THE AQUALILLIES are transforming pools around town into liquid masterpieces of music and motion
by SOPHIA KERCHER / photographs by SARAH FRETWELL /
styling by HAYLEY ATKIN / produced by HANNAH HARTE
With the grace of ballerinas and the strength of gymnasts, the synchronized swimmers known as the Aqualillies glide through the water, putting to rest the idea that mermaids are a myth. The troupe is fast becoming an entertainment must for private parties held at Southern California’s hotel and home pools. What audiences see is a near-otherworldly vision of comely limbs moving in domino-like sequencing through air and water, conjuring up a bygone era of Busby Berkeley musicals.
The Aqualillies channel old Hollywood glamour with retro-style swimsuits, flowered swim caps and red-lipsticked megawatt smiles. While some dancers—who stay dry—twirl parasols around the edge of the pool, the team splashes to mashups of such old-time tunes as Dean Martin’s rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Marilyn Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You.”
Day jobs for members of the Aqualillies vary: teacher, jewelry designer, horse trainer, student, law assistant. What they have in common is competitive training—a number of the swimmers participate at the national level. A few members have recently begun coaching synchro classes, and to motivate novices before practice, they sometimes screen a montage of Esther Williams moving effortlessly through the water.
Which makes sense: The premier mermaid of Hollywood is undoubtedly Williams. The MGM megastar of the 1940s and ’50s dazzled the silver screen with her epic dives, dream-state aqua choreography and songbird voice. The company recently performed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for the TCM Classic Film Festival’s outdoor screening of the Williams perennial Neptune’s Daughter. And Esther herself was in the audience.
“What we want to do is follow in Esther’s footsteps,” says Mesha Kussman, the Aqualillies’ winsome founder and creative director. “I thought, She’s a big star. She’s just going to come watch the show and go home. But she even came poolside to watch us practice. She was like, ‘I don’t want to miss any of this.’”
Kussman was invited to Williams’ Beverly Hills home, where the legend showed her all the bathing costumes from her films. She even tried on some of the vintage suits, along with items from Williams’ own line of swimwear.
“It was amazing,” Kussman says. Her favorite of the astonishing collection was a snow-bunny swimsuit with an attached skirt. Williams’ fourth husband, Edward Bell, recalled the ensemble in one of his wife’s films, fluttering so beautifully in the wind. Fitting for a Hollywood legend who is known for the refrain, “I’ve always said a swimsuit is the least amount of clothing that a woman can wear in public, so she better look good.”
“The girls were so beautiful,” Williams recalls. “For a moment, I was back on Stage 30 on the MGM lot.” Would the grande dame Hollywood mermaid, now turning 89, ever get in the water with the Aqualillies? The possibility shimmers. “The wonderful thing about swimming is in the water, you are ageless...but they never asked me.”