Annette Kellerman, the Australian mermaid, was a champion swimmer, a Hollywood movie star, and a pioneer for healthy living and women’s rights.
Annette Kellerman was born in Marrickville, Sydney, on July 6, 1886.
Her parents were musicians. Her father, Frederick, played the violin, her mother, Alice, the piano. Together they ran a small music academy.
As a child, Kellerman showed signs of physical disability. Her legs were weak and misshapen, and she was made to wear metal braces, to strengthen them.
Her doctor also recommended swimming. Kellerman’s mother took her to the Floating Baths, in Lavender Bay, where she was taught by members of the Cavill family.
The Cavill’s were legends in Australian swimming; among their number were several national and Olympic champions.
Kellerman’s legs recovered, and she developed into a strong, and agile swimmer. She competed successfully in amateur races, and occasionally gave displays of diving.
When she was 16, Kellerman scored a dramatic success at the New South Wales state swimming championships. She won both the 100 yard race, in a national record time, and the mile.
The performance made her a household name across Australia.
The following year, 1903, the family moved to Melbourne. The music academy was not making much money, Kellerman’s mother had taken a teaching job at a private college in Mentone.
To help make ends meet, Kellerman and her father developed an act to capitalise on her swimming success.
She would appear initially at ‘Princes Court’, an amusement park on St Kilda Road. The park contained an artificial lake, Kellerman performed a routine including high diving, underwater dancing, and acrobatics.
She also performed at the Exhibition Buildings, in Carlton Gardens.
This complex was originally much larger than today, and included an aquarium. Kellerman appeared twice there daily, in a 20 metre tank, swimming alongside eels and an assortment of exotic fish.
Her shows were very popular; Kellerman would subsequently tour her act around Australia.
Kellerman’s father, acting as her manager, now set his sights overseas.
In 1904, the pair decamped to London, for a series of performances. Kellerman’s show would mix high diving and water acrobatics, she would also race against challengers from the audience.
To drum up publicity for her first appearance, Kellerman’s father came up with a unique publicity stunt. She would undertake a long distance swim in the Thames: from Putney Bridge to Blackwell, a distance of 27 km.
‘Fred Kellerman was decked out in his habitual attire, which comprised a frock coat and a top hat.
He hired a boat and they rowed out into the middle of the River Thames. There, the young swimmer dived over the side.
As they proceeded down the Thames, crowds flocked to the riverbanks. By the time they reached Blackwall, thousands had gathered at the dock.’
– Australian Sporting Hall of Fame
By the time the swim was complete, Kellerman had gained a following.
Her subsequent shows in London were a great success.
Crowds were impressed by her swimming and diving, comment was also made on her appearance. Kellerman was young and attractive; her form fitting swim costumes were much discussed.
After London, she toured her act across Europe. Kellerman continued to advertise her shows with long distance swims, including well publicised efforts in the Seine, and the Rhine.
Back in England, in 1905 Kellerman became the first woman to attempt the English Channel.
The ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper sponsored the swim, offering payment for each mile she completed. Kellerman trained diligently to ready herself, swimming up to 100 miles per week.
She set off on August 25, accompanied by three male swimmers. All of them struggled in the rough seas.
Kellerman later complained that the cocoa she was given periodically, to keep her warm, made her sick. None of the four swimmers completed the crossing.
She made two further attempts, across 1905-06; both were unsuccessful. Her best effort saw her cover about ¾ of the distance.
But these swims were widely followed, and her determination endeared her to the public.
After her Channel attempts, Kellerman was invited to give a private swimming demonstration for the King and Queen of England. She had become a major European celebrity.
Despite her increasing fame, Kellerman was still subject to the strict moral standards of the era.
Female swimmers were required to wear bathing costumes that covered most of their bodies, from their neck, to their feet. No exposed skin, other than their head and forearms, was allowed in public. A short skirt, worn over the costume, was also considered proper.
For Kellerman’s demonstration for the royals, an even more rigid standard was applied: she was also required to cover her arms.
Kellerman was unable to acquire a suit like this at short notice, so she created her own. She sewed two stockings onto the sleeves of her usual suit, that her arms could slide into.
From this point on, she would often design her own swimsuits.
While she accommodated the extra requirements in order to perform for the King and Queen, privately she chafed at the condition.
Kellerman found the swimsuits she had to wear cumbersome, and difficult to perform in. She also noted the double standard, that provided male swimmers with less restrictive outfits.
After her successes in Europe, Kellerman’s father now turned to America. The pair took their act to the States in 1906.
Kellerman appeared initially in Chicago and Boston, wowing the crowds with her diving. She would leap from platforms as high as 60, or even 90, feet, landing in a small tank of water. For comparison, the highest platform in Olympic diving is about 33 feet high.
In New York, Kellerman appeared at the famed ‘Hippodrome’.
On Sixth Avenue, this was the city’s largest theatre, with a 5 000 seat capacity (it is now long gone, you can read more about this famous venue, here). Kellerman swam in a tank with fish, performed water ballet, walked on a tightrope, and capped her performance with her death defying high dives.
The crowds were dazzled, and the show proved very popular. The press dubbed her, ‘The Australian Mermaid’.
In July 1907, Kellerman was in Boston for a series of performances. One morning she went for a training swim at Revere Beach, a crescent shaped bay about 5 miles from the city centre.
Her training costume was one of her own design. Chaste by modern standards, it was less restrictive than what she usually wore; both her arms, and legs from mid-thigh, were exposed.
During her swim, Kellerman was surprised by the sudden appearance of the police. Someone had called and complained about her attire, they had come to arrest her for indecent exposure.
Kellerman’s arrest, and resulting trial, caused a mild scandal and much discussion of decency laws.
Tired of the restrictive bathing costumes she had been forced to wear, the swimmer defended herself in public:
‘What difference is there from these legal costumes than wearing lead chains around our legs?
I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.’
– Annette Kellerman
The judge in the case agreed.
The charges against Kellerman were dismissed. She was advised that she was allowed to continue swimming in her less restrictive costume, on the proviso that she wear a cape down to the water’s edge.
While this did not equate to a complete vindication, the judge still felt that the swimsuit was indecent out of the water, change had been initiated.
After the trial, Kellerman leant her name to a line of swimsuits, featuring uncovered legs, that became an instant best seller.
Five years later, when women’s swimming debuted at the Stockholm Olympics, most of the competitors appeared bare legged. The Australian had struck a small blow towards equality.
The press from the indecency case also helped her career. Afterwards, Kellerman’s shows became even more popular.
In 1912, she appeared on stage in a more dramatic role, taking the lead in a specially adapted version of ‘Undine’.
Based on the European folk tale, Undine tells the story of a mermaid like creature, who lives underwater but ventures onto land in search of love.
Kellerman’s adaptation mixed conventional theatre, with parts where she performed in a large water tank. The show was successful, and Kellerman toured it across America, and then London.
That same year, the director of the Harvard Gymnasium, Dr Dudley Sargant, conducted a survey of thousands of women, to determine the perfect female form. He declared Kellerman to be the winner.
Kellerman was non-plussed by winning.
‘It’s the most ghastly thing in the world, when you’re called the “perfect woman”.’
– Annette Kellerman
Having shown some acting ability on stage, Kellerman was now sought by Hollywood. She made her feature film debut in ‘Neptune’s Daughter’, in 1914.
Kellerman played the titular role, a mermaid out for revenge after her sister is killed by surface dwellers. Having magically transformed into a human, and made her way to land to seek vengeance, she then falls in love with the man she holds responsible for her sister’s death.
A part similar to the one she had played in ‘Undine’.
The film was a success, and led a short film career; Kellerman would appear in 5 more features, all aquatic themed. Her last was the New Zealand production, ‘Venus of the South Seas’, in 1924.
Her film career over at age 38, Kellerman continued her swimming and diving act for a few more years, before retiring as a performer.
Kellerman now focussed on her other interests.
She had long been an advocate for a healthy living; it had been the only way she had been able to perform the stunts that had been required of her. In 1918 she wrote, ‘Physical Beauty and How to Keep It’, a guidebook where she shared her exercise and diet tips.
Common today, this was a novel idea for the time. It was highly unusual for a woman to write a health and fitness book, aimed at women.
Kellerman supported her writing with a series of public lectures, promoting a healthy diet and regular exercise. Reflecting on how it had helped her as a child, she was also promoted the benefits of swimming.
A teetotaller and lifelong vegetarian, in retirement Kellerman ran a health food store in Long Beach, California.
In 1952, she was commemorated with her own biopic. ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ was a splashy, Busby Berkley fuelled musical, with one of the leading ladies of the era, Esther Williams, playing Kellerman.
Kellerman returned to Australia to live in 1970.
In 1974, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Reflecting on her career, she said her proudest achievement remained her role in helping to ‘emancipate’ women from their restrictive swimming costumes.
Annette Kellerman died in hospital at Southport, Queensland, on 6 November, 1975.