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Cigarette card with photograph of Annette Kellerman in costume from the film A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
ANMM Collection

Annette Kellerman

Australian, 1886 - 1975

Annette Kellerman was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1886. She spent part of her childhood in Marrickville before catching what she called ‘mermaid fever’ when she learned to swim at Cavill’s Baths in Lavender Bay, North Sydney. As a teenager, she won her first NSW championship in 1902 and in 1904, Kellerman moved to England with her father. She found the opportunities she was looking for when she swam the Thames, the Danube and the Seine and became the first woman to attempt the swim across the English Channel.

Kellerman went to the USA in 1906 where she performed a range of dives and swimming techniques for audiences in Chicago and Boston. The media interest she attracted fuelled her ambitions for the stage and instigated a vocation in vaudeville theatres. Kellerman later realised her aquatic talents could go further and pursued a career in silent cinema, in which she performed a range of roles including the mythical mermaid, mysterious beauty and assertive heroine. There is a range of surviving photographs of Kellerman in her numerous guises, usually emphasising her athletic prowess. Kellerman would often be depicted staring directly at the viewer and confident and sensual wearing a tightly fitted swimsuit.

Images of her acquire even more significance when placed against a social and cultural context that espoused ideas of moral decency, propriety and femininity. Throughout her career, Kellerman gave lectures on women’s health and fitness and published two books in 1918, 'Physical Beauty and How to Keep It' and 'How to Swim'. She played a significant role in objecting to the ‘prudish and Puritanical’ ideas about women’s swimwear and purporting more practical swimsuit designs. When she was in England, she staved off accusations of impropriety by sewing a pair of stockings to the legs of her men’s swimsuit. Overall, her books are self-referential and self-congratulatory but there are other messages to be gleaned from its pages, centring on the importance of women’s health.

Though not quite a rebel, Kellerman created her own vocation and spoke to her audiences in a way that confronted real issues for women. She acknowledged the fickle nature of the film industry and the necessity to reinvent herself and what she called her ‘vogue’. This carefully fabricated image was fed by the print media disseminating the mythology that surrounded the swimming star. One widely reported myth is that Kellerman was arrested at a Boston beach in 1908 for indecent exposure. There is no recorded evidence of the arrest, even though newspapers reported – well after the event allegedly occurred – a ‘shocked howl’ that ‘went up and down the land’ and made ‘world-wide headlines’ resulting in Kellerman being ‘denounced as a wanton’. Given the sensationalism it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Though undoubtedly a talented swimmer, Annette Kellerman was the consummate performer, morphing into many personas to suit the context and audience. She captured the mystery of the female form, which she used to her advantage through revealing costumes and clingy swimsuits. Underneath the surface, however, were messages about women’s health and the need for practical swimwear designs. Whatever the truth or fiction behind the persona, one fact remains clear: Kellerman challenged social and cultural boundaries.

For her, swimming fed the ‘imagination’ and allowed her to escape and ‘forget a black earth full of people that push’. Through various media, she displayed how the streamlined swimsuit or the exotic costume represented freedom and vitality.

Sources:
Nicole Cama, 'The mermaid from Marrickville', Signals 99 (June - August 2012): 60-61.
Nicole Cama, 'Object of the Week: The Mermaid from Marrickville', ANMM blog 16/03/2012.