Annette Kellermann reinvented beauty as a champion swimmer at a time when women with strong muscles were considered by many to be unattractive, if not subversive. She established herself first in Australia and then Europe where she attempted to cross the English Channel. Next she broke into American vaudeville and feature films as the first human mermaid with her underwater ballet routines. Annette Kellermann (later spelled Kellerman) shattered norms as a fitness and beauty guru and entrepreneur. And then she reinvented female swimming costumes with her own scandalous line of one-piece swimsuits.
Kellermann (July 6, 1887 – November 6, 1975) became an international sensation for her extraordinary talent as a swimmer and performer as well as her fierce defiance of accepted standards for female behavior. Her life story is one of triumph in the face of adversity. In childhood, she overcame a condition that could have left her crippled for life. Throughout her career, she fought for every opportunity while remaining true to her life vision.
Following are ten highlights from the life of Annette Kellermann, based on her own books, How to Swim (1918) and Physical Beauty How To Keep It (1918).
#1 Annette Kellerman Turned Childhood Illness Into Gold
In early childhood, rickets weakened her legs, forcing her to walk with painful steel braces. She wrote in her book, How To Swim (1918):
“The old days of my crippled childhood seem unbelievably distant as I write this. My early physical misfortune has turned out to be the greatest blessing that could have come to me. Without it I should have missed the grim struggle upward and the reward that waited at the end of it all.”
Her father was a native Australian, her mother Alsatian French and a famed pianist. She said that her family had no intention of “making a mermaid of me, amateur or professional.”
As a child Annette Kellermann felt humiliated by the steel braces she needed to walk. Doctors said her condition would never change. But her father found one who believed swimming could change his daughter’s future. Despite her resistance, he insisted that she take lessons.
“To those of you who know me now as the “Diving Venus,” “Queen of the Mermaids,” “Neptune’s Daughter,” and what not, this may sound very strange; but the truth was that I was terrified at the thought of swimming. Perhaps my fears were increased by my humiliation because of my dread of exposing my weak and ill-formed legs.” (How to Swim, (HTS) P.1)
Kellermann said that if her father had not been so persistent, she would never have overcome her “childish fears” and she would not have enjoyed a lifetime of indulging in skating, dancing and twenty-five mile constitutionals, “in addition to making my regular livelihood as a moving picture mermaid.”
#2 She Won Swimming And Diving Competitions Across Australia
Kellermann worked arduously to develop her swimming technique, strength, speed and endurance as well as style and grace. In spite of her progress, her father thought it was absurd for her to compete against well-known champion swimmers.
“My first contest was a forty-five yard event, in which I swam against Miss Buttel, who was regarded as the fastest girl swimmer in our locality. I came in winner by a couple of yards, very much to my father’s astonishment. After that I was always placed at scratch, and lost only one race.” (HTS p. 16)
It was not long before she won the championship for New South Wales by swimming 100 yards in one minute and eighteen seconds. The same year she won the one-mile championship in thirty- two minutes and twenty-nine seconds—at that time a world’s record. She later lowered it to twenty-eight minutes. She also began to swim for distance and did ten miles in the Yarra River near Melbourne.
#3 Kellermann Developed A Passion For Performing
She began performing two daily shows at the Melbourne Exhibition Aquarium in what was then the largest glass tank in the world. It was sixty feet—with fish swimming around her.
The next winter Bland Holt hired her for his production, “The Breaking of the Drought,” at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne where her performances included death-defying high dives. It was a novel scene, a real stage flooded with real water. A near life-threatening experience on this stage demonstrated her grace under pressure.
“Through my own foolhardiness I was nearly sucked down the hole through which the water was being emptied from the stage tank. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to catch the end of a beam which was projecting over the side, and screaming hard, managed to attract attention.” (HTS p. 18)
#4 She And Her Father Conquered England
Annette Kellermann and her father yearned to expand her career beyond the limited possibilities available in Australia. In 1905 they sailed to England where she secured a few private engagements. Among them, she swam before the Duke and Duchess of Connaught at the Bath Club. “But high society was not going in for mermaids enough that season to keep the wolf in his den.”
She swam the 17-miles along the Thames from Putney to Blackwall, attracting the attention of the sporting man of the Daily Mirror in 1905. He told her that if she would attempt to swim the English Channel he would represent her. He paid her eight pounds a week while in training.
“…father and I were to go down to Dover while the Mirror was to announce every day that I would swim along the shore from one summer resort to another. Success seemed within our grasp.” (HTS, p. 21)
Her preparatory training made good copy for the Daily Mirror, which was exactly what her sponsor wanted. She made many swims along the English coast, starting out by swimming from Dover, four and a half miles, to St. Margaret’s Bay. Then nine miles from Dover to Deal, eleven miles, to Ramsgate and so on. And so she worked up to longer distances, all the while in the public eye.
Kellermann called the Channel “most treacherous.”
“If it were only a matter of swimming twenty-two miles, the distance from Calais to Dover, the task would not be so difficult, even if the sea were a bit choppy. But having to ziz-zag by reason of the tides, the actual swimming distance across the Channel is something more than forty miles. “ (HTS, p. 22)
It was about two o’clock in the morning when the group assembled on the beaches. According to Kellermann, Channel swimmers always start in the middle of the night in order to get the hardest three or four hours of the work done while they feel most fit. Then, when their strength and courage begin to wane, daylight brings new hope and vigor. The first two hours of a long-distance swim are very difficult. It takes one that long to settle down to steady work, to get one’s pace, to feel confident that one is doing the regulation twenty-eight strokes to the minute.
“I was seasick every half hour. But I stuck it out for six and three-quarter hours. You will wonder that I remained in the water so long, suffering from sea- sickness and the chafing of my bathing suit, and cold and weariness. But dad and I were desperately poor—we must have money. And I kept saying to myself, “The longer you stick, the more you get!” (HTS-p. 26)
The other contestants were in the water longer than Kellermann, but she swam farther than the rest although they were all men. For this attempt at swimming the Channel she was paid thirty pounds. She was also making a name as one of the first females to attempt the swim.
#5 They Travelled To America For Greater Opportunities
When long distance swimming was no longer the fad in Europe, Annette Kellermann and her father travelled to America to advance her career.
“We went to Chicago, made straight for the White City Park, and managed to get possession of a very small enclosure on the principal thor- oughfare—right across the way from the Igorrotes and next door to the snake man!“ (HTS-p. 30)
Their place had a high false front, but no roof. In it was a tank fourteen feet long, containing water five and one-half feet deep, and surrounded by seats like a circus. they charged an admission of ten cents and gave fifty-five performances a week, five or six on week days and twelve to eighteen on weekends. Kellermann became known for her underwater ballet combined with high-diving.
“At each performance I gave three examples of the most approved styles of swimming, did some fantastic stunts—porpoise swimming and the like—and sixteen dives, backward, forward and sidewise. At last I was making good money steadily.
When the season closed in Chicago, I went to Boston and was doing similar stunts when Mr. Keith saw me and offered me three hundred dollars a week for two shows a day in vaudeville.” (HTS-p. 30-31)
#6 She Innovated Underwater Dance
According to The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Kellermann’s slow underwater dance (adagio) was a hallmark of her performances.
Her stunning athleticism allowed her to hold poses underwater for three minutes and twenty seconds at a time.
Kellermann continued to master her unique style of water ballet throughout her career. She innovated the art form that would become known as synchronized swimming in her 1907 performance at the New York Hippodrome. In 1917 she starred in “The Big Show.” Billed as “The Diving Venus, Annette Kellerman (herself),” she appeared in an onstage water extravaganza with a company of “200 water nymphs.” The finale was high dive into a massive glass tank of water.
Her grace and style underwater inspired many performers of her day, including famed dancer Isadora Duncan.
In July 1907, the Chicago Herald Tribune wrote:
“None should fail to see Miss Kellerman, as she is not only an expert swimmer but a beautiful woman, who is at her best in her bathing suit.”
Annette Kellermann was diving 72ft from the topmast of a steamship. By 1914, she was earning $2,500 a week.
#7 The Human Mermaid Enters Motion Pictures
The motion picture industry had not yet moved to Hollywood. Many production companies were based at Fort Lee, New Jersey, near New York. For a long time Kellermann had an idea that she must be in motion pictures.
“So I practically peddled myself among the various moving picture studios. But none of the directors seemed to want me. Then I asked Captain Leslie Peacock, a successful scenario writer, to write a scenario about fairies and mermaids for me.”
The outcome was Neptune’s Daughter.
“And let me say that, although they made a million dollars out of it, nobody in that concern had any faith in the picture until it was put on at the Globe Theatre in New York, and they realized what the public thought of it. They begrudged every bit of the thirty-five thousand dollars that went into it. We went to Bermuda to make the picture, as that island offered every natural facility that was required.” (HTS-p. 32)
It was during the making of this film that she escaped another life-threatening accident. This time the producers purchased a substandard tank that failed. When the glass broke, Kellerman was dragged through shards. She was hospitalized and needed six weeks to recover from the injuries.
She starred in 14 silent films from 1909 – 1924, many of them with fairytale and swimming storylines. Among her most famous films were Neptune’s Daughter (1914), A Daughter of the Gods (1916) and Queen of the Sea (1918) and Venus of the South Seas (1924).
She starred in two early aquatic spectacle moves, “Neptune’s Daughter of the Gods” in 1916. In addition to designing her own costumes, she he was a stunt coordinator. In one film she was hurled from a cliff into the sea, tied hand and foot. In another she staged a spectacular underwater fight with a man.
In the fantasy drama Daughter of the Gods, she became the first person to appear nude in a motion picture. She sat naked on a tree branch with her arms stretched upwards, using her hair to cover her breasts. Nevertheless, it was wildly risqué in 1916.
#8 She Launched Her One-Piece Swimsuit Line
Kellermann was a ferocious advocate for swimming as a way to natural healthy beauty. As part of that, she bucked the mores that placed women to wear proper long pantaloon dresses while swimming.
“While woman as compared with man is endowed by nature with many advantages as a swimmer, Dame Society has bequeathed her serious handicaps. The bathing girl of our popular beaches only a few seasons ago wore shoes, stockings and bloomers, skirts, corsets and a dinky little cap; all she needed was a pair of rubbers and an umbrella and she could have gone anywhere in any weather.
But thank heaven in the last two or three years styles have become more sensible—and in my opinion more decent —though some prudes continue to call them in-decent. Not only in matters of swimming but in all forms of activity woman’s natural development is seriously restricted and impaired by social customs and costumes and all sorts of prudish and puritanical ideas.”
Swimmers were not the only female athletes being held back by outrageous constraints of their costumes. Female cyclists still braved scorn if they dared wear pantaloons. Victorian Strong women along with other female circus performers often earned good livings, but they continually struggled for respect. And women in competitive sports including tennis pros were pushing for the acceptance of sensible clothing. Even female mountain climbers were expected to wear long petticoats and heavy skirts.
Annette Kellermann wrote articles and gave lectures reminiscent of those given by Victoria Woodhull who was the first woman to run for the office of president of the United States in 1872. Both frequently touched on the way young females were forced to forego many childhood activities.
“As womanhood approaches these restrictions become even more severe and the young woman was corseted and gowned and thoroughly imbued with the idea that it was most unladylike to be possessed of legs or to know how to use them.
All of this pseudo-moral restriction discourages physical activity in woman, and yet she manages fairly well as a land-animal, and accommodates her steps to hampering petticoats with a fair degree of skill. But when a woman enters the water clad in Madame Grundy’s conventional wardrobe, she indeed invites troubles galore.”
There is no more reason why you should wear those awful water overcoats—those awkward, un- necessary, lumpy “bathing suits,” than there is that you should wear lead chains. Heavy bathing suits have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps. I am certain that there isn’t a single reason under the sun why everybody should not were light weight suits. Any one who persuades you to wear the heavy skirty kind is endangering your life.” (HTS-p. 45)
#9 She Wrote New Rules For Female Beauty
Annette Kellermann wrote Physical Beauty How To Keep It (1918) as a way to spread her convictions about the changing role of women in the new world. She includes chapters on skin care, how to maintain beautiful hands and feet, and proper diet for a lifetime of abundant health.
In her chapter on The Right to be Beautiful, Kellermann writes:
“But this ancient stupid notion that forbids a woman consciously to cultivate beauty is rapidly losing ground. The more intellectual women of today recognize that they can no longer make pretty clothes and nicely powdered noses take the place of genuine bodily beauty.
She must possess that invisible inward beauty of health that is the basis of all visible outward beauty of face and form, To this fundamental source of inner beauty she must add the conscious external beauty of grace of action and expression as seen in the supple body, well groomed and well dressed,–in features and complexion well cared for and in a mind cultivated n wit, ease and expression.” (Beauty-pp. 12-13)
Needless to say, Annette Kellermann was an evangelist for the power of swimming to build good health and beauty. At a time when many people believed women should not engage in any activities that built muscle, Kellermann advocated the opposite.
Her book includes chapters on: Muscular Development and the Ideal form, Muscular Activity As The Source of Grace, Swimming As A Woman’s Sport, and The Muscular Corset. She also wrote chapters on skin care, maintaining beautiful hands and feet, and proper diet to enjoy abundant health and beauty.
“…a woman must be beautiful of body to the very core of her being: she must have health-beauty, vital radiant health that keeps the bloom upon her cheek, the flash and sparkle in her eye, the snap and vigour in her carriage, grace in her every movement, and last but by no means least, the vivacity of mind that can no more flower in a sick and weakly body that roses can thrive on barren impoverished soil.” (Beauty-p.17)
#10 Annette Kellermann Was An Evangelist For Swimming
To swim successfully one must have complete control of the muscles. Not the indecisive control that most women have—but the certain knowledge that when a demand is put upon a particular muscle, that muscle is going to perform the task put up to it and not collapse before it is half through.
“Control gives poise. And poise is the essence of all beauty. Why? Because it establishes dignity. And beside dignity the frail marks of superficial beauty are insignificant.
The First Human Mermaid
“Though my swimming has earned me a goodly fortune I am still looking for my chest of gold in a cool dripping sea cave—though a professional mermaid for the movies I still wait to see my first real one sitting on a damp grey rock combing her long green hair.”
She retired from entertainment by the 1930s. But she continued her role as a beauty and fitness guru and maintained her rigorous exercise and fitness regimen until shortly before her death in 1975.
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