The first time Deborah Lee Walker visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore, she was working as a model and helping to promote its grand opening, back in 1981.
This month she made a return visit, 37 years later, and learned that she had become a permanent addition to the aquarium.
As aquarium president and CEO John Racanelli put it, “You’re going to be seeing her in the aquarium for the ages to come.”
Walker is featured prominently in a new mural entitled “Schaefer’s Splash,” which has been installed just inside the aquarium’s main entrance.
Painted by Joseph Sheppard, the 6-foot by 15-foot mural celebrates a moment when the aquarium didn’t open on time, and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and aquarium board chairman Frank A. Gunther Jr., followed through on a promise to swim in the outdoor seal pool to make up for missing the deadline.
Walker, a 23-year-old Baltimore native who became a model for the St. Pauli Girl beer brand, was hired to be a mermaid who accompanied Schaefer and Gunther on their dip.
Schaefer was clearly the star of the show, arriving in a zebra print robe and straw boater hat, stripping down to a vintage bathing suit and clutching an inflatable rubber ducky as he took the plunge.
Walker’s role was to sit on a rock in the middle of the seal pool, wiggle her mermaid tail and be the eye candy. She even gave Schaefer a kiss, making her the perfect foil for the faux-grumpy mayor. It was one of the zanier episodes in Schaefer’s time in public life, concocted largely by his always-thinking PR man, the late Chris Hartman.
The event was covered by local TV and print reporters. Photos of the swim were carried on the Associated Press wire and appeared the next day in newspapers around the globe, as far away as India and China.
At the unveiling of the mural on April 11, Walker arrived with her mother, Maxine, and was treated like the celebrity she was in 1981.
Now 61, Walker lives in Ocean City, where she works as a customer service associate for Calvin B. Taylor Bank and writes a weekly culinary column, Food for Thought, for the Ocean City Today newspaper. She also has cooking segments for “Delmarva Life” on WBOC-TV and teaches a children’s cooking class every summer. She’s searching for a distributor for a low-fat salad dressing she makes with the children.
Thanks to Sheppard’s mural, Walker has been immortalized as the mermaid at the National Aquarium. After she got home, Walker talked about the occasion with Baltimore Fishbowl.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Why did they want a mermaid? Did anyone ever explain that to you?
Deborah Lee Walker: All I knew is that it was a public relations event for the aquarium. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
BFB: What was your reaction when they asked you to be the mermaid?
DLW: I knew this was going to be a fun job. It was exciting to be with the mayor of Baltimore. Plus, I had never been a mermaid before. The whole concept of the job was very different.
BFB: How were you selected?
DLW: They went through my modeling agency, Elite, in New York. The agency provided portfolios of different models that they felt met the criteria of a mermaid. I was very stunning back then, but my long beautiful hair certainly added to the unique look. Thinking back, my hair was probably the deciding factor on how I was selected for the job.
BFB: How did you prepare to be a mermaid?
DLW: There wasn’t much preparation. The costume was fitted to me. I had three different fittings, and it was very tight. I could not walk whatsoever. Frogmen had to carry me out and put me on the rocks. Because of my hair and makeup and the costume, I couldn’t be in the water. They did make it clear to me to watch my weight. I weighed myself twice a day to make sure I didn’t gain any weight.
DLW: There was a team of frogmen. They’re kind of like Navy SEALs without the tanks in the back. Scuba divers in wet suits.
BFB: What were your duties as a mermaid?
DLW: It was partially waiting for the mayor to make his appearance. I was told it was going to be an improvisational situation and just go along with whatever the mayor did, so I followed his lead basically. It took him a long time before he came out, and I’m sure he did that on purpose. I remember one of the seals coming up to me. I guess he was intrigued with me sitting on a rock. There were photographers above me, trying to get my attention. It helped pass the time.
BFB: How was it being with Mayor Schaefer?
DLW: From the moment he came out, I could see why he was so popular in Baltimore. He really knew how to work the crowd. He was definitely a showman. He knew when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He came out and just hit his mark, bam. He lit the crowd up. Even though I was a part of this, I was entertained by watching him. He was really hamming it up.
BFB: How long did it last?
DLW: The swim? Maybe it lasted 15 minutes, 15 or 20 minutes, something like that. It took a while before he came out. I’d say 30 minutes in all.
BFB: So it was your 15 minutes of fame. What was the response afterwards?
DLW: I was amazed how many times the picture kept reappearing. People would come up to me and say, I just saw a picture of you and the mayor. That picture traveled around the world.
BFB: Did you have any other big splashes like that?
DLW: I was the St. Pauli Girl. They had many after me, but I was the original. I appeared in Playboy, but I was fully clothed. It was the first time they had a foldout for print advertising. It was shot in a huge studio where they had a replica of a St. Pauli Girl bottle of beer. I had to walk out as if I was on the label. I also met Ronald Reagan, when he was president, during a visit to the White House.
I was only in modeling for one and a half, two years at most. When I was in modeling, I had a job for American Express at The Prime Rib. That’s how I met Nick BeLer, one of the owners. We really hit it off and I started dating him after that. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business. He started teaching me. He kind of took me under his wing.
BFB: You turned your attention to food and the restaurant business?
DLW: He would take me to the top restaurants all around the country and I became infatuated with it. I could see what these chefs could do. That’s what really caught my interest. When we’d go to a restaurant, he would point out the lighting, the wasted space. He would critique the food. We would go to a trade show and he would give me a homework assignment.
Once we were in a restaurant and I kidded him saying, “I wish I got as much attention from you as the menu or the lighting.” He said, “Well, what do you think puts diamonds on your fingers and furs on your back? You can either be quiet and stop complaining or I will teach you the business.” I said, “Teach me the business.”
BFB: Then the mural brought it all back.
DLW: When I got the invitation [to the mural unveiling], I didn’t know what it was about. It mentioned “the iconic picture.” Then we got to the aquarium and I was overwhelmed, because I saw the mural for the first time and realized I was going to be a permanent part of the aquarium.
BFB: The artist painted you from photographs. What do you think of the result?
DLW: I like it. The hair looks very pretty, and I’m very conscious of my hair. I think he did a very good job. Everyone who has seen it just loves it. What made it even more special is it was my mother’s birthday the next day, and she could be part of it.
BFB: There was some debate over whether the artist should paint you topless.
DLW: He gave the appearance of me being topless, with my hair covering my top. I think it was a nice compromise.
BFB: What’s the best part of being in the mural?
DLW: I used to make my living from how I look. This picture keeps reappearing, and it gives me a sense of reliving these good times, when I was young.
BFB: With the mural, you’re forever young
DLW: Sometimes when you’re going through an experience, it doesn’t really hit you. Later on, I realized what an extraordinary event it was for me to be part of, and it was really an honor. When you first go in the aquarium, it’s right there.
The next day, when we were checking out of the hotel, I told my mother, “I feel my carriage has turned back into a pumpkin.” She said, “This is true, but just remember: You are going to be an eternal part of the National Aquarium. That’s something to be very proud of.” I said I wish Dad could have been there. She said he was.
BFB: How does it feel to be immortalized at the aquarium?
DLW: When I look back, there’s no question about it: The mermaid is the best thing I have ever done. Even though I did St. Pauli Girl and everything, that was nothing compared to being a mermaid at the National Aquarium. I have to be honest with you, I’m still in awe of the mural. I can’t believe that they did this and that I was a part of it. I’m just so, so honored.
BFB: Any regrets about the experience?
DLW: I’ve been to the aquarium twice now, and I still haven’t really gotten to see it. The first time, it wasn’t open yet. The second time, this month, it was after-hours. I am going to go back to the aquarium and really see it the next time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.