Acknowledgement of Country

The NFSA acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the lands and waterways across Australia. 

We pay respect to their Elders, past and present. 

How I did love acting and swimming in those beautiful pictures.

Annette Kellerman

Navigating the exhibition

You can navigate through this exhibition using the dots and chapter headings left of screen.

The arrow controls at bottom left and right of screen allow you to move back and forward between slides within each chapter.

You can also use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate.

We hope you enjoy this tribute to the extraordinary Annette Kellerman.

Who is Annette Kellerman? (compilation, 2018)

Fearless pioneer

After making examinations of 10,000 girls, Annette Kellerman is the closest to physical perfection of any. [She] embodies all the physical attributes that most of us demand in the Perfect Woman.

Dr Dudley Sargent – Director of the Harvard University Gymnasium, 1912

Warwick Bioscope Chronicle (newsreel, 1912)

Comparing Kellerman to Venus De Milo

Kellerman displays her diving skills while others discuss her physique.

Annette Kellerman oral history, 1974

'The most ghastly thing in the world'

Kellerman describes the impact of being labelled a 'perfect woman' in this oral history excerpt.

Annette Kellerman Returns to Australia (newsreel, 1933)

Writing a novel

Kellerman knew how to have fun with her reputation as a sex symbol. Her cheeky sense of humour is evident in this engaging newsreel.

The Original Mermaid (documentary, 2002)

Health and Fitness Entrepreneur

A pioneering healthy lifestyle guru, Kellerman wrote motivational books and offered coaching.

Swimming champion

Kellerman was a champion swimmer by the age of 16, holding every world record for women's swimming.

She performed daily 'mermaid shows' at Melbourne's Exhibition Building - displaying her diving and swimming skills.

A passionate swimming advocate she wrote a book called How to Swim in 1918.

Swimming for women is more than physical, it can engender self-confidence, and ... a kind of equality, even superiority to that of men.

It is the sport for women.

Annette Kellerman, 1915

Vaudeville star

When she moved to London in 1905 she combined swimming displays with a mix of comedy, dance, music and physical culture in a vaudeville act.

She also incorporated lectures about healthy diet and exercise into her routine.

The Original Mermaid (documentary, 2002)

Vaudeville star

Kellerman's vaudeville performances included diving, swimming, dance, underwater ballet, wire walking, music and comedy.

Bathing suit pioneer

Kellerman popularised the one-piece bathing suit in her vaudeville shows. Before this, women were expected to stay covered with pantaloons and other cumbersome garments.

She discovered the freedom of men's cotton swimsuits during her endurance swims across the English Channel and down the Seine, Thames and Danube Rivers in 1905.

Silent film star

After success in long-distance swimming and vaudeville, Kellerman became a star of the silver screen in the US.

She starred in around 14 silent films from 1909 – 1924, many of them with fairytale and swimming storylines.

Neptune's Daughter (silent feature, 1914)

'Annette' - both mermaid and woman

Three short sequenes from Neptune's Daughter starring Kellerman as 'Annette' the mermaid who assumes a human form and rescues her lover the King from prison.

Annette Kellerman oral history, 1974

Annette does her own stunts

Kellerman reflects on her skill as a stunt diver in this oral history excerpt.

Neptune's Daughter (bi-fold pamphlet, 1914)

Photographs like this publicity still from Neptune's Daughter (1914) show Kellerman's prowess as a stunt diver.

The film included a 20-metre high dive with her hands and feet bound together.

Unfortunately Kellerman's most spectacular stunts on film have been lost.

The lost film

The three-hour grand epic A Daughter of the Gods (1916) was the crowning glory of Kellerman's film career.

The film itself is lost, however publicity photos like this one give hints of Kellerman's star power.

There were plenty of opportunities for Annette the action hero to shine in the million dollar movie, from a 30-metre dive to being thrown into a pool of crocodiles!

Nude on celluloid?

Kellerman is credited with being the first woman to appear nude on screen.

However she later maintained she wasn't nude at all and wore 'a very thin pair of tights'.

The still opposite is from A Daughter of the Gods (1916).

Million Dollar Mermaid

In 1952 relative newcomer Esther Williams starred in a film based on Kellerman's life called Million Dollar Mermaid.

The film included audacious synchronised swimming choreography by Busby Berkeley and was billed as the 'biggest, most exciting water show ever staged'.

Kellerman was one of the first Australians to receive the biopic treatment in Hollywood.

Million dollar mermaid (film trailer, 1952)

Her legacy lives on

Sumptuous technicolour and grandiose choreographed swimming and diving routines are visually stunning but do not convey the plot of the movie as one would expect of a trailer.

Water ballerina

Kellerman's performance of the adagio (slow dance) underwater was a hallmark of her vaudeville shows and films.

Her stunning athleticism allowed her to hold poses underwater. She even trained herself to hold her breath underwater for three minutes and twenty seconds at a time.

She continued to master her unique style of water ballet throughout her career.

Underwater adagio (1939)

Kellerman's underwater ballet

Kellerman's combination of swimming and dance is both athletic and artistic.

Annette Kellerman's Water Ballet (newsreel, 1940)

Training the 'Kellermanettes'

Kellerman trained a troupe of 60 women in the art of synchronised underwater swimming for charity shows. She called them Kellermanettes.

Venus of the South Seas (silent feature, 1924)

Mermaid and fairy princess

This clip effectively displays Kellerman's natural underwater abilities. The intertitle is essential in providing the storyline.


Kellerman played a drag king called The English Johnny in her shows from 1918.
In 1909 she was involved in 'an exciting automobile chase down Broadway' to elude a court injunction.
Baseball commentators in the 1920s referred to diving catches as 'Annette Kellermans'.

Let’s face it, my dear. I really am just about one in a million.

Annette Kellerman


Special thanks to Peter Cox and Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.

Excerpts of The Original Mermaid courtesy Michael Cordell. Newsreel footage courtesy Cinesound Movietone Productions.

  • Exhibition Producer: Beth Taylor
  • Multimedia Producer: Rachael Priddel
  • Design elements: Cameron Emerson-Elliott
  • Licensing and rights: Bronwyn Dowdall, Anna Yates
  • Additional copy: Adam Blackshaw
  • Oral History Curator: Bronwyn Murphy
  • Oral history interviewer: Joel Greenberg