From adversity to triumph on the world stage

BY BETH TAYLOR

 

Annette Kellerman's achievements are awe-inspiring. From swimming champion to movie star, Kellerman's international success led to Esther Williams portaying her in the 1952 Hollywood biopic Million Dollar Mermaid.

In our new online exhibition, we shed light on the extraordinary career of Australia's own fearless mermaid.

Overcoming adversity

Born in 1886 in Potts Point, Sydney, Annette had rickets and needed leg braces as a child. When doctors prescribed swimming as a strengthening treatment she surpassed all their expectations and became a champion.

But this was only the beginning of her dazzlingly diverse career. 

Black and white image of Annette Kellerman wearing a one-piece bathing suit and holding her arm out in front of her. She is looking at the camera.

Annette Kellerman wearing a one-piece bathing suit in 1907. NFSA title: 584701.

Stardom and controversy

From marathon swimming and diving shows she went on to play packed houses with her unique vaudeville show in London and later New York. She became acquainted with controversy early on when the one-piece bathing costume (right) she developed caused a stir during her performance for royalty.

In 1909 she got into the movies – going on to star in 14 films. She became known as the Million Dollar Mermaid when her 1914 film Neptune's Daughter (Herbert Brenon, USA, 1914) was one of the first films to take one million dollars at the box office.

Perfect pioneer

Ahead of her time in so many ways, Kellerman included a drag king act in her shows – looking dashing in a tuxedo and monocle. She called the character The English Johnny.

A sex symbol of the early 1900s, she kept her sense of humour about being dubbed 'the Perfectly Formed Woman' by the New York Times in 1912, although she found the label 'ghastly'. She is credited as being the first woman to appear nude on film – in the three-hour epic A Daughter of the Gods (Herbert Brenon, USA, 1916).

She was a passionate advocate for women's health and in 1909 she formulated a mail-order diet and fitness program undertaken by 40,000 women.

Thrown to the crocodiles

Strong and powerful, she performed all of her own stunts in her movies, including a 20-metre dive into the ocean with her hands and feet bound.

In her 1974 oral history she tells the story of being thrown into a pool with six crocodiles in A Daughter of the Gods saying 'That was honest to God you know'.

You can see her physical prowess in this rare footage of her unique style of underwater ballet:

A true trailblazer, we salute Annette Kellerman – Australia's Fearless Mermaid.

Discover more about Annette in our online exhibition and the accompanying curated collection, including excerpts of one of the last interviews before her death, newsreels, silent film excerpts, stunning photographs and candid home movie footage taken later in her life.

Main image: Annette Kellerman as a child. NFSA title: 585896.