• Adam Valentine is Melbourne's gay merman (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Adam Valentine received his first mermaid tail at the age of three. Now 29, it's a tradition that's led to his mythological status as the "gay merman" of Melbourne.
Benjamin Riley

28 Oct 2015 - 9:19 AM  UPDATED 28 Oct 2015 - 9:19 AM

Gay men in Melbourne know the merman by reputation.

During the warmer months, he can be spotted swimming at his local public pool in Fitzroy. The tail is basically a large flipper he can strap his feet into, with a spandex covering he can pull up to around his waist. It’s surprisingly hydrodynamic—videos show him propelling himself through the water at speed with a kind of undulating dolphin kick.

Those action shots accompany numerous pictures on his social media accounts of the merman in a more relaxed state. Usually he’s lounging in the sun at a swimming pool, half in the water and half out. He smiles for the camera.

Adam Valentine is a 29-year-old PR account manager living in Melbourne’s inner north, and he’s Melbourne’s gay merman.

A couple of years ago, Valentine’s sister suspiciously asked him for his shoe size. On his birthday, she revealed a wearable, blue mermaid tail. The following birthday he received another tail—this time in green—and it’s something he now hopes will become an annual tradition.

The collection didn’t start in adulthood though—Valentine’s very first mermaid tail was handmade by his mum in 1989 when he was just three years old.

Valentine grew up in a suburb of Newcastle, the youngest of four.

“My mum took me to see The Little Mermaid, and I think on a base psychological level I really identified with wanting to get out of the ocean to somewhere better,” he explains.

Even then, Valentine saw himself in Ariel, the animated Disney classic’s iconic, red-haired mermaid protagonist who dreams of leaving the sea to walk on land.

“I begged my mum to make me a mermaid tail, so she made me this horrible, maroon-brown tail that was just like a fabric sock that actually absorbed lots of water,” he says.

Valentine remembers wearing the homemade tail in their backyard pool for the first time, complete with egg-cup bra in lieu of Ariel’s famous modesty-seashells.

The rather pointed metaphor of a big merman in the small pond of Newcastle aside, Ariel was a way for Valentine to embrace and explore femininity.

“Little kids were amazed by it, people wanted to try it on, or they just liked stopping and looking and taking photos or whatever."

He says his parents joke that they knew Valentine was gay from the time he was a baby—he was apparently an “affectionate” child, and it wasn’t long before he began to understand how being different could get him into trouble.

“The reason I stopped wearing the tail in the pool was because I was ashamed,” Valentine says.

“It just didn’t feel good after a while.”

Like a lot of young gay men, Valentine learned through ridicule and bullying to hide the parts of himself that attracted unwanted attention. He kept his mouth shut at school about most of his interests and survived until puberty’s perfunctory reveal of his sexuality prompted a fairly painless coming out to his parents.

In his final years of high school, things began to change when Valentine received a scholarship to a local arts college. The move was a turning point not only in the safety it offered a young gay man, but the opportunity it gave a die-hard Ariel fan to share his love with the world via a presentation for English on his favourite film.

“No one blinked an eye,” he recalls.

“I thought, ‘great I can actually talk about this and be myself’.”

After high school Valentine fled Newcastle at the first opportunity, and at university in Sydney gained a reputation as the guy who was really, really into The Little Mermaid. He’d watch it whenever he was hungover, he’d talk about it constantly—by the time his siblings bought him the wearable tail he was already receiving Ariel paraphernalia regularly from enthusiastic friends.

The first time he wore the tail to Fitzroy Swimming Pool the reaction was immediate, but positive.

“Little kids were amazed by it, people wanted to try it on, or they just liked stopping and looking and taking photos or whatever,” Valentine says, admitting: “It’s very attention-seeking.”

And he is certainly noticed. Plenty of gay men in Fitzroy and beyond have heard of Valentine, or “the merman”, even if they haven’t met him. He openly admits that’s a big part of what wearing the tail is about: ‘slutty merman’ is a pretty good ice breaker.

Browsing the forums for his local area on a gay hook-up site, Valentine came across a thread discussing whether anyone had slept with “the merman” yet.

Valentine read on: “Underneath that, someone had written, ‘ah yeah, my boyfriend [had sex with him] and he said he was really dull’.

“All these people rushed in to defend my honour. They were like, ‘that man is anything but dull’. They came to my rescue anonymously.”

The answer to the question posed by the gay forum thread, and asked less publicly by perhaps every gay man who’s come across the merman: he hasn’t had sex while wearing the tail. At least, not yet—there have been requests.

“Mermaids themselves were very sexual, in mythology—as sirens, they were beautiful, they lured people. So I think there’s a mystique as well.”

For Valentine, the tail’s connection to sex is a little more oblique.

“Because it’s attention seeking and makes you powerful, I think that’s tied to sex,” he explains.

“Mermaids themselves were very sexual, in mythology—as sirens, they were beautiful, they lured people. So I think there’s a mystique as well.”

While Valentine certainly revels in the attention the tail brings, social and sexual, it’s never long before he brings the conversation back to what it feels like to wear it in the pool. He’s a small guy, compact, and while he’s always been a strong swimmer, as the merman he’s faster, more powerful.

Valentine recently looked into more expensive tails made from silicone, but quickly realised he’d have to sacrifice utility for style.

“The tail that I have now, it’s really hydrodynamic so you can swim very fast and very easily in it,” he explains.

“And I think a tail should add. It should enhance rather than detract. It shouldn’t be all about looks, it should be about movement, about swimming faster.”

Valentine goes calm for a moment as he describes how he feels in the water, how he’s felt in the water since he was a kid. He’s suddenly miles away from the guy who poses for the crowds at Fitzroy Swimming Pool as he recalls swimming in the pool at the family home in Newcastle.

“Sometimes I would just sit in my pool and float upside-down with my head under the water for minutes at a time,” he says.

“It’s really meditative, being underwater and having water all around you. All the sound stops—even though water amplifies sound, it’s quiet in a backyard pool when no one else is in it.”

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