Mesha Kussman, Founder of Aqualillies
Originally from San Francisco, Mesha Kussman, the founder of Aqualillies, studied experimental theater at NYU. When she graduated from school, she was creating dance theater experiences for events in New York, not knowing that her creative energy and intuitive eye for unused space would let her create a business concept that would catapult her into success in the golden state a couple years later. We talked to Mesha about how she got triggered to create her first synchronized swimming group and how she learned through her own mistakes to run and expand her business like a pro.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I noticed pretty quickly that the pool was always a centerpiece at events. It was lit, it was a part of the environment, but it was never activated and never really used. The idea for Aqualillies came to me at a party at a hotel that had just opened downtown, which of course also included a pool deck for hosting the guests. I kept looking at the pool wondering why wasn’t it more involved in the whole planning and decorating process. I came from an immersive theater background and my job in New York was to go into an environment and think about how I could make the best use of a space that was already there. What would you have to add? What’s possible in terms of performance? So my mind was already attuned to that. And here I was, just staring at the pool, thinking, “That’s it! It’s right there, in front of my face!” The pools were idle in L.A. and felt like a stage to me. I decided I wanted to put dancers, synchronized swimmers, in the pool and create a theatrical experience for these events. Why had no one else done this? Why wasn’t it a thing?
At the time, I supported myself teaching private yoga lessons and dance/yoga hybrid classes, plus I was touring a multimedia musical. I was hustling, I was in my late 20s and just doing lots of different things without knowing if any would stick and lead to a career. Every time I thought about this aquatic entertainment idea though, there was just something about it. I visualized a retro, wholesome yet sexy, fashionable, chic and fun show – I just couldn’t let go of the idea! I didn’t study business and didn’t have a road map for what to do, but I have an entrepreneurial spirit and felt like I was following an undeniable impulse.
So I used what I had. I was able to get some swimsuit sponsors and I had amazing friends who lent me their pool for rehearsals. When I scouted swimmers in Southern California, I found the scene was mostly about competitive synchronized swimming, which is now called artistic swimming. It was awesome to watch, but slightly different than what I was visualizing. I’d spent some time assisting Madonna and J Lo’s choreographers (the Talauegas) and I’d also been the on-set assistant to director Dennis Dugan on an Adam Sandler movie. So I’d been immersed in Hollywood and ‘the scene’ for a bit and sensed that the biggest splash would be made by making something chic and graceful, in addition to it being athletic.
When I launched Aqualillies in 2008 I got really lucky because within less than a year I booked a 17-show residency at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. I was hired by a party promoter who had arranged the event with the hotel. I’d worked with party promoters in New York so I knew the type. I scrambled to ask a manager friend for her advice about how to put together a contract to ensure I’d have some assurances week after week, a green room, a decent rate etc. I really needed this gig, and actually the promoter really needed us – we were the attraction! So even though neither of us actually had any leverage over the other, he made my life hell by never actually guaranteeing me the next week’s show until a few days beforehand. It was beyond stressful, but we did book all 17 shows – so I guess we were a hit. I was both nervous and exhilarated by this huge opportunity. I was running the business entirely on my own, literally doing everything: drafting contracts, coordinating changing event details, making style and branding choices, purchasing costumes and props, managing accounting. I brought on a guest choreographer to help me design the show and cast performers. I scheduled photoshoots, produced and directed a promotional video, oversaw the creation of the website, which some friends helped me make in exchange for letting them stay at my place. I just figured things out as I went along, plus I asked for help when I needed it. And at first, I didn’t pay myself more than what I paid the talent, until I was totally burned out and realized I’d have to take care of myself, or this way of living wouldn’t be sustainable. It took me at least three years to figure that out.
credit: Grey Malin
I definitely had a ‘fake it till you make it’ mentality in the beginning. I wasn’t always confident that I knew how to run a company or make sure that everyone was happy. But the one thing I felt like I knew how to do was to leverage what we had to offer. I could shape the facts to make us more intriguing. For example, I’d say “you gotta book us, we’re hot and we’re busy, we just performed for Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio!” Which doesn’t mean that they actually hired us. In reality they were guests at an event we were booked for. So we didn’t lie, but we used their presence at our events and framed it in a way that helped us to make the next thing happen. It’s always about how you phrase it.
But it didn’t always go so smoothly. I definitely hit some bumps in the road. I learned one big lesson the hard way. We had just booked a huge event, possibly one of our most exciting opportunities to date, and our client had not yet put out a press release. Inexperienced as I was, and excited about the collaboration, I mentioned the upcoming event to a news outlet that was covering us for another reason. Any press would be good press and the client would be happy that I was talking about it, right? Wrong. I got a call from my client, she was enraged! It was HER job not mine to decide how the public would hear about her event and who did I think I was? I think she pegged me for an aggressive hot-headed opportunist so she was surprised when I just simply started crying on the phone. “I’m sorry” I said, “I’m new to this. I wasn’t trying to be manipulative. I just didn’t know how it’s done.” I think it kind of stopped her in her tracks. I felt very very humbled, and embarrassed. I’ve never made that mistake again.
I learned from this experience that vulnerability is a really important piece of leadership and innovation. On the one hand, you have to have no fear and assume you can make anything happen, just because you believe wholeheartedly that your idea is great. On the other hand, when you make mistakes, which you will because it’s part of the process, you have to be humble and say, I made a mistake and I’m willing to learn. Over the course of my career, I’ve met a lot of people who I’ve found hard to work with because they weren’t willing to acknowledge when they made a mistake, or just be humble enough to say “Hey, I’m sorry I did that”. I actually look for that now in partnership when I collaborate. Growing and trusting each other is really important.
I think Aqualillies got a great start because there was an untouched market for it. It caught on like wildfire, or like a tidal wave to use an aquatic metaphor. It just made so much sense, the dancers, the athletes, the parties, the costumes, the scene, it all fit together here in L.A. Performing on camera for film, tv and music videos was a natural next step and through some incredible opportunities, we reached another level of success. We’ve performed in music videos for Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Maroon 5, Usher, Ariana Grande, Rita Ora and Foo Fighters. We just did Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” video. We were in Beyonce’s Black Is King and The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! as well as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Glee, Jane The Virgin, TNT’s Claws and ABC’s Splash. We have so much experience now working in production that we operate like a machine. We know how to set up casting options for production, how to work with the director and the production team to make sure their vision is executed smoothly and in as few takes as possible. And we love it! It’s one thing to choreograph for the crowd at an event and it’s another to choreograph for the camera which can go underwater with you or high up overhead. Another fun development was adding men to our roster. We launched Aquawillies about six years after Aqualillies. They were in Sam Smith and Demi Lovato’s “I’m Ready” video in 2020 clad in latex corsets and diving from platforms! Bringing the ’Willies into the mix was actually based on feedback we got from our audience, everyone wanted to see men in the water too. Why not?
Over the course of my career, I’ve met a lot of people who I’ve found hard to work with because they weren’t willing to acknowledge when they made a mistake, or just be humble enough to say “Hey, I’m sorry I did that”.
credit: Grey Malin
The most critical thing that happened for me as a business woman was the moment when I realized that the business was growing and I needed to grow with it. Running things, managing expenses, personnel, sales and outreach, press, casting etc… it all grew as we got more gigs. I just couldn’t handle it all myself anymore. Additionally, around this time, when the work was getting very steady, I had my first baby and needed help balancing my responsibilities. Aqualillies was becoming a name and I was overwhelmed with everything professionally and personally. So I brought on a business partner.
We had a weekly residency at The Beverly Hills Hotel summer of 2012 in celebration of their Centennial. Backstage the performers put on makeup and chatted while they stretched before the show. All but one, Mary Ramsey sat in the corner on her computer, fully suited and in makeup, studying for the bar exam. She was not only an incredibly beautiful and strong performer but she was intensely driven and smart. She’d always dreamed of starting a group like Aqualillies and had coached her competitive team at the College of William & Mary where she competed in the collegiate circuit for a few years before going to law school at USC. Mary ended up coming forward as a leader in the group and over the course of the next few years applied her grit, focus and charisma to help me take the brand international. We now have teams in Australia, France, Canada, Miami, New York, Vegas, and California. As her responsibilities grew along with her passion for the business, it made sense to promote her and lean on her to help the business soar. She became my business partner and is now our executive director in charge of bookings and company operations, while I focus on creative direction and business development. It’s wonderful to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and to have someone on the team who cares about the business as much as I do. Mary has great ideas and we have a really trusting relationship with each other. Being in a partnership with her has probably been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s just nice to have someone else to dream with.
You have to have a kind of crazy blind confidence, and also just a reservoir of time and energy to start a business. That’s why I’m so grateful that I brought my partner Mary and the full team on when I did, because, as it turns out, you also have to have a crazy amount of energy to raise a family. I lost my father in 2020. And my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2019. I’ve had some life experiences in these last couple of years which helped me deepen my relationship to myself and figure out what it is I’m setting out to do for my community. I’m excited for the company to continue to grow and there are many ways in which I can see that happening. But I’m also excited to lend my skills as a creative business woman and a visionary who can see things that aren’t here yet. I would like to do more on-camera projects that might not involve water. After all, I started out as a creative before I came up with Aqualillies. I’ve started into conceiving of and directing music videos and stories that involve fantasy and escape and that aren’t necessarily aquatic at all, although I would love to direct aquatic pictures as well.
I think the evolution in my creative drive came from being on set with the Coen Brothers for the making of Hail, Caesar!, looking at the monitor with them and watching how they bring a story to life through the camera. Or sitting in video village with Jon Chu creating the concert footage for Justin Bieber’s Believe Tour. Working on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to create these epic oners where the camera is following the movement.
I just love telling stories that are uplifting, involve grace, but also feminine power. Water is really more of a symbol to me, it’s like magic. Performers are sort of suspended in this element that offers the viewer a sense of escape and beauty. I know that there’s more that can be done with water and more stories that can be told and I definitely want to do that, but I don’t think that beauty and grace are relegated to the water. I want to bring some of the resilience and the endurance that I needed to survive the personal trials that I’ve been through, to my storytelling. And if I can do that with Aqualillies and with the medium of water as I move into being a director, perfect. I feel like the stories that I have to tell now are deepening and I really want to be in collaboration with other people that tell stories. I mean, it would be wonderful to direct an aquatic movie with a story that has a lot of heart. That would be a real dream come true.
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