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Mermaid makes a splash in Duluth hotel's pool

Jessica Benson, of Duluth, as a mermaid named Ayla, answers questions from an Edina girls hockey team as she rests on the edge of the pool at the Radisson Hotel Duluth on Friday afternoon. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn. - The fish-shaped woman propelled herself from end to end of the swimming pool with the help of a purple-tinted monofin. She paused mid-pool to flip head over tail.

By land she's Jessica Benson, a 19-year-old with an eye toward the entertainment industry. By water, she's Ayla the Mermaid testing a $3,000 custom-made tail of scalloped silicone during down hours at the Radisson Hotel's pool.

Benson is a mermaid-for-hire, available for birthday parties and corporate or community events. She can work on land -- reading stories, leading crafts -- or in water, circling guests and flicking her tail.

She's still waiting for her first gig.

"I thought, it's such a nautical place," she said. "I can be a mermaid as a hobby and make kids smile and believe in magic."

Benson doesn't have any of the usual mermaid influences. A scene from "The Little Mermaid" when Ariel gets stabbed in the stomach was more disturbing than inspiring for her. And Benson has never seen the 1984 film "Splash," starring Daryl Hannah as the mermaid of Tom Hanks' dreams.

For Benson, it all started with a Clorox commercial starring the mythical sea creature.

"That's what got me thinking about mermaids," she said.

In her research, Benson discovered a network of people from around the world talking shop: How to make a fin, where to buy a fin, conferences, conventions and "mers" in the news. She found a Florida-based fin-maker who uses 100 percent Dragon Skin silicone, the same that is used for making prosthetics. The custom-made piece starts at her waist and tapers toward her feet before blooming into the tail.

"It has a monofin in the tail like free divers use," Benson said. "It propels me. Otherwise, it's just undulation through the water."

Benson practices swimming with a fin at the Radisson Hotel pool, an agreement she made with general manager Jeff Briner.

"It's good promotion for her and for us," he said. "I don't think any other hotels in Duluth have a mermaid. It's been entertaining for us and entertaining for the kids."

Last week, Benson attracted the attention of girls' hockey players in town for a tournament.

She swam the length of the pool wearing her purplish fin, a seaweed-style belt and a bikini top. She held on to the side of the pool and let her fin float up behind her. She settled into a mermaid pose at the side of the pool and let curious kids touch the tail.

Bunches of kids gathered around her, and some snapped photos.

"I think it would be uncomfortable," said Mya Braun, an 11-year-old from Shakopee, Minn. "Your legs are squished together."

This summer, between gigs, Benson plans to flop around on the edge of Lake Superior and hang out on the rocks.