A woman walks onto a beach in her favourite swimsuit and is confronted by the police because her outfit is deemed inappropriate. Question: which year is it?
It could be France in 2016 and the woman could be wearing a burkini. In this case, though, it was 1907 and the woman dared to show her bare legs in public.
The woman is Annette Kellermann, swimming legend, inventor of the bathing suit for women, star of the big stages, voted to be the “perfect woman”, silent movie pioneer, creator of the underwater ballet, and all around badass.
The bathing suit she got arrested for wearing looked something like this:
From Rickets to Racing
Annette was born in Sydney in July 1886. Early in her life, she was diagnosed with rickets, a childhood disease that left her legs deformed and made it hard for her to walk. In order to bend her legs the right way, she had to wear heavy braces until she was seven years old.
Her parents were both musicians and ran a pretty successful conservatoire, like music school, in town. Rather than slaving over piano lessons, Annette preferred books and sneaking into a corner to get lost in her fairy tales.
When the braces finally came off, her legs were still a bit weak, and her doctor recommended swimming lessons to try and strengthen them.
Annette… hated it. Obviously, the idea of physical activity wasn’t so hot after having been strapped into Forrest Gumpian torturing devices for so long. At first, she watched the others from the sidelines, but after a while, she figured this swimming thing out and promised herself that she would get better and faster than any of them.
It didn’t take long for Annette to master swimming and to beat all the boys in her swim club. In fact, she loved kicking ass so much that she could be found in the water much more often than at school.
Naturally, she quickly got bored of simply swimming faster than anyone else and set her eyes on the next challenge – diving. Diving, not like breathing underwater to look at Nemo and Dory, but like jumping off a board from crazy heights with the grace of a goddess only to land in the water like she’d never done anything else in her life.
“Once Annette entered the water she underwent a kind of Protean metamorphosis – she was transformed from crippled child to beautiful mermaid, from weakling to superwoman, from colonial curiosity to international sensation.”, it says in her biography.
Going Pro Mermaid
When she was 14, Australia was hit by the economic depression. Her father had never been a fan of the idea that Annette swam competitively, but he miraculously changed his mind when he realised she might be able to earn some money. Now that he wasn’t spending all his time at his music school, he finally got to witness the full awesomeness of Annette’s skills in the water.
Annette started focusing more on her training and quickly became the most badass swimmer that ever swam. She broke a world record at age 15 and became the first woman on record to ever swim 10 miles or 16km. That’s right, no other woman, on record, had ever swum that far before.
Turning her mermaid-like skills into a job, Annette started doing underwater performances at the Melbourne aquarium. She made the job her own, fusing her love for swimming and ballet to create a mesmerising mermaid show with shiny and glittery outfits, and the people bloody loved it.
After a while, however, Annette felt like she had broken all the records and done all the shows, and didn’t have anything left to accomplish in Australia. So she and her father set sails to Europe to swim across the English channel, because what else was there to do?
A Mermaid in England
In England, however, she didn’t receive the warmest welcome. Frankly, people didn’t care much about swimming in general and much less about a swimming chick from Australia.
To get some attention, her Dad came up with the nifty plan for Annette to swim 26 miles in the Thames. That’s 42 kilometres, basically a full on marathon. Today, we would call this a cutting edge guerilla marketing strategy.
Now the Thames these days is already gross, but back then, it was even worse with tons of factories pumping their waste, oil and even sewage into it. But Annette swam right through all that shit, literally, and succeeded in getting the attention of the locals and the press. From being completely unknown, she swam straight onto the front pages of the biggest London newspapers.
Following her success, the Daily Mirror, only a bit more classy then than it is now, offered her some money to swim along the coast of England. But not just once, oh no! They figured it would provide them with a good stream of material if the newly christened ‘Australian Mermaid’ swam an average of 45 miles per week (that’s over 70km!) for eight weeks (that’s 8 weeks!).
Let that sink in. That’s 580 km, or about the equivalent of swimming from London to Cork in Ireland, or from New York to Pittsburgh.
Annette, always up for a challenge, agreed to it and naturally accomplished it all in record time. Not only did this provide her with incredible publicity, it was also the perfect boot camp for her channel swim.
Cocoa and the Channel
Ok, so swimming the Channel is not as easy as it sounds, although it doesn’t really sound easy, does it? Swimmers face icy waters, unpredictable currents, jellyfish, sharks. Just a lovely experience all around.
Additionally, the four men she was competing against were allowed to swim naked, covered in seal fat (yuck), while Annette had to wear a swimming costume which would ensure she was covering her scandalous female body appropriately. Unfortunately, the costume ended up rubbing the skin off under the arms, not making it any easier for her. But hey, at least she got to cover herself in porpoise oil (still yuck).
Annette had also scored a sponsorship by Cadbury’s Cocoa. It turns out, though, that hot chocolate is not the greatest thing to fill up on before trying to cross the bloody English Channel. After battling the elements for six hours, the cocoa and the rough seas were starting to get to Annette’s stomach.
Although being extremely seasick, she wouldn’t give up and her team, safely in a boat beside her, had to drag her out of the water against her will. Annette was not happy about having given up, but at least, none of the other dudes made it either, so all good.
She attempted to swim the Channel two more times, and came really close, but never made it all the way. However, she was still the first woman to ever get this far and she held that record for a whole 21 years until another badass called Gertrude Ederhle made it all the way across.
Inventing the bathing suit for women
So undeniably, Annette Kellermann is a badass. However, here’s the thing that first got me hooked on her story.
Swimming was not really a sport for women in Europe at the time. And when women did go to the beach, they basically just waded into the water and stood there. Or, if they were keen to get a bit active, they could be “jumping through the waves while holding on to a rope attached to an off-shore bouy“. Yeah. No, thanks.
Because of cultural norms at the time, women were also not allowed to show certain parts of their body, like their legs. When Annette came to Europe (and later to the US), women’s beach wear, therefore, looked something like this :
It is very obvious that this is not an outfit you can properly swim in for more than two strokes. As a result, women didn’t even consider swimming as a sport because, well, they would have just drowned in their outfits.
Annette wouldn’t have any of that. She was always focused on peak physical performance and her bathing suits had to be able to deal with it, so she would usually wear men’s one piece bathing suits, scandal or not.
However, once she’d reached a certain amount of fame in England, she was asked to perform in front of royalty. She was told that she couldn’t do that in her usual swimsuit because it showed her legs… how obscene. Annette, quick thinker as always, simply sewed some stockings to her swimsuit, and voila the fitted swimsuit for women was born.
Annette’s success, and the fact that she was once chosen by a scientist to have the “perfect female body”, had many women looking up to her for inspiration. Physical beauty was a big deal at the time, as, unfortunately, it is still today, with women squeezing themselves into corsets to adhere to the beauty standards.
Annette was the first to advocate for women to get physically fit, and that swimming was the best way to achieve this. She wrote an entire book called “How to Swim” to teach women that they can be independent and strong, and totally capable of kick guys’ asses once they get into the water.
Following her arrest for showing her legs on a beach, Annette made the convincing case in court that swimming was an awesome sport, but that women were more likely to drown in the “appropriate” costumes of the time than to learn how to swim. The judge, agreeing with her, allowed her to swim in her one piece suit, with the caveat that she had to stay “appropriately covered” until she got into the water.
As a result, Annette created a full swimwear line which became hugely popular, because it liberated women from the confinements of the outfits available at the time and allowed them to enjoy the water like it should be. Swimming freely, like a bloody mermaid.
Rocking the Hippodrome
Thanks to all the media coverage, Annette had by now become rather famous, and she got offered a show at the Hippodrome in London – one of the biggest stages at the time.
For the show, Annette performed many extremely daring dives into a tiny pool on stage, wearing extremely fabulous, and very provocative, outfits. It was a ginormous hit with the crowds.
Her success in London quickly led to more job offers in the US, so without hesitation, Annette and her father packed their bags and headed to America.
Annette was unstoppable. Wherever she went, people had never seen anything like it, and all her shows were quickly sold out.
Her father, on the other hand, was not the youngest spring chicken anymore, and, having been on the road with his daughter for many years, he yearned to go home to his wife. He left Annette to be managed by their trusted colleague James R. Sullivan, Jimmie, who became her manager and then some.
Annette and her father said their goodbyes when he returned to Europe, where he died only three months later.
What the hell is Vaudeville?
With new management and an endless amount of energy, Annette scored a contract to rock her skills on the big stages of New York. The big thing everybody was into in those days was Vaudeville Theatre. Now, what the hell is Vaudeville, I hear you ask?
Vaudeville was the biggest form of mass entertainment at the time. Vaudeville shows were basically giant versions of Britain’s Got Talent, minus Simon Cowell. Each show consisted of several acts, aiming to wow the audience with their skills. We’re talking singers, musicians, acrobats, dancers, trained animals, jugglers, plays, what have you.
Even Vaudeville was sold as clean family entertainment, many of the acts and costumes were a bit suggestive, to say the least, so Annette in her tight bathing suit and officially perfect body fit right in. Although, I’m sure her success was due to her daring dives as much as her sexy swimsuit.
Normally, Vaudeville stars, or Vaudevillians, did a couple of shows in one place and then moved to a different place once the audience grew tired of their act. Annette’s diving extravaganza, however, was so popular that she managed to stay at the same theatre in New York for two years!
Enjoying life like a man
Annette was definitely a dare devil. Additionally to swimming and diving, she also loved fencing, archery, and racing around in her car – on and off track. She got arrested for speeding on multiple occasions and even got refused for life insurance, thanks to all the badassery she was up to.
She saw that men got to enjoy life a lot more than women did and wanted a piece of that cake. She definitely took it and ate it too. She wanted women to be free and be able to enjoy their lives.
She encouraged women to take up swimming and gave talks advocating for women to free themselves from the confinements of current fashions and wear more comfortable clothes instead.
“The corset has done more to make physical cowards of women than any other thing since slavery” p. 96
It’s kinda hard to be a rebel if you can’t breathe properly.
Her talks were so popular that she also started writing books on fitness and diet, showing women easy ways to get healthy, and yes, physically fit, and therefore happy.
Go on and kiss the girl
People say that you can’t have luck in love and business at the same time. Of course, Annette didn’t care too much about sticking to these silly rules.
If this was a rom com we would have seen the main man / best friend – Jimmie – obviously in love with the main girl from the very beginning. While we are painfully aware, the main girl seems utterly oblivious to his and her own feelings for the entire first part of the movie.
She only realises her own feelings for him when she finds out that he, in fact, has feelings for her. This realisation is followed by a period of awkwardness, where neither of them knows how to act around the other anymore now that they are aware of their feelings. The awkward phase continues, until one of them, in this case, the girl, can’t take it anymore and takes the important step. Queue wedding bells, and happily ever afters. I’m serious, that is pretty much exactly what happened here.
In the early 1910s, Annette started flirting with the idea of making a movie, a proper water movie with mermaids and everything. Fairy tales were not a usual subject for movies at the time, and her idea wasn’t met with great enthusiasm by the studios. They simply didn’t understand why people would be interested in seeing ‘wet women fish’ on screen.
However, Jimmie worked his agent magic and eventually found a studio with the guts to produce Annette’s mermaid movie.
Neptune’s Daughter ended up becoming one of the biggest movie productions of its time, and a spellbinding screen miracle for the audience, most of who, for the most part, had never seen mermaids before.
The movie was shot on location in Bermuda, which was a pretty unknown colony at the time, and had to be reached by cargo ship.
Annette owned the screen in her fabulous outfits, doing incredible stunts and fighting like a man to save her prince. She was the true first movie heroine, and here we are 100 years later, getting all excited about Wonder Woman. I’m not sure where we went wrong in between. Not at all looking at you, Disney.
Unsurprisingly, Annette never used a stunt double. She did it all, jumping off cliffs, diving from insane heights, underwater fight scenes, you name it. While filming one of the underwater scenes the water tank broke, and the moving water flushed Annette and her screen partner through a tiny crack in the glass out into the open. They got cut up so badly, that Annette had to stay in the hospital for 6 weeks. Once recovered, she went straight back to filming, fighting, and diving.
Neptune’s Daughter came out in April 1914 and played to full cinemas for the next 7 months, a record only broken in 1955.
Here is one of the last surviving clips of Annette’s performance in Neptune’s Daughter (see 2:03 for diving):
Daughter of the Gods
Following the success of Neptune’s Daughter, the studio went crazy to produce her next movie, Daughter of the Gods. With a giant budget in their pocket, the crew took off and basically invaded Jamaica. They took over the island and the people, had local children playing gnomes, created villages, and made waterfalls appear.
Annette’s stunts also got crazier and more daring. To give you an example, she jumped off that huge waterfall, with her hands tied, which again almost killed her. She also let herself be thrown into a pool of hungry, real life crocodiles. The woman seriously had no sense of danger.
The movie was one of the biggest productions the young film industry had ever seen. It blew people’s minds and made Annette the most famous woman of the time.
In 1916 the Boston Post writes:
“She displays a courage that is nothing short of divine. After seeing her one may feel like defying any ten-foot man in the audience to declare that the sex of which she is an ideal example hasn’t the courage to fight or the ability to vote or do anything else they choose to do. If votes were obtained by physical or mental courage, Miss Kellerman would demand a million of them.”
To Eternity and Beyond
Annette went on to star in another movie and then went back to the stages with the biggest show you can imagine. There were over 200 mermaids for crying out loud!
She also became the first person ever to dive out of an airplane into the ocean without a parachute. What the hell girl!
She continued touring through the US, then Australia and New Zealand. She also decided to conquer Europe where her type of theatre was still alive and well. She first went to London, then she was off to Germany where she did the whole show in German natürlich, even though she had never learned a word of German before. Then she did the same thing in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Dutch. As you do.
During WW2, Annette and Jimmie were back in Australia, they, like most people, felt the need help. They created the Red Cross Theatrical Unit (RCTU) which put Annette on stage, her favourite place and raise money for the Red Cross. They raised over £25 000 to be exact. Annette managed the whole company until the end of the war, writing and directing hundreds of shows.
In the 1950s, Annette was in her 60s, Hollywood decided to turn her life into the razzling and dazzling big screen production “The Million Dollar Mermaid”. She wasn’t a fan of the movie at all. She thought the main star, Esther Williams, wasn’t well cast, and the guy who portrayed her husband Jimmie was ridiculous. She probably thought she could have done a better job herself.
She did, however, enjoy the attention she got when the film came out. Hollywood’s memory is very short, and people fell from fame then as quickly as they do now. She really enjoyed getting into the movie scene and meet some great people, like her friends Grace Kelly and Lucille Ball.
After the hype of the movie was over, Annette and Jimmie retired back to Australia, to a quiet life in a small town on the Gold Coast, where they lived until Jimmie’s death in 1971.
Towards the end of her life, she had one more brush with fame, when an ad placed for selling on of her mink coats sparked interest in Australian reporters. Suddenly, she was back in the limelight, being hailed as a national treasure and got introduced to the swimming hall of fame.
Unfortunately, she never made it to the US for the ceremony, because of a bad fall from which she never truly recovered.
Annette died on November 6, 1975.
“The man who has not given himself completely to the sun and the wind and cold sting of the waves will never know all the meaning of life.”
– Annette Kellermann, ‘How to Swim’.
Gibson, E., & Firth, B. (2014). The original million dollar mermaid: The Annette Kellerman story. Allen & Unwin.
Kellermann, A. (1918). How to Swim. George H. Doran Company.
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