mind you, there’s a merman in the show all these people bought tickets to see, but one taking photos with patrons was too much? It felt like a slap in the face and we threatened to leave if he was excluded based on his gender.” They’ve had other situations where clients have doubted a merman would fit in, “but by the time they see their guests’ reactions, it’s proof enough that mermen belong in the entertainment business, too.”
For Edwards, it was an eye-opening brush with a kind of discrimination he has rarely encountered.
“I was hurt and angry about that — something I admit that a white, cisgender man doesn’t experience often,” he says. “They loved half-naked females around their kids but what about the boys? That sends a clear message to little boys that this magical world is not for them. It’s for their sisters and their moms and their cousins but they are not welcome. I have never had a negative reaction from a child. They don’t see gender as a strict division unless they are told to. They want to give you a hug or touch your fins; they want to know what you eat for breakfast everyday.”
Only adults worry about bigger issues of gender or sexuality, he finds. This discrimination stems from generations of strict gender roles, where girls are encouraged in ethereal fantasy play and boys into destructive violence.
“Boys, young and old, deserve a little magic and pretend in their lives,” Edwards says. “From an early age, little boys are only encouraged to play ‘masculine’ roles when they pretend: cowboy, policeman, soldier, etc. This is an unsung gender exclusion to our children. Playing dress-up as more magical or make-believe beings isn’t un-masculine and really has nothing to do with gender or sexuality. It’s just good fun.”
As it turns out, this Texas merman is part of a whole team of merfolk, pirates, and fairy characters who can turn up to make any event just a little more mer-mazing.
— Jonanna Widner
For more information or to book an event, visit TheMerFriends.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 15, 2017.