Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman (1886–1975) was a water-ballet pioneer who dazzled crowds on multiple continents with her cliff dives and mermaid-costume theatrical events. One of the first women to attain global celebrity through sport, Kellerman showed herself as a trailblazing advocate for feminine athleticism in the pages of her 1918 book Physical Beauty: How to Keep It. “I insist that swimming is not only a splendid sport for women but that it is the sport for women—the one sport, in fact, with the possible exception of dancing, in which she can fully compete with men,” she wrote.
Kellerman was born Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann on July 6, 1886, in the Sydneyside community of Marrickville in New South Wales. Both of her parents were music teachers, and her mother, Alice Charbonnet Kellermann, learned to swim during a childhood spent in the South Seas archipelago of New Caledonia while her father served in the French colonial government. During the 19th century, visitors to the South Seas and other tropical climes marveled at the fearlessness and ease with which Polynesians and other indigenous groups moved in and out of the water—and the minimum of apparel this activity required. At a time when seas, rivers, and even lakes were heavily trafficked and often revoltingly polluted, Alice became one of the few Europeans who learned how to swim.
Kellerman swam avidly in her youth and by her early teens was competing in informal races and sometimes even beating her male peers. Sensing an opportunity, her father organized the first-ever New South Wales Ladies’ State Championship Swimming Carnival in 1901. Now age 16, Kellerman set a new women's world record for the 100-meter freestyle at this event. Two years later, the Kellermans left New South Wales for Victoria, where Alice Kellermann had taken a teaching job at a girls' school in the city of Melbourne.
Melbourne did not have the same landmark natural harbor that Sydney boasted, but it was home to numerous other attractions. Its pride was the Yarra River, in which Kellerman swam in annual race events, as well as a stately Royal Exhibition Building with a massive aquarium. As a teen, Kellerman gained renown by diving from bridge heights; at an event at the Melbourne Aquarium, she swam with fishes. After finishing her education at the Mentone Girls' Grammar School, she sailed for England with her father as chaperone-manager. Heralded by the London tabloids in the spring of 1905 as “the Australian Girl” swimming prodigy, she made an epic 26-mile solo swim in the winding, filthy Thames River from Putney to Blackwall, becoming the first woman to complete this particular endurance challenge. With the Daily Mirror publicizing her feats, she made an aquatic tour of several popular beach resorts along England's southeast coastline, finishing in Margate to enthusiastic crowds. Kellerman also hoped to become the first woman to swim across the English Channel, attempting this feat three times during the summer of 1905. In one of these efforts, her male competitors were permitted to swim in the nude. Although none of them finished the Channel challenge, Kellerman wore a water-logged woolen swimming suit and still managed to swim for more than two hours, enduring constant nausea from the roiling Channel currents and the lingering whiff of the porpoise oil she had slathered on to provide extra buoyancy.
Wintering in London to fulfill special engagements at the palatial Hippodrome—a music-hall venue featuring an aquatic tank for underwater performances and special events—Kellerman adjusted to life in England and earned high fees for her appearances. In June of 1906 she bested one of the top female distance-swimmers of the era, Baroness Walburga von Isacescu, when they competed in a 22-mile Danube River swim.
On beaches and public pools frequented by the middle and working classes, women were expected to don cumbersome garments, including absurd shirtwaist-andpantaloon combinations, to prevent boys and men from seeing any part of their bodies. Kellerman loathed these occasionally local-ordinance-mandated rules and her determination to swim as a sport without yards of fabric billowing around her caused a minor sensation nearly everywhere outside of Australia. Newspaper photographs of the era tended to run portraits of Kellerman clad in a concealing, unitard-type bathing suit, but in her live events she often wore much less and eventually began designing and selling her own line of women's swimsuits. In London during August of 1906, she improvised a special bathing suit in preparation for a performance at London's posh members-only Bath Club. Audience members were to include the son of Queen Victoria, and official protocol prevented the free-spirited Aussie from displaying her bare legs in the vicinity of the royal family. To solve the problem, she sewed dark stockings onto the men's wool one-piece bathing suit she then favored.
Kellerman's ports of call soon included New York City, where she had a long and successful career as headliner in vaudeville shows staged in the fantastically popular aquarium tanks of the era. She squeezed herself into glittery fishtail envelopes of her own design for these part-underwater spectacles in which she was cast as the Australian Mermaid, Neptune's Daughter, or one of the water nymphs of classical mythology. She pulled enormous crowds in Chicago at the White City Amusement Park in the summer of 1906 and enjoyed an impressive run at the Wonderland Amusement Park the following year. Her arrest in 1907 for daring to bare her legs before setting off for a three-mile practice swim on Revere Beach made national newspaper headlines, but Kellerman successfully fought the misdemeanor charge in court.
Kellerman parlayed her athletic prowess and vaudeville talents into a modestly successful film career. There were two early silent-film shorts, The Mermaid and Siren of the Sea, in 1911, and during these years she began appearing in increasingly abbreviated swimsuits of her own design that became known as the Annette Kellerman suit—a name she trademarked. In 1913 she caused a minor sensation when she turned up in Bermuda to make her first longer film for a major studio, Neptune's Daughter. Her next movie, A Daughter of the Gods, was touted as the first cinematic project to break the $1 million production–cost barrier and the first to feature a nude scene, although Kellerman wore a body stocking when filming those sequences.
Physical Beauty included photographs of Kellerman in her early 30s in peak physical condition. Clad in a modest dark leotard and sporting a bohemian-chic headscarf, she demonstrates simple calisthenics and the basic poses familiar to contemporary yoga and Pilates practitioners. In its chapters she advocated for a brisk, circulation-stimulating cold shower every morning, plenty of fresh air, and avoidance of nighttime electronic-media diversions if one suffered from sleep disturbances. Exercise was paramount, and she was firm about this. “Two hours at least should be yours to devote strictly to your physical welfare. If you cannot find time for these two hours, there is something wrong with your management of time,” she declared.
Kellerman made her last feature film, Venus of the South Seas, in 1924. She returned to Australia with her husband, James Sullivan, in the early 1930s and remained there throughout World War II, when she was active in Red Cross activities. Hollywood rediscovered her in the early 1950s and she was given partial screenwriting credit for the 1952 musical Million Dollar Mermaid, which made a star out of another talented swimmer, actress and water-ballet performer Esther Williams. Reporters discovered Kellerman, still in excellent health and running a health-food store in Long Beach, California, in the early 1950s. She returned to Australia in 1970, spending her final years with her sister Marcelle in a community on Queensland's Gold Coast. Kellerman died after a brief illness at age 89, on November 6, 1975.
Although the bulk of Kellerman's early silent films have been lost due to poor archival-storage techniques, a 2002 documentary titled The Original Mermaid contains newsreel footage documenting her epic aquatic career. In addition, her book Physical Beauty remains a concise artifact of her spirited, Australian Girl persona. “If I could only make you understand all this,” she asserted in urging her female readers to become more active. “If you could realise what it is to waken in the morning, feeling that the day could not possibly be long enough to let you live as much as you wanted to, if you could know what it is to walk and work and play and feel every inch of you rejoicing in glorious buoyant life, there is not one of you who would not say, ‘Teach me, teach me!” ’
Gibson, Emily, with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Allen & Unwin, 2005.
Kellerman, Annette, Physical Beauty: How to Keep It, George H. Doran Co., 1918.
Woollacott, Angela, To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Fashion Theory, December 2009, p. 481.
New York Times, November 6, 1975, p. 44.❑