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Facts about Coney Island's Mermaid Parade

The Mermaid Parade in Coney Island draws hundreds of thousands of people each year to a seashore extravaganza of wild costumes, nudity and flamboyant artistic spectacle.

The parade has become so well known across the world that it has even inspired the Dutch to throw their own version in a seaside Hague district.

Yet the parade's roots go back to the early 1980s, when Coney Island was a frayed neighborhood of beatdown Brooklyn.

Here are a few little-known facts about the parade that have made it the summertime celebration it is today.

The first Queen Mermaid was a punk rocker named Alison Gordy

For the first parade, in 1983, punk rocker
Photo Credit: Coney Island USA

For the first parade, in 1983, punk rocker Alison Gordy was crowned Queen Mermaid. Gordy attracted some fame in those days as a singer with a band led by Johnny Thunders, formerly of the New York Dolls, and had made appearances on Saturday Night Live. Al Mottola, the head of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club that sponsors icy winter dips in the ocean, was crowned King Neptune.

Over the years, several celebrities have been crowned: Queen Latifah in 1999; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson in 2010; and Dante and Chiara de Blasio in 2014. Dick Zigun, the founder of the parade, said David Byrne wore such a large phony beard that barely anyone recognized him when he was King Neptune in 1998.

Parade organizers had selected the mermaid and Neptune because Coney Island had long been associated with the mythological figures dating back to the 1800s.

A fight for the freedom to go topless

Although topless mermaids had long been associated with
Photo Credit: Getty / Valery Hache

Although topless mermaids had long been associated with the parade, in 2001 an artist named Amy Gunderson got into trouble with police for parading in only a thong and body paint.

Gunderson was detained by a police officer and given a summons on the charges of "exposure of a person" at the 2001 Mermaid Parade.

As her attorney, Ron Kuby, put it recently, the Giuliani administration at the time wanted to make an example out of Gunderson after a New York Post story wrote about her plan to go topless at the parade. Giuliani, Kuby said, even sent his No. 2 to oversee that a lot of officers were watching out for her. "It takes a lot of tough cops to cover tender breasts," he said.

However, given the bawdy fashion of the parade and the People v. Santorelli ruling in 1992 that women have the same rights as men to be topless, a Brooklyn Criminal Court dropped the case.

But Gunderson and civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby sued for false arrest on an equal protection basis. "The civil case turned on the fact that she was arrested for something that was not unlawful," Kuby said. In 2003, Gunderson settled with New York for $10,000.

An elephant once marched in the parade

Not counting people dressed up as octopuses and
Photo Credit: YouTube / Manolo Gamboa

Not counting people dressed up as octopuses and other sea creatures, some actual animals have actually marched in the Mermaid Parade. Mostly, that's meant horses or dogs. But in 2010, an elephant with the Ringling Bros. Circus took to the streets, with a couple on its back and handlers surrounding it. This year, Zigun says parade-goers should expect to see a pack of chihuahuas from an owners' group.

Cars once drove on the boardwalk during the parade

Cars have long played a role in the
Photo Credit: Getty / Mario Tama

Cars have long played a role in the performance that is the Mermaid Parade, whisking bare-chested sea creatures along the route. But, since at least the 1990s, they've been banned by the Parks Department from driving along the Coney Island Boardwalk. This has meant that people only get to see about 60% of the parade if they are standing on the Boardwalk. To catch the full show you'd have to stand on Surf Avenue. Motorcycles are banned from the boardwalk as of 2015.

It wasn't the first Coney Island parade

Long before the Mermaid Parade, there was the
Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Coney Island Mardi Gras parade

Long before the Mermaid Parade, there was the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade, celebrated from 1903 to 1954. Unlike the Mermaid Parade, the mardi gras festivity came after Labor Day rather than before the summer solstice. The mardi gras parade was also organized to benefit the Coney Island Rescue Mission. It also lasted more than one day, spanning a week of parades and events.

"Catch 22" author Joseph Heller once wrote that the mardi gras parade "epitomizes everything about parades that is sordid, debased and synthetic."

Zigun said that while he took some inspiration for the Mermaid Parade from the mardi gras parade, "They are very different kinds of parades."


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