Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman (6 July 1886 – 6 November 1975) was an Australian professional swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress and writer. She was one of the first women to wear a one-piece bathing costume, instead of the then-accepted pantaloons, and inspired others to follow her example.
She is often credited for inventing the sport of synchronised swimming after her 1907 performance of the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Kellerman was born in Marrickville, New South Wales, Australia, on 6 July 1886, to Australian-born violinist Frederick William Kellerman, and his French wife, Alice Ellen Charbonnet, a pianist and music teacher.
At the age of 6, a weakness in Kellerman’s legs necessitated the wearing of painful steel braces to strengthen them. In order to further overcome her disability, her parents enrolled her in swim classes at Cavill’s baths in Sydney. By the age of 13, her legs were practically normal, and by 15, she had mastered all the swimming strokes and won her first race. At this time she was also giving diving displays.
In 1902, Kellerman decided to take her swimming seriously and subsequently won the ladies’ 100 yards and mile championships of New South Wales in the record times of 1 minute, 22 seconds and 33 minutes, 49 seconds respectively. In that same year, her parents decided to move to Melbourne, and she was enrolled at Mentone Girls’ Grammar School where her mother had accepted a music teaching position.
During her time at school, Kellerman gave exhibitions of swimming and diving at the main Melbourne baths, performed a mermaid act at Princes Court entertainment centre and did two shows a day swimming with fish in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium. In June–July 1903 she performed sensational high dives in the Coogee scene of Bland Holt’s spectacular, The Breaking of the Drought, at the Melbourne Theatre Royal.
On 24 August 1905, aged 18, Annette Kellerman was the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. After three unsuccessful swims she declared, “I had the endurance but not the brute strength.”
Kellerman was famous for advocating the right of women to wear a one-piece bathing suit, which was controversial at the time. According to an Australian magazine, “In the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. In 1907, at the height of her popularity, Kellerman was arrested on Revere Beach, Massachusetts, for indecency – she was wearing one of her fitted one-piece costumes.”
The popularity of her one-piece suits resulted in her own line of women’s swimwear. The “Annette Kellermans”, as they were known, were the first step to modern swimwear. It may be argued that the “Annette Kellerman” is the direct ancestor of the unitard.
Kellerman and Beatrice Kerr, who was billed as “Australia’s Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver”, were keen rivals, although they never met in a competitive race.
In 1908, after a study of 3000 women, Dr Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University dubbed her the Perfect Woman because of the similarity of her physical attributes to the Venus de Milo.
Kellerman married her American-born manager, James Raymond Louis Sullivan, on or around 26 November 1912 at Danbury, Connecticut.
In 1916, Kellerman became the first major actress to do a nude scene when she appeared fully nude in A Daughter of the Gods. Made by Fox Film Corporation, Daughter of the Gods was the first million-dollar film production. Like many of Kellerman’s other films, this is now considered a lost film as no copies are known to exist.
The majority of Kellerman’s films had themes of aquatic adventure. She performed her own stunts including diving from ninety-two feet into the sea and sixty feet into a pool of crocodiles. Many times she would play mermaids named Annette or variations of her own name. Her “fairy tale films”, as she called them, started with The Mermaid (1911), in which she was the first actress to wear a swimmable mermaid costume on film, paving the way for future screen sirens such as Glynis Johns (Miranda), Esther Williams and Daryl Hannah (Splash). She designed her own mermaid swimming costumes and sometimes made them herself. Similar designs are still used by The Weeki Wachee Springs Mermaids, including her aquatic fairy costume first introduced in Queen of the Sea (1918).
Kellerman appeared in one of the last films made in Prizma Color, Venus of the South Seas (1924), a U.S./New Zealand co-production where one reel of the 55-minute film was in color and underwater. Venus of the South Seas was restored by the Library of Congress in 2004 and is the only feature film starring Annette Kellerman known to exist in its complete form.
In addition to her film and stage career, Kellerman wrote several books including How To Swim (1918), Physical Beauty: How to Keep It (1919), a book of children’s stories titled Fairy Tales of the South Seas (1926) and My Story, an unpublished autobiography. She also wrote numerous mail order booklets on health, beauty and fitness.
A lifelong vegetarian, Kellerman owned a health food store in Long Beach, California. She and her husband returned to live in Australia in 1970, and in 1974 she was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She remained active well into old age continuing to swim and exercise until a short time before her death.
Preceded by her husband in death, Annette Kellerman died in hospital at Southport, Queensland, Australia, on 5 November 1975, aged 89 and was cremated with Roman Catholic rites. Her remains were scattered in the Great Barrier Reef. She had no children.
Kellerman’s large collection of costumes and theatrical memorabilia was bequeathed to the Sydney Opera House. Today, many of her original costumes and personal items are held by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia.
She was portrayed by Esther Williams in the film Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Her name is on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on Hollywood Boulevard.
An award-winning Australian documentary called The Original Mermaid about Annette Kellerman was produced in 2002.
A brand new swimming complex in Marrickville opened December 2010 has been named after her.