Annette Kellerman’s accomplishments, from adversity to victory on the world stage, are astounding. Kellerman’s international popularity catapulted her to stardom, with Esther Williams portraying her in the 1952 Hollywood biopic Million Dollar Mermaid.
We shed light on the remarkable career of Australia’s own fearless mermaid in our latest online exhibition.
Annette was born in 1886 in Potts Point, Sydney. As a child, she suffered from rickets and needed leg braces. When her doctors recommended swimming as a way to improve her, she exceeded all expectations and became a champion.
However, this was just the start of her dazzlingly varied career.
Celebrity and scandal
From marathon swimming and diving shows, she went on to perform to sold-out crowds in London and later in New York with her one-of-a-kind vaudeville show. She first encountered controversy when her one-piece swimming suit (right) created a stir during a show for royalty.
In 1909, she made her film debut, appearing in 14 films. She earned the nickname “Million Dollar Mermaid” after her 1914 film Neptune’s Daughter (Herbert Brenon, USA, 1914) became one of the first films to gross a million dollars at the box office.
The ideal pioneer
Kellerman, who was so well ahead of her time in so many ways, used a drag king act in her performances, dressed dashingly in a tuxedo and monocle. She dubbed the protagonist The English Johnny.
She retained her sense of humor after being called ‘the Perfectly Formed Woman’ by the New York Times in 1912, despite finding the label ‘ghastly’. She is credited with portraying the first naked woman on film – in the three-hour epic A Divine Daughter (Herbert Brenon, USA, 1916).
She was a zealous advocate for women’s health, and in 1909 she launched a mail-order diet and fitness program that 40,000 women participated in.
Discarded by crocodiles
She performed all of the stunts in her films herself, including a 20-meter dive into the ocean with her hands and feet tied.
In her 1974 oral history, she describes being thrown into a lake of six crocodiles in A Daughter of the Gods, saying, ‘That was completely true to God, you know.’
Her athletic prowess is on display in this rare video of her one-of-a-kind style of underwater ballet:
We salute Annette Kellerman, Australia’s Fearless Mermaid, for being a genuine trailblazer.
Learn more about Annette through our online exhibition and curated set, which includes extracts from one of her last interviews prior to her death, newsreels, silent film excerpts, breathtaking photos, and candid home video footage taken later in her life.