The Australian Mermaid: Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman was ahead of her time for her physical abilities in the water, her belief in the need for women to maintain a healthy body, and importantly in fashion by her swimwear. She seemed to live in a different era, undeterred by the formalities and restrictions, (whether real or self-imposed) that prevented most women from doing the same. In fact, many of things she did would never have occurred to most women of the early 20th century.

Originally from Australia, Annette took her talents worldwide, breaking swimming and diving records, traveling to various theater stages in Europe and the United States, and eventually made Hollywood silent films that showcased her talents. Hollywood later revisited her incredibly life story, and Ester Williams would channel Annette in The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).

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Annette Kellerman in a self-designed bathing suit, ca. 1903-1913, [Public Domain]

Much of the information for this post is based on the thoroughly researched book by Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story (thanks to my brother, Greg, for buying this book for me!). I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about Annette.

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Annette Kellerman was born in 1886 in Sydney, Australia. Her parents were relatively well-to-do, both musicians who mingled with the arts set of Sydney. As a child, Annette was diagnosed with rickets, a bone disease that can soften and distort bones in children, and had to wear iron braces on her legs for five years. Fortunately, her doctor prescribed swimming to strengthen her legs once her leg braces were taken off, as opposed to an operation or the stretching devices which were popular prescriptions at the time.[1] Annette hated this “medicine” at first, but it wasn’t long before she became hooked on swimming. She loved to be the center of attention, and considering that in other countries swimming was still mostly restricted to men, this was certainly one way to attract it.

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Young Annette. She also loved to dance and would continue to dance throughout her life. Found in The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, courtesy of Hilton Cordell Productions.

Soon, Annette was swimming faster than the boys and challenging them to new diving heights. She was completely transformed by swimming and strengthened her body in the water. Annette more than anyone could appreciate what exercise and healthy living could do for her body, and her entire life she would adhere to healthy principals with “no alcohol, cigarette smoke or red meat.”[2] She exercised everyday and in addition to swimming, would typically walk 10 miles a day. Later in life, when she became well known, she gave lectures to women and wrote books and pamphlets on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It would have been highly unusual for women at this time to engage in so much exercise and to think of strengthening or training their bodies. Annette was an anomaly as a woman who considered her physical health and strength of the utmost importance, and took this a step further in practicing swimming competitively.

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Press photos of Annette swimming in the Yarra in Australia in 1905. Found in The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, courtesy of Hilton Cordell Productions.

While other women in the early 20th century may have felt restricted in corsets, Annette felt both physically and metaphorically unrestricted. This was most obvious in her bathing costume. At this time, around the 19-teens, the majority of women were still wearing wool bathing costumes that resembled the many layers of daywear — an example of this is shown below. These typically included a frilly top, loose pants, mid-calf socks, stockings, and a cap.[3] Kellerman disregarded this ensemble as silly. It was clearly not meant for setting records in swimming, and in truth, not really meant for swimming at all, but for a very relaxed kind of bathing. Annette chose something more streamlined, a men’s bathing suit and bare legs.

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NOT Annette here – this image provides a contrast as to what a typical bathing costume of 1905 would have looked like. You can better imagine the shock at Annette’s skin-tight suit sans stockings! Photo by William M. Vander Weyde, Atlantic City Beach, George Eastman House Collection [Public Domain].
In her skin-tight swimsuit, she set the record for swimming a mile at age 15.[4] Her father, Frank Kellerman, was encouraged to have his daughter swim professionally, and as he had recently suffered a heart attack and the family was struggling financially due to the economic downturn, he and Annette thought this could be a good way to support the family. Annette felt she was destined for the stage, and had been practicing ballet for years alongside her swimming, but was determined to help. She began training in the Yarra River and was soon attracting media attention. Her father would time her with his stopwatch and she continually challenged herself to increase her distance. Before long, she swam 10 miles, and at this time, this was the longest distance even swam by a woman.[5]

Annette’s first job was swimming with the fish in the Melbourne Aquarium. She began to develop her swimming talents into a performance and next worked for the Princes Court amusement park in Melbourne. It seemed she liked the idea of being a performer and combining this with her swimming talents. By age 17, she had “broken all the records in swimming and diving” in Australia, and it was time she set her sights abroad.[6]

Annette and her father then traveled to England where she dove into the Thames River. The Daily Mirror was the first pictorial newspaper in England (others used illustrations), and this was hugely advantageous to Annette in order to build her celebrity. The Mirror paid her to swim along the coast while they would photograph and publish her progress. They dubbed her The Australian Mermaid. By 1907, largely due to the Mirror’s coverage of her efforts, Annette had achieved celebrity status.[7]

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Annette in her signature stocking suit (more info below). 1910, National Library of Australia [Public Domain].
She became known for her skills in England and was one day asked to perform for the Duke and Duchess of Connaught. Whereas, her male bathing suit had been a source of marvel before, she was now told that it would be inappropriate for her to show so much skin. She tried to explain that this was commonplace for Australia, but as this was not taken well, she decided to sew stockings to her men’s bathing suit. This suit hugged her body and still showed off her hard-earned physique and was to become her trademark attire. This look, shown in the photos above and below, was deemed acceptable for the Duke and Duchess.

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Annette posing on a diving board in her trademark self-made suit in 1909. Photographer unidentified. Believed to be photo made in New York City in conjunction with short film done by Kellerman in 1909 [Public domain].
After conquering many swimming achievements and fame in England, Annette decided to swim a race down the Seine in Paris. She faced all-male competitors and came in third. Again, she was a media sensation, much of which due to what she wore when she swam. Subsequently, that week in Paris, they made skits about her for the stage and a couturier made a replica of her swimsuit and put it in their salon window with the caption “Will women ever wear this bathing suit?”[8] Frenchwomen, at this time, were still adhering to the accepted voluminous costumes for bathing.

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“Miss Annette Kellerman: Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver of the World,” postcard, likely ca. 1910, State Library of New South Wales collection [No restrictions].
Annette’s fame spread throughout Europe and soon she was asked to perform in other countries as well. Eventually, she decided to try her luck in the United States when word of her achievements had reached there. Her first job was at an amusement park in Chicago, and she then moved on a to larger park in Boston. Before her opening in Boston, she did some practice laps on the surrounding coast in her men’s bathing suit. This resulted in more attention than desired, and Annette was brought to court for her scandalous attire. In court, she told the judge “it seemed more criminal for women to be wearing all those clothes in the water [see photo above of woman in Atlantic City]. For one thing, they had more chance of drowning and for another they would never learn to swim, What she wore in the water made more sense.”[9] Ultimately, the judge allowed her to wear her bathing suit as long as it was hidden with a robe until she went into the water.

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Wearing a robe at the water’s edge here. Photo of Annette, 1906, Ludwig Gutmann (23 Juni 1869–21. April 1943), österreichischer Fotograf [Public domain].
At about the same time as this court case in 1908, she was declared to be the Perfect Woman by Doctor Sargent, based on her physical measurements compared to the Venus de Milo. This only added to her celebrity and encouraged her to teach other women how to maintain a healthy body. An example of an ad for her weight loss program shown in Motion Picture Magazine is below.

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This picture of Annette was used as an ad for her weight loss program. Motion Picture Magazine, March 1914, p. 161 [Public Domain].
After the parks, Annette started performing on vaudeville stages. This seems to have been her favorite method of entertaining. She loved the added excitement of a live audience and her performance was a highly developed combination of diving talents and dancing skill. It is believed that she would continually draw audiences based on her graceful dives as much as what she wore (or didn’t wear) – her one-piece bathing suit. Both her suit and her stunts were considered highly daring, so much so that she was refused life insurance.  In 1910, when not onstage in a vaudeville show, in her downtime she was reported to enjoy archery, fencing, and dancing.[10] Annette also soon discovered the joy of driving, and she was notorious among the local police for her speeding at various vaudeville locations.

Annette_Kellerman_-_May_1920_EH
Annette continued to dance and incorporated this into her performances. Here she wears dance shoes in her bathing suit. 1920, Unknown photographer [Public domain].
While giving lectures to women on the joys of physical fitness and its importance, she would extol the virtues of comfortable clothing, which she found to be more “liberating than any political movement of the time.”[11] At a lecture in 1912, she tried to rally women to do away with their corsets when she said they made “physical cowards” of women.”[12] She went on to talk about the hobble skirt and hats of the time too, and how these were also very limiting for women. At the end of her talk, her audience demanded to know if she wore a rubber corset under her swimsuit, and she said that hers was a muscular corset made of diet and exercise, which they too could achieve.[13] This was truly radical thinking for the period but it was well-received by the women listening. In fact, she had such positive response to her lecture tour that she published The Body Beautiful and Physical Beauty: How to Keep It. She encouraged exercise, yoga, breathing exercises, and comfortable clothing.  The photo below is from her article, “Prudery as an Obstacle to Swimming,” written for Physical Culture Magazine in 1909.

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Annette posing for her article, “Prudery as an Obstacle to Swimming,” written for Physical Culture Magazine , p. 121, 1909. Unknown photographer [Public domain].
In 1916, Annette even designed her own clothing and made shirt dresses of wool jersey. These were “long-sleeved shirts extended to the ankle to become a dress, flexible and comfortable and prominently not featuring a corset underneath.”[14] These sound a lot like the simple dress designs for which Chanel would become famous in the 1920’s. Annette was also an early adopter of pants, wearing them in public in the 1920s. Certainly, Annette was ahead of her time in terms of her sartorial choices.

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Fashionably corset-less and still in more typically Edwardian-style, here Annette looks at buying a ring.  1919, C.J. Hibbard, Library of Congress, [Public domain].

Finally, by about 1918, women were adapting a more practical bathing suit in the United States too. Instead of the cumbersome layered suits of the prior decade, they adapted something more like “Annette’s simple design: a body-hugging swimsuit covered with a tunic for modesty.”[15] Annette is credited with the design of the one-piece bathing suit for women and even made some of her own for other retailers.[16]

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Annette in a less restrictive form of the typical early 20th century look. 1900, Bain News Service, Library of Congress [Public domain].
Her career in film was relatively brief but memorable, making some silent films between 1909 and 1924. While she was particularly proud of Neptune’s Daughter (1914), there seemed to be a magnetic pull for her to come back to the stage with a live audience. Surprisingly, she went back to the vaudeville stage after becoming involved in Hollywood at a time when many vaudeville theaters, once so prominent, were being made-over into movie theaters.

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Annette playing her usual mermaid role. Merilla, The Queen of the Sea, 1918, Fox Films [Public domain].
Many years later in Annette’s life, when time Ester Williams was asked to play Annette in The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams commented “‘If I was unique in 1950, think how unique she was in 1915.’”[17] Annette was definitely years ahead of the curve in terms of her dedication to swimming as a woman, her continued rallying for women to adopt physical fitness in order to maintain a healthy body and lifestyle, and in her shockingly minimal swimwear. She was able to achieve remarkable feats and was undeterred by the status quo. We can see how physically fit she was from her photos and film clips of that time, which she would maintain throughout her long life, and her “men’s” bathing suit would become a catalyst for practical female swimwear. Along with other women of her day, her support of less-restrictive garments also encouraged women into the modern age, and her belief in achieving a “muscular corset” by diet and exercise is something we can still relate to today. Women today can thank Annette for swimming without multiple layers in the water!

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Annette, from Motion Picture News, 1920, Evans, L.A. (photographer) [Public domain].

-Danielle Morrin

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[1] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 8.

[2] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 12.

[3] Renée Bondy, “Swimming Upstream,” Herizons, vol. 30, issue 1, 2016, p. 9.

[4] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 15.

[5] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 17

[6] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 18

[7] Christine Schmidt and Jinna Tay, “Undressing Kellerman, Uncovering Broadhurst: The Modern Woman and ‘Un-Australia,’” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress Body and Culture, vol. 13, issue 4, p. 484.

[8] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 35

[9] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 60.

[10] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 74.

[11] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 88.

[12] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 88.

[13] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 89.

[14] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 96.

[15] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 97.

[16] Christine Schmidt and Jinna Tay, “Undressing Kellerman, Uncovering Broadhurst: The Modern Woman and ‘Un-Australia,’” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture, vol. 13, issue 4, p. 483.

[17][17] Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p 206.

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