She's a 'royal princess' in Singapore, but don't call her a spoilt brat
Why I Do What I Do is an original AsiaOne series where we showcase people with uncommon professions and what it takes to get there.
Cara Neo is a princess-for-hire, but you're more likely to spot her in a neighbourhood NTUC than at Disneyland.
The 27-year-old is the founder of Singapore's inaugural mermaid school and the Academy of Enchantment where adults are trained to perform as princesses for parties and events.
And if you happen to be at the Singapore River Safari or Marriott Hotel on the right day, you might even catch Cara in action, performing as Syrena, Singapore's first mermaid princess.
Beneath the poofy dresses and lilting voice however, lies a savvy businesswoman who has succeeded in achieving what only few of us could dream of — channelling our passion and talent into a lucrative career.
"LIKE WALKING ON KNIVES"
While Cara may be a "royal" out of land and in the water, don't make the assumption that she's a spoilt brat — her job is anything but easy.
Even though she makes it look effortless, mermaid-ing and embodying a princess are more physically and mentally demanding than one would think.
Not only do performers have to always be thinking on their feet and weaving stories to entertain kids, neck pains, body aches and blisters are part and parcel of the job.
Just like The Little Mermaid in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, Cara revealed that it sometimes feels like she's "walking on knives" after flipping her fins for an entire performance.
Similarly, being a princess is harder than it seems.
"You also have to navigate around the petticoat and somehow still look like you're floating on a cloud," said the NUS English literature graduate, whose career began six years ago during her undergraduate days.
Turning her side-gig into a full-time job however, is a whole other ball game, and she not only fronts both her businesses, she also handles the teaching and administrative side of things.
WHY SO EXPENSIVE?!
Becoming a full-fledged performer is also more than overcoming the physical pains, and it requires intense amounts of sacrifice, training, time and financial investment.
All her costumes are custom-made, and a silicone mermaid tail can cost between $8,000 to $10,000, and each princess outfit costs upwards of $1,000.
All her wigs are also custom-ordered from abroad and because they vary in complexity, each one costs between $600 to $1,000 and requires frequent maintenance (read: lots of hairspray).
In addition to the hefty initial costs, dry-cleaning costs add up as well, and ball gowns cost between $100 to $200 — which may be why the princesses don't typically eat at parties.
These costumes are worthy investments however, because Cara charges clients upwards of $300 per hour (each gig lasts between one to two hours) depending on what requests are made of her and her squad.
If you want to hire the OG (original) mermaid Syrena herself, be prepared to fork out at least double the usual rate.
MORE THAN AN ACT
Cara trains her small team of two to four girls (depending on the season) and makes them go through a rigorous two-day training at the Academy of Enchantment that encompasses singing, dancing, interacting with kids and deportment.
The CEO herself emphasises that being a princess-for-hire is more than just wearing the costume and putting on an act.
"It's more than standing there and looking pretty. It's more than just looking good in the costume because you have to embody the character," she said.
Cara has practically been training for this since childhood — playing dress-up with her sister and cousin and putting on elaborate performances for family members.
But time waits for no man, so what happens when she inevitably ages and can no longer play the part of a princess?
"I'll move more into a delegational role, more towards the events and admin side of things.
"[But I'm] going to do this for as long as I can, because I believe that creating memories for people and bringing magic into their lives is my calling," she asserted.