42nd annual Coney Island Mermaid parade provides an ‘antidote to despair’ with color and glitter galore

mermaid parade
The 42nd annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade kicked off on Surf Avenue on Saturday.
Photo by Erica Price

Scores of colorful mermaids and sea creatures braved scorching heat and a summer storm on Saturday for the 42nd annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade. 

The parade bills itself as the largest art parade in the U.S., and an homage to the nabe’s wacky past and present. 

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Mermaid Parade royalty Whitney Ward and Joe Coleman. Photo by Erica Price
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The Fogo Azul Marching band was one of several bands to partake in the parade. Photo by Erica Price

Decked out in glitter and tentacles, Mermaid Queen and Neptune King Joe Coleman led the procession of marching bands, floats, and nautical homemade costumes and puppets down Surf Avenue and onto the boardwalk. 

Hurrying to catch up to the parade in body paint and high heels was Paris Alexander, an artist and drag performer who had slept through their alarm and raced to get to Coney Island from their home in Bushwick.

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Paris Alexander, dressed as the sun, posed after the Mermaid Parade. Photo by Erica Price

Paris was dressed as the sun, they said, in a golden feathered headdress designed by their friend Darrell Thorne, thigh-high heels, and plenty of shimmering paint. 

It was Paris’ first time marching in the parade, and only their second time attending. The boardwalk presented a challenge for their high heels, which kept getting caught and tripping him up — requiring some Willy Wonka-esque tricks as they righted themselves and turned the stumble into a dance move. 

Some of Paris’ friends attend the parade every year, they said, which moved them to try it out last weekend. It reminded them of the Pride parades they used to attend in Vermont and Arizona.

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Attendees said the parade has maintained its authenticity. Photo by Erica Price
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Dozens of floats sailed down the route. Photo by Erica Price

“There’s something about, like, weirdo parades, where somehow it’s always like the same one,” they said. “It doesn’t matter what the looks are, or where it is … I don’t know how to describe the feeling. It’s cheesy to say I felt like I belonged, but I really did.” 

Jan Aiello, her son Dave, and her husband Mike took part in the parade with a pair of homemade, seemingly odd-couple puppets: a mermaid and Godzilla.

But, the former Bensonhurst resident said, they make sense together. The mermaid is really the Ondine, a spirit they created as a guardian of the “healthy Hudson River.” 

mermaid parade puppet
Mother and son Dave and Jan Aiello pose with their mermaid puppet. Photo by Erica Price

Godzilla, she said, is “also an environmental feature … he’s a cautionary tale for anti-nuclear weapons.” (Godzilla, who was finished only a few days before the parade, was already headed back to the car with Aiello’s husband when Brooklyn Paper caught up with her on Saturday.)

Though the blistering heat caused Aiello’s flip-flops to melt and stick to the hot pavement, she said the parade was “the antidote to that 21st century despair.”

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A cardboard anglerfish gets to know a young parade guest .Photo by Erica Price

“I see that whole panoply of human beings, all ages, interacting in that immediate moment, face-to-face, it feeds you, it just feeds your whole psyche,” she said. “…it’s this environment where people can safely just be together, be joyous, be inventive. It’s all good, it’s all good.”

Swimming among the vast parade ecosystem of fish and merpeople were the Pleiades Puppets, headed up by Deb Roth.

Roth, a Bay Ridge lawyer who picked up puppetry after a long break in 2019 and dove headfirst into the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, decided to go “full throttle” at the Mermaid Parade in 2022. 

pleiades puppets mermaid parade
The Pleiades Puppets. Photo by Erica Price

She and the Pleiades Puppets have been there every year since, a group of about 15 people working together in a “huge collaboration.”

Their theme this year was “Fishing for Compliments,” and the centerpiece of their contingent were four “monsters” in colorful outfits created with tulle, chicken wire, and plastic. It took Roth and her crew about six months to finish the outfits and their puppeteered fish, she said.

“It was fantastic,” she said of the parade. “We were all suffering and hot, but I think the thing that brings me the most joy is not only the people loving it … but I didn’t realize when I started working with a bunch of other people that it was so meaningful to them to be able to participate in something like this.”

Mermaid getting ready for parade
A mermaid prepares for the parade. Photo by Erica Price
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A group of hammerhead sharks and mermaids swam the parade together. Photo by Erica Price

The crew were “beside themselves with excitement,” Roth said. They’ll be back next year with a new theme — last year was “Reefer Madness.” She said she’s grateful to Coney Island USA for hosting the parade and allowing people to strut their stuff and show off their work without shame. 

“Before I became a lawyer, I was a painter-printmaker,” she said. “I think it sounds cliché, but the whole COVID situation got me re-thinking about what I wanted to do.” 

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Miss Gefilte Fish cooled off on the boardwalk. Photo by Erica Price
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A group of fish and merpeople approach the end of the route. Photo by Erica Price

After the parade, there’s an annual ceremony on the beach, where participants throw fruit into the sea as an offering and celebrate the official (but unofficial) start to summer.

When he got to the end of the route, Alexander said they were given a bunch of grapes to toss into the waves. The ceremony and magic of the Mermaid Parade is part of what drew them to participate, they said.

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Dick Zigun celebrated the official start of summer on the beach after the parade. Photo by Erica Price

“There are a lot of things in New York that are a little inauthentic, kind of like the Pride Parade,” Paris said. “But there are still these underpinnings of community marches that I think still maintain some kind of meaning and authenticity. Even though the Mermaid Parade was full of tourists and families … there’s still all of these freaks who are walking down Coney Island.”