Annette Kellerman: Australia’s very own mermaid

By Angela Heathcote 23 April 2019
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Every Australian should know the name Annette Kellerman.

This article is part of a new collaboration between the National Film and Sound Archive and Australian Geographic. You can also watch The Perfect Woman HERE.

ANNETTE Kellerman lived multiple lives. “She was an author, swimmer, movie star, comedian and an athlete,” says Beth Taylor, a digital content producer at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Last year, Beth put together an online exhibition on Annette’s fascinating life after coming across a few of her films buried in the NFSA archive.

“It all started when we saw incredible, rare footage of her performing an underwater ballet. It was shot by her husband when she was 52 years old. From there we delved into her work as an internationally renowned film star.”

So storied was Annette’s career that in 1952 Hollywood made a film about her life: Million Dollar Mermaid, which was her nickname after she starred in the 1914 film Neptune’s Daughter, which was one of the first films to earn one million dollars at the box office.

“There would not have been any other Australian woman who had a Hollywood film made about her life in the 1950s. Even today, that would be a big deal. She was obviously a big enough star that people wanted to know her story.”

The “Perfectly” Formed Woman

Unfortunately, a lot of the footage from Annette’s early days of swimming is lost. What the NFSA have managed to secure is a short snippet from The “Perfectly” Formed Woman, which was shot in 1912.

This particular film is critical in understanding how Annette made the transition from champion swimmer and diver to movie star.

“Swimming was very new at the time because, in the early 1900s, people weren’t encouraged to swim in daylight hours or in public,” Beth explains. “People were interested to learn more about it.”

In the film, Annette can be seen diving into the water in front of a huge crowd of people, as her body is described by Harvard University Professor Dudley Sargent as ‘the most perfect woman of modern times’.

“Swimming at the time was a performance,” Beth says. “Strokes like freestyle were just being invented so the sport was really experimental. Annette started incorporating elements of vaudeville and a circus act. She was so good at blending the two together.”

According to Beth, the film would have run like a newsreel in a cinema, prior to the screening of the main attraction, usually a feature film. “These newsreels were a lot different than they are today. They were slower and the stories had to be evergreen.”

Annette Kellerman and the idea of beauty

The idea of Annette as the ‘perfect woman’ with the perfect physique was a product of its time.

“Sargent was showing that even though women were being more physically active than ever before, they could still be what we’d consider classically beautiful.

“There was anxiety among men that women might change if their role changed. It was designed for him to say ‘No look, this woman is doing all this physical activity and her measurements are actually like Venus de Milo’s. Don’t stress!’”

An astute businesswoman, Annette capitalised on this image.

“Her relationship to that part of her mystique was complex. In her oral history she says being called the perfect woman was really ghastly but she understood that it was a part of her star power.

“Her 1918 book How to Swim was all about encouraging women to get fit, rather than a focus on physical beauty. Women’s corsetry became less restrictive after the First World War as women’s role in society changed, and Kellerman wanted them to take full advantage of their new freedom to move. She was also responsible for pioneering the one-piece bathing suit.

“I think it’s fair to say she was the Michelle Bridges of her day.”