- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The children swarmed the mermaid in the shallow water, poking her scales and touching her silver-and-orange tail.

Their faces reflecting amazement, they fired questions at Katelyn Quaranta-Renz:

Are you real?

How do you breathe underwater?

Do you know Ariel?

During the recent two-hour stint on a steamy Saturday at Life Time Fitness in Dublin, the mermaid smiled as she patiently answered every query:

Yes, she is real.

She lives near the surface to allow her to come up and breathe - like a dolphin.

And, yes, she knows Ariel (the character from the Disney movie The Little Mermaid). She visits her in Florida.

The children, mostly young girls, were transfixed.

“I’ve never seen a real-life mermaid,” said 5-year-old Ronnie Eizenberg of Powell.

What they didn’t see was Quaranta-Renz donning the 30-pound silicone suit and tail that transform the Upper Arlington resident from a 24-year-old college student and restaurant employee into a mythical ocean-dwelling creature.

For the past five years, she has performed at pool parties and story times, in venues such as the Newport (Ky.) Aquarium and at Renaissance festivals in Ohio and Michigan.

She is paid ($150 for the Life Time Fitness gig), but the side job has yet to yield enough money to cover the $1,800 cost of the tail - made by a “mertailor” in Oregon.

Her motivation is less about money and more about the sparkling eyes of the children.

“That’s why I do it,” she said. “There are families who can’t go to Disney; they can’t go to Florida. They shouldn’t have to go to Disney World to get that kind of magic in their lives, right?”

Quaranta-Renz isn’t even the only professional mermaid in town - or elsewhere.

The “mer community,” as it is known, numbers an estimated 2,000 in the United States, according to Chris Chandler, who helps organize the annual NC Merfest convention in Cary, N.C.

In central Ohio, Rebecca MacKay, 34, sometimes performs as a mermaid - as part of the business, the MacKay Pirate Family, that she runs with her husband, Jeff, out of Newark.

“The first time I put on the tail, it was the most amazing experience ever,” MacKay said. “The kids thought I was real, and it was just so magical. I said, ‘I want to do this.’”

Quaranta-Renz became interested in the work as a teenager, thanks to a YouTube video of the mermaid performances at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida.

Since 1947, the park near Spring Hill, about 35 miles north of Tampa, has lured tourists with its mermaid shows and other attractions.

Quaranta-Renz, already drawn to marine biology, began researching how to make or buy a tail.

She obtained her scuba-diving certification and started to practice holding her breath underwater for more than a minute - a must for all serious mermaids.

She landed her first public appearance in 2010, at age 19, at the Newport Aquarium, where she dived into a tank full of sharks, sea turtles and other creatures as part of a venue promotion.

“That was a defining moment,” she said.

Those who pursue such a pastime have grown accustomed to strange reactions.

Chandler of the Merfest, in particular, deals with them as one of the few males, called mermen, who put on a tail - which he does for “fun and exercise,” not for money.

“Oh, yeah, I get it all the time when I tell people what I do,” said the 42-year-old, an information-technology engineer.

“They turn their head like ‘Huh?’”

Such a response doesn’t faze him, though.

“I have friends who are sword swallowers or who do live-action role-playing with swords,” he said, “so I don’t think swimming around with a silicone tail is anything that unusual.”

Peter McCann, a Marysville resident who has dated Quaranta-Renz for about 18 months, supports her interest and often accompanies her to events.

At Life Time Fitness, he carried her to and from the pool.

“I’ve always been kind of a nerd, so it really wasn’t that strange to me,” he said. “I love her, and that’s what she likes.

“It certainly is a conversation starter, though - or a stopper.”

Quaranta-Renz, who is enrolled at Columbus State Community College, hopes to transfer to a four-year school and major in marketing.

She envisions someday working in marketing for an animal-related business, such as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Yet she doesn’t plan to give up her mermaid character anytime soon, mainly because of the spellbound looks on the young faces at her appearances.

“We didn’t know she was going to be here today, but what a great surprise,” said Shannon Eizenberg, whose daughters, Ronnie and 3-year-old Annie, were among those crowded around Quaranta-Renz.

“They enjoy the magic.”

___

Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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