Linden Wolbert is a mermaid. No, really, she is. Almost. She can hold her breath for over five minutes while diving 115 feet below the surface of the ocean.
"I think I'm a little bit crazy," laughed the 36-year-old Californian.
Over the last decade, Wolbert proved skeptics wrong and turned a love of the ocean into a growing fortune. "People always ask, 'How do you make money as a mermaid?'"
The answer: Lots of hard work.
"Mermaid Linden" is a character Wolbert created in 2006. "I never thought it could happen, but magic took over." She grew up in Pennsylvania Amish country watching Jacques Cousteau specials on TV and repeatedly rewinding a VHS copy of Disney's "The Little Mermaid." She dreamed that one day, she would be under the sea.
Wolbert eventually ended up in California and became a scuba diver. "I cried the first time I scuba dived in a kelp forest here off the coast, because I couldn't believe it was actually happening," she said. "I was there."
Then she became familiar with the sport of free diving, where swimmers hold their breath for long periods of time and dive for depth and distance. She noticed competitors were wearing "monofins," fishtail-like products on their feet to move through the water quickly. "As soon as I tried one on, I knew that I was a mermaid," Wolbert said.
Bored at her desk job, Wolbert couldn't stop thinking about the sea. So she quit. "I thought, 'I can't sit in this office anymore. I have to be under the water. I need to be sharing this passion.'"
She had studied film in college, and so Wolbert decided to make educational videos for children about the ocean. She figured one way to do that effectively was to appear as a mermaid.
In her mid-20s and living over her parents' garage, Wolbert dove in, scraping together $25,000 to create her first tail, which took seven months to make. "It was extremely challenging," she said. "How was it going to work? Is it going to be hydrodynamic? Is it going to fit properly? Is it going to look realistic? Is it going to be resilient?" She'd wake herself up in the middle of the night talking out loud about tails.
Once the tail was finally finished, Wolbert called herself Mermaid Linden and began marketing herself for public events. Her first gig was a Hollywood party. "There were celebrities all around taking pictures with me. That was surreal."
More parties followed, along with educational appearances at aquariums and county fairs. Wolbert said her only mistake was attending a children's charity event at the Playboy mansion. "I was in the grotto," she said, grimacing a bit. "I just kind of smiled and looked out of place."
Through it all, though, loved ones supported her dream. "They would 'kelp' me out," she laughed. Wolbert's conversation is sprinkled with mermaid puns. She calls herself an "entrepremermaid" who last year had "well over 40 merformances," and she also sells "merrrchandise."
Linden now charges up to $6,000 for appearances with sometimes three bookings a day on weekends. She has produced a kids series called "Mermaid Minute" on her YouTube channel, which has over 50,000 subscribers and 36 million views. "I can make up to four figures a month just on my YouTube channel. "
She also uses the channel to highlight charity appearances. One incredible video shows her emerging from Loch Lomond to surprise a little girl who loves mermaids and is dealing with a severe illness. The video has been seen over 17 million times.
Then the business went from guppy to whale when Mermaid Linden ran into Russ Lesser, president of water sports brand Body Glove.
"Of course you can't turn down Linden," said Lesser. The two met while working for a nonprofit called Reef Check. Lesser said they began talking about the popularity of mermaids. For instance, Disney plans to do a live action version of "The Little Mermaid," and a reboot of "Splash" is in the works, this time with Channing Tatum as the mermaid.
"We were just talking about maybe we ought to have a line of mermaid products by Body Glove, " Lesser said.
Three years ago they created monofins for kids carrying the Mermaid Linden logo. Wolbert was stunned. "I had had ideas for products for children, but never dreamed it would come to fruition," she said. "In 2017, it's looking like we're going to exceed $4.5 million in sales."
Wal-Mart will start carrying the products this spring, and up next, monofins for adults. Wolbert is also starting exercise classes using the fins.
Eventually, Mermaid Linden hopes to make enough money in merchandise that she can devote more time to edutainment. However, she knows she can't wear the tail forever. Plus, it's hard work.
Getting into the tail requires lubing up her legs with lotion and putting on socks to protect her feet. The tails are so heavy out of the water, one weighing 47 pounds, that Wolbert needs help getting to the edge of the pool. She can't wear a mask or goggles underwater, "so everything is blurry." And removing the tail requires an assistant. "Mermaiding is painful, but I love it."
It can also be a tad scary. When Mermaid Linden was hired to appear in a video promoting "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel, producers put her into a shark tank. The sharks, however, wouldn't come near her because she was so large — 8-feet-long with the tail. "We actually had to chum the water to get sharks to come in the frame with me," she said. Again, she wore no goggles, so she depended on safety divers to protect her.
"I'll always work; I don't think I could stop," Wolbert said. She hopes to collect enough "sand dollars" from several revenue streams to make her very comfortable.
"There were a lot of skeptics when I began doing this many years ago, and I'm proud to say that many of them have come around and actually apologized for something they never told me, that they thought I was silly," she said. "I guess I've surprised even myself."
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