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Idol finalist takes on underwater gig

Tampa's Melissa McGhee will swim with the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs during the Hurricane Expo.

By CHANDRA BROADWATER
Published June 9, 2006


[Times photo -- Keri Wiginton]
Rickie Rinberger of Tampa, 24, kisses his girlfriend, Melissa McGhee of Tampa, 21, a former American Idol contestant, during her swimming practice at Weeki Wachee Springs on Thursday. McGhee is singing and swimming during the Hurricane Expo Saturday.

WEEKI WACHEE - Singing is one thing for American Idol finalist Melissa McGhee. Swimming like a mermaid is quite another.

Nonetheless, McGhee donned a shiny green mermaid tail and top Thursday afternoon at Weeki Wachee Springs as she dipped into the frigid water to learn the basics of underwater maneuvering.

The 21-year-old Tampa resident came to the park to practice her skills in preparation for a performance Saturday with the legendary mermaids that will be part of the Hernando County 2006 Hurricane Expo.

The event takes place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and will also include two singing performances by McGhee.

County emergency management officials will be on hand with weather experts to help residents prepare for hurricanes.

"We want people to come out and have a good time, bring the family and learn," county emergency management director Tom Leto said. "They'll also be able to discuss concerns they have about disasters."

The primary focus of this year's expo is flood insurance. Leto said that most people don't think they need the protection because they aren't in a flood zone.

"But they are still vulnerable," he said. "Depending on the level of a hurricane, homes that don't usually flood could be flooded."

McGhee was the first of the 12 finalists voted off Idol in March. Since then, she has been traveling and working to get a record deal.

Thursday's practice was her first visit to Weeki Wachee. She admitted that she's not too fond of the water.

"It was a lot harder than I thought," she said, wringing out her brown hair just after exiting the springs. "You really have to work and move a lot of muscles in ways that they don't normally maneuver. And at the same time you have to hold your breath in the cold water. It's tiring. I really respect the mermaids."

Flanked by Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson, a former mermaid herself, and mermaid manager Viki Monsegur, the singer first got her bearings in the water, then slipped on a tail.

She practiced moving underwater with the breathing tubes mermaids use to stay beneath the surface for their 20-minute shows.

McGhee, who will sing and swim for free, said she wanted to take part in the expo to help people educate themselves.

"I'm a Florida girl; I've been through them," she said. "It's good for people to realize how important this is, especially with what happened when Katrina hit and now that hurricane season is here."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Hernando County 2006 Hurricane Expo.

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. American Idol finalist Melissa McGhee will sing at 10:30 a.m. and again at noon. She will also swim in a mermaid show at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Weeki Wachee Springs, U.S. 19 and State Road 50, Weeki Wachee.

ADMISSION: Access to Weeki Wachee Springs is free during expo hours.

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:49:13]


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