Until July 2001, Venus Quejada Day, a 1992 graduate of Notre Dame, had a resume that looked like a road map of life in the fast lane. She worked as a computer consultant, traveling everywhere from Puerto Rico to Pierre, South Dakota, from her home in Washington, D.C., while her husband, Ian Day, also a ’92 ND graduate, was in medical school at Georgetown. In her spare time, she competed in beauty pageants. Later she managed the 20-acre ranch she and Ian bought when they moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, for his medical residency.
Then came that odd detour: Day added “mermaid” to her extensive resume.
Over the past 18 months, Day has donned a prosthetic mermaid tail to make hundreds of public appearances as a mermaid. Many of these have been at Give Kids the World, a resort in central Florida for sick or terminally ill children. She appeared there once every other week last fall. Since mermaids don’t walk, Day would be carried out to the pool in costume, then rolled into the water for her grand entrance.
“I swim around and do a roll or some type of trick and then proceed to swim underwater around the perimeter of the pool. Then I start to hold the children and help them float or just hug them and take pictures with them,” she says. “We swim together holding hands. I massage the legs of those in wheelchairs who can’t come out all the way by themselves.”
Day’s evolution into a mermaid wasn’t planned. After she and Ian moved to Daytona Beach, she started her own consulting firm, Evening Star Research, and won numerous pageant titles, including Ms. Central Florida and Mrs. Florida American Achievement. Then a car accident in July 2001 left her unable to walk due to extensive joint and ligament injuries.
To regain her mobility, Day took up swimming under the direction of her husband, a family-practice physician. “I couldn’t use my arms, I couldn’t use my legs, and the first step [in physical therapy] is to strengthen your back because if that’s not strong you can’t really do anything,” says Day. “Ian taught me how to undulate in the water—like a dolphin—and that’s what I spent all my time doing.”
Eventually the intense therapy in the pool paid off. Day made a full recovery, with the added bonus of now being able to hold her breath underwater for 2½ minutes at a time.
September 11 fell just as Day was recovering full use of her limbs. The combination of the terrorist attacks and her own physical rehabilitation caused her to re-evaluate her priorities. “I thought, ‘I need to focus more on people and on getting in touch with them,’” says Day. “I had donated to charities, but I had never actually done anything, which is so much more valuable—a hug is worth $100.”
Combining her pageant experience and new aquatic abilities, Day came up with the idea of posing as a mermaid as part of community outreach. She even added it to her pageant “platform,” a statement of what a contestant would do if crowned.
She then called Thom “The Tailman” Shouse, a special-effects artist who developed the prosthetic mermaid tails used in the film Splash. “I had a tail being made already, but when I looked at some of the Splash material on the Internet and television, I decided to call Thom out of the blue,” Day says.
Shouse wanted to showcase his work at a vendor’s convention for amusement parks in Orlando, so he agreed to meet Day and let her try the tail out.
“She sat on a rock in a mermaid’s tail for eight hours without a break or anything,” he says. “She was so amazing—people would walk by, and she’d strike up a conversation with them. She just has such a personality and a way about her that people are drawn to her.”
The two began doing appearances at Marineland and parades around Florida. In the end, Shouse left Day the fin he had created for her. “She’s very inspiring and supportive,” he says. “I mean, I left a $15,000 tail with her—I trust her implicitly.”
This summer Day’s plans are, as always, varied. She continues to work part time as a computer consultant, doing mostly research work for clients, and she also coaches other young women in pageants. As the reigning Miss America Worldwide 2003, she does a great deal of charity work, appearing at local hospices and, of course, swimming with young children in mermaid form. She will also compete for the title of Miss Global Worldwide in October 2003. (The Worldwide pageants emphasize talent and achievement over looks.)
“The power of getting them [the children] out of reality for just a little while so they can forget about their pain and also to show them that there’s a little magic in life is incredible,” Day says of her appearances at Give Kids the World. “It makes me grounded. . . . It’s a blessing to work with them”
Kristin Kramer, a member of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program, currently teaches seventh and eighth grade in Jacksonville, Florida.