PINELLAS PARK — The dive shop could have been mistaken for the set of a reality show. The cast included 11 aspiring performers. The costume was a fin. The stage was underwater. The judges were ready.
"You have to be the Simon Cowell," Linda Hines said to Eric Duch-arme, as they prepared to tell 10 hopeful mermaids and one hopeful merman whether they made the cut for Ducharme's underwater show The Night at the Aquarium.
Ducharme, 20, chose his cast after a nearly three-hour underwater audition Thursday at the Tackle Shack, a diving and water sports shop in Pinellas Park. Ducharme, owner and founder of Mertailor, which creates and sells cus-tom fins, described the show as a "Broadway musical with showgirl spice." He said the show will involve mermaids and mermen performing ballet and other dance poses underwater, synchronized to Hines' singing voice in the background.
"We want to take an aquarium and turn it into a Broadway stage," Ducharme said.
As a former underwater performer at Weeki Wachee Springs, Ducharme knows what he is looking for in a mermaid.
"Try to stay as still as possible," Ducharme instructed the contestants.
The contestants approached the 10-foot deep end of the pool in groups of three while Ducharme observed underwater. Katie Rose, 25, saw an ad for the auditions on Craigslist, and the possibility of performing in Las Vegas brought the former stuntwoman out to audition.
Ducharme said aquariums in Las Vegas and Chicago have shown interest in his show. He wants to train his cast in two or three months (with rehearsals twice a week) so they can be ready to tour or perform locally. Ducharme said performers would be paid for performances but not for rehearsals. He said most of the funding for the show is "out of pocket" or by private investors.
"This show will take off," said Michael Szarzynski, the scuba manager at Tackle Shack, who offered Ducharme a discount rate for his performers to become scuba certified.
At the end, Ducharme and Hines prepared to face the contestants.
"I hate this part," Ducharme said as he prepared to tell a woman she did not make the cut.
Although Bridget Guston, 20, did not make the cast, Ducharme said he might call her for photo shoots.
"You have the mermaid look," Ducharme said to Guston, whose long, wavy blond hair matched her gold bikini.
Ducharme faced some rejection himself in the year it took him to get the show started.
"It's hard for people to recognize his talent because of his age," said Annette Batiste, a photographer who has worked on Duch-arme's mermaid photo shoots for two years.
Ducharme has dreamed of becoming a merman since he was 4 and has owned and operated the Mertailor business since he was 14.
Ducharme's experience is extensive, but the experience of the contestants varied. Many were models and athletes, one was a former Howl-O-Scream actor, one was a pearl diver and others had actual mermaid experience.
"Mermaids hold a special place in my heart," said Sarah K. Calabrese, 26, a redhead who said she played Princess Ariel at Walt Disney World. Calabrese has also been a lifeguard and has dance experience. She was excited when Ducharme told her she made the cut. She said not working with a mechanical tail would be one of the perks.
Another woman excited to make the cut was 21-year-old Shannon Scott, who practiced swimming like a mermaid in her pool when she was a young girl.
As they did with the five other contestants who made Thursday's cut, Ducharme and Hines asked Scott if she could stay awhile longer to practice swimming in the mermaid tails.
"I would love to!" Scott said. Then she hesitated when she remembered that her boyfriend, who drove her, had to get home. In the end, it seemed that nothing could stand in her way of becoming a mermaid.
"If he loves me, he'll wait," she decided.