There’s an old sea dog strolling the pathways that meander along the Ahuriri foreshore in Napier. Briefly, he finds respite from the heat in the shade of a lighthouse and as he takes in the view, his gaze falls upon a mermaid sunning herself on the rocks.
He does a double take, chuckles and shakes his head in disbelief. Has he ever seen a mermaid before? “Not this close up,” he laughs. For Ashley Knight, this reaction is pretty typical.
Known to children across New Zealand as the Mermaid Lady, Ashley delights those she meets with her huge smile, long blonde locks and impressive tail. “It’s over 20kg dry and 34kg wet,” she tells, which may well account for the great shape she’s in. “It helps work my abs and thighs. It’s definitely heavier than the one I was born with.”
Ashley, who doesn’t use human age – “Mermaids live 1000 years and I’m 203,” she insists – resides in Hamilton, but was born in the UK and raised in the US. She’s currently in Napier to entertain the screeds of kids and their mer-curious parents who come to the National Aquarium of New Zealand each year to witness a real mermaid swimming alongside stingrays, kingfish and sharks.
“Children are so thoughtful and they often bring me sweet little gifts,” says Ashley, who’s also a youth-fiction author. “Sometimes it’s a drawing, other times a seashell they found and thought I’d like. I treasure them all!”
Ashley was just a kid herself when her fascination with the mer-world began. “I was six years old and watched Splash,” she recalls. “I was completely enchanted by Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character, so I decided then and there to become one. From that point on, I swam with my legs bound together. I’d use a T-shirt as a makeshift tail by slipping the neck opening around my waist!”
Now she can swim “for ages” using her tail for momentum. When we meet for our photo shoot, Ashley – a former model – arranges herself into a variety of stunning poses before sliding off the rocks and into the ocean for a swim.
Onlookers snap pictures as Ashley weaves through the waves, looking like she’s just emerged from Atlantis. It’s a world away from Idaho, where she met and married husband Greg. “He’s my soulmate,” says Ashley.
“I'd actually dreamed about him since I was a little girl. I was completely in love with this imagined man and then one day I turned around in a bar and found myself face to face with him!”
Now the loved-up pair have two daughters – Emma, 12, and Belle, seven – and are in the process of adding a 15-year-old girl named Deija to their family via adoption. It’s a lot to manage, but there’s excellent support in the mer-network, which extends to every continent on the planet, says Ashley.
“There are mers in every shape and colour, and so many lovely people who share my passion. Some of us live the mer-code, which means going out and swimming in the tail for fun, not just for parties or business.
“We adhere to the notion that we have a certain level of accountability to be responsible, and treat others with kindness and love. “Many other mers simply enjoy attending the odd mermaid convention and the company of like-minded people. They seem to be drawn to the mysticism of the mer-life and the fact they will be accepted.”
Ashley says being accepted is something she’s struggled with. She uses mermaiding as a platform to speak out against bullying, something she experienced from the age of about seven until she started university.
“People have threatened to cut my hair off,” she tells. “I’ve been thrown to the ground and had someone put his foot on the back of my neck. I was shoved into lockers, teased for being too skinny, had my pants pulled down, been felt up ... The list is endless.
“I was young for my class so the other kids were much older than me. I was always the smallest and that made me an easy target. My parents always explained that the other kids were just jealous, but I could never understand what they were jealous of! It turned me very hard and I eventually learned to defend myself. I don’t tolerate any form of bullying any more.”
She’s also passionate about conservation, recycling, and human and animal rights. And while the children at the aquarium are always sure to inquire about those topical issues, it’s another question she can guarantee she’ll always be asked.
“They ask what I eat!” she laughs. “I know they expect me to say fish, but I do try to tell the truth as much as possible, so they are pretty shocked when I say Indian food is my favourite!”