Photographs by Oded Balilty/AP
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN
Ever since she was 6 years old, Shir Katzenell wanted to be a mermaid.
It started when she saw the Disney film “The Little Mermaid.” She and her friends would swim in the pool pretending to be just like the title character, Ariel.
“They grew up and grew out of it,” Katzenell said. “And I didn't.”
Katzenell became an adult. She got married and had two boys. She earned a master’s degree in sociology, and she served in the Israeli army.
But she has never let go of her childhood fantasy.
In 2010, with the help of her brother, Katzenell made her own mermaid tail from scratch and went out to the Red Sea to try it out.
“It was such a huge dream come true,” she said. “It was incredible.”
They filmed a video of her swimming with her tail and lip-synching “Part of Your World,” one of the songs from the Disney movie. It went viral. Media outlets interviewed her about it, and even the composer from “The Little Mermaid” sent her a message saying he liked it.
Her life changed, however, when she was called by Sita Lange, a woman who was hosting a mermaid convention in Las Vegas that year. Lange informed Katzenell that her video had won best mermaid video for 2011.
Wait a minute, Katzenell thought: There are other mermaids out there?
“I had no idea,” she said. “I thought I was the only crazy person who wanted to swim like Ariel for real. And when she contacted me, I learned that I am not alone in the world. … It was a beautiful discovery for me, to know that I'm a part of something big.”
“Mermaiding” is a growing subculture in many countries around the world. There are mermaid conventions, mermaid pageants, mermaid performances. There are even mermaid classes where you can sign up and give it a try for yourself.
Some mermaids make their own tails like Katzenell did at first, but there are also elaborate tails online that sell for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Katzenell has 20 of them.
In 2016 Katzenell became a “professional mermaid,” starting what she said is Israel’s very first mermaid business. She sets groups up with their own mermaid tails and teaches them how to swim in them. She hosts birthday parties and bachelorette parties. They have photo shoots in and out of the pool.
“I got this revelation that, oh my God, if I had so much fun swimming in a tail when I was 26, I'm sure that there are other people in Israel and girls and kids that would love it,” she said.
She and a friend, Michelle Koretzky, also set up a Facebook group for other mermaid enthusiasts in Israel. They had their first gathering in July, and they try to meet as much as they can when the weather is nice. In the winter, they try to reserve time together at local pools.
As the community in Israel has grown, so has its exposure. The group was recently approached by Oded Balilty, a photographer with the Associated Press who wanted to take portraits of some mermaids. But he didn’t want to take them near water.
“I chose to photograph them in their homes because the personal environment can tell us a lot about the person,” said Balilty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. “I thought that would be the best place. They meet more online, on Facebook and social media, than actually in the water, so it felt more natural.”
He met with each mermaid beforehand to get to know them and decide how best to highlight their personality.
“What Oded wanted to show is that we are very much normal people with normal lives,” Katzenell said. “We have kids, we have pets, we have hobbies, we have jobs and we also enjoy mermaiding. And that is a concept I love so much.”
She wants to erase any stigma that fellow mermaids might face, and she hopes that others will be willing to come forward and take part in the fun once they see these photos.
“Some people put a crown on. Some people put on a special mermaid shell top. Some people just wore a T-shirt or wore nothing,” Katzenell said. “And that's the thing: You don't have to be a certain thing to be doing mermaiding. You can be yourself completely.
“You don't have to be thin. You don't have to be a girl. You don't have to be extravagant. You can just be yourself. And that is the main message of who we are and what we want to portray.”