NEAR TAMPA, FL -- Jenna Conti has swiftly become known for showing up at pools in elaborate mermaid costumes. But how she became the so-called “mermaid of FishHawk” is as much a tale as who the woman herself is, especially after objections raised by some people seem to have been washed over by a sea of well-wishers hoping to catch a glimpse of her themselves.
Concerns she said she got on Facebook, coupled with an order that she leave one neighborhood pool, have not deterred her spirit.
“I love the imaginary world, my husband and I love Disney, we love to make believe, it’s a fun thing,” said Jenna Conti, a FishHawk resident, also known as Eden Sirene, the FishHawk mermaid, who has been spotted at neighborhood pools dressed in a pricey, weighty silicone tail, specially crafted for Conti’s tall and slender frame. “My son is 10 and we’ve always dressed up fully to go the Bay Area Renaissance Festival."
At the festival in January, Conti dressed as Merida the mermaid, from the Disney/Pixar movie Brave, who on May 11 officially became the 11th Disney princess at a celebration in Orlando, at the Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World.
Conti said she spent a good part of the day hanging out at the festival’s archery range, because Merida is an archer, and “so many children came up to me because I was so dressed up, even adults wanted pictures with me.”
But for Conti, the pivotal moment came when she discovered for herself a world of mermaids, from MerBella studios, with “beautiful, full-silicone tails, like mermaid tails.”
“I couldn't take my eyes off of them,” she added. “If I’m so enthralled, and all these people are so enthralled, I thought there’s no way everybody won’t be enthralled by this.”
But that’s where she went wrong, as she learned last week, when she was asked to leave the Aquatic Club at FishHawk Ranch after complaints apparently surfaced about her presence at the pool, dressed in the hand-tailored tail she purchased for herself after her festival attendance in January.
“They turned her away because she had fins,” said realtor Bob Abruszzese, who is the creator and force behind the FishHawk Area Neighborhood Page on Facebook, where the FishHawk mermaid story has been unfolding this month. “There was a rule, no fins at the pool."
Tonight and tomorrow, July 15 and 16, Conti said she has been asked to attend community meetings at the Osprey Club and at the Palmetto Club, respectively, to discuss her mermaid presence. Both meetings are set to start at 7 p.m.
“I’m going to bring my tail, messages of support I have received, and my own team of people, who have supported me,” she said. “I believe at this point it is going to be okay.”
Conti agreed to an interview with Brandon Patch on Sunday, July 14, after which she donned her tail and demonstrated her mermaid swimming talents at the FishHawk Ridge community pool.
There, Sophia Tavarez, a student at Stowers Elementary School, and her mother, Mayra, gave high praise for Conti’s efforts.
“It’s really cool that a mermaid’s in the pool,” Sophia Tavarez said. “Sometimes a lot of things don’t happen in this pool. This is the first time I saw something really cool.”
“I don’t care why she does it,” said Mayra Tavarez.
“It’s harmless and it gives plain joy and curiosity to the little ones
and those are two things we need to foster.”
For Conti, the attacks came after she launched a page on Facebook introducing the community to Eden Sirene, the mermaid of FishHawk.
"There were far more positive than negative comments," she said. "But when it came in negative it didn't come in sort of negative, it came in unbelievably negative. A handful of people said watch your children. Someone even mentioned bring a weapon to the pool. And someone asked me if I had a white van, as in a child kidnapping van."
"I guess I didn't know what to expect," she added. "I've never done anything like this before. I come from a different world beyond this one, because of my career. I don't ever face anyone's hatred. I never saw this coming."
Conti said she works as an independent, full-time hair stylist at the Aquila Salon and Spa in Valrico, and has hopes of advancing herself in a career as a professional mermaid; her goal is to "see beyond the glass" and to "swim with the other mermaids" at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
Not eager to deal with confrontation, Conti said she was ready to give up her mermaid swims in FishHawk, both after the negative comments she received and her dismissal from the Aquatic Club.
But then she received a Facebook message from a girl named Savannah, who was eager to see her swim.
Conti said she agreed to meet the girl at the FishHawk Ridge pool, which is when she said Savannah's grandmother implored her, "Please, you have to change your mind," and instructed her to wait for Abruzzese, who was coming to videotape her for a post on his FishHawk Area Neighborhood Page.
"Bob came in, he shot the video, he took the pictures, and that's when positive feedback started coming in," Conti said.
As of July 15 at 4:30 a.m., Abruzzese's original video and comment — that "Eden the Mermaid" was "very nice" — had garnered 120 likes and 44 comments, all positive. Other posts on the topic since then have garnered their fair share of support as well.
"Forget the haters out there! Me, the kids and certainly the hubby will join her for a swim!" wrote one resident.
"Super cool!!!" added another poster. "Now I want to learn to swim with a tail! I bet it's an awesome workout plus I could recapture a glimmer of my innocent youth by pretending I'm a mermaid."
Said a third poster: "Thanks for posting this! I am pro-mermaid. We could all use a little magic and happiness."
In Conti's world of water, the comments ring true to her own intent, and especially so in a world ripe with challenges.
"Seven years ago I had a brain tumor and was told I wouldn't walk anymore and I couldn't," she said. "I had to re-learn how to walk."
While she aims to run a successful, professional mermaid business, she added that there is more to her passion than that.
"I have a business already that does more than keep me afloat," she said. Being a mermaid, "This is a hobby, this is the fun side, this is the good stuff," she added. "It brings me happiness and it's bringing other people happiness and that's where I'm at right now. We'll see where it goes from here."