What do you do when you have a lifelong love of whimsical creatures like mermaids, unicorns and fairies?
If you’re Venessa Lewis, you have a custom silicone mermaid tail made for you by the same costumer who created one for Lady Gaga.
Then, after taking it for a swim at your gym’s pool, leading to appearance requests and news stories by local media and national news channels, you turn that passion into a full-blown business and second career.
Lewis, who has worked for more than two decades in marketing, public relations and graphic design and who teaches visual communication at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, takes her role as the Louisiana Mermaid seriously. After all, who wouldn’t love bringing joy and a bit of magic to kids and parents?
I talked to Lewis about riding the waves of whatever crosses your path, and the role of imagination and fantasy in marketing and creating event experiences.
Where did the idea for the Louisiana Mermaid come from?
A couple of years ago I was looking online for literature about mermaids and stumbled across a costumer in Florida who made silicone mermaid tails — including Lady Gaga’s. I thought, "how cool would it be to slip that on and swim?"
I had no intention of entertaining anybody with my tail. It was for my own personal recreation. I just wanted the experience of swimming as this character that I've always been fascinated with.
I gave my measurements and the costumer created my first silicone tail. But one slight problem — I don't have a pool. I could only swim with the tail at my local gym pool. The first time I swam with it, everyone’s jaws dropped. They had never seen anything like it! And when I wore it to a water park it caused so much chaos security was called.
I began getting requests to swim publicly and set up a Facebook page for people to find out where I was swimming. A friend of mine also sent a picture of me to the local media. Within a week three local TV stations ran stories on “The Louisiana Mermaid” making surprise appearances in local pools. Suddenly I had a huge Facebook following and my story was picked up by over 40 NBC affiliates nationwide. The story went as far as Alaska, Hawaii and even the United Kingdom.
I started getting calls, asking if I did parties. I never thought I'd wind up doing this, but it was just something that fell into my path. I couldn’t be more thankful for it.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by the idea of meeting a “real-life” mermaid?
There's been a resurgence of children and adults wanting to participate in fantasy. It started with “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings,” and continued to grow as cosplay has become more mainstream.
I think both kids and adults alike are drawn to escaping everyday life and embodying a fantasy other than the norm.
You haven’t stopped with mermaids. How did you come up with the idea for your newest character?
If you go to any store now, there are entire sections dedicated to mermaids and unicorns. Obviously, we’ve always had mermaids, but we never had anything unicorn-themed. We watched the nationwide trends and decided to put our own twist on it.
I say the Unicorn Princess is born from the imaginations of our team. She is our first-ever completely custom, original character. We had a rainbow-colored dress made and found a colored wig to match it. I created her headpiece myself.
The biggest challenge was coming up with a story. Other fantasy characters come with a ready-made story that the kids know. The challenge was that kids don't know this character.
We took inspiration from a children's book called “Uni the Unicorn.” It’s about believing in yourself, confidence and friendship. I loved the messages in that, so we built our character’s story around that.
Your core business is hosting character birthday parties and balls. How do you make those experiences a success?
We have a high attention to detail around the design of these events. For example, I’ll never cast a group of characters together with just blue and purple dresses. It’s more appealing to have a spectrum of the rainbow. The event photography looks much more appealing, and parents seem to respond better. We’re even particular about the fonts we use in our visuals. We don’t use fonts that are blocky or modern — we choose royal and elegant-feeling fonts.
Another one of the biggest things we do, which is really simple, is talk with our customers. Of course we handle any issues that come up. But we also issue surveys, send out emails, create and post content online — especially pretty pictures — to stay engaged with our customers.
For us the online experience is a snapshot of what they’re going to get. It’s important we maintain that theme-park-style quality in everything we do — from the costumes, wigs and makeup to the performers’ interactions with guests.
Mermaids have long captured the attention of young and old. Thanks to Lewis’ great advice, B2B marketers can tap into a bit of their magic, too.
Sign up for the newsletter to get all the latest updates from Managing Editor.