Australia's Fearless Mermaid Swims On

Rochelle Siemienowicz

A new online exhibition curated by the NFSA celebrates the life of Annette Kellerman: champion swimmer, silent movie star, aqua ballerina and fitness expert.
Australia's Fearless Mermaid Swims On

Image: Golden girl all in blue. A hand-tinted still of Annette Kellerman from the Australia's Fearless Mermaid exhibition. Source: NFSA.

We love to brag about the Hollywood successes of homegrown Australian talent. But if that talent shone a while ago and those successes happened in the era of black-and-white or silent movies, then sadly, our collective goldfish attention span seems hard to bait.

Australia's Fearless Mermaid, the National Film and Sound Archive's latest online exhibition, celebrating the life of Annette Kellerman, may create a new fan base for this extraordinary woman, whose achievements were celebrated in the 1952 Hollywood biopic, Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams.

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The star of more than 14 silent films made between 1902 and 1924, Kellerman was inducted into the Hollywood Hall of Fame in 1960 with a star located at 6608 Hollywood Boulevard.

Born in Sydney in 1886, she was a champion swimmer and diver, an international silent film star, stunt performer, and an author and fitness guru. She had more incarnations than Madonna or Prince, and ran a fitness empire long before the likes of celebrity trainer Michelle Bridges.

Those who live in Sydney's inner west will at least have heard of Kellerman if they've visited the Marrickville Aquatic Centre named in her honour in 1994.

The free permanent exhibition Australia's Fearless Mermaid is put together by the NFSA's online curator Beth Taylor. She happens to be a filmmaker and artist in her own right, and from the sounds of this radio interview, she had a ball curating the show, noting that even though Kellerman declined the label of feminist during her lifetime, all her actions speak of a liberated and independent woman.

The exhibition showcases a number of rare digital resources held by the archive. These include:

  • Surviving scenes from the 1914 film Neptune’s Daughter; a major hit which earned Kellerman the nickname ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’. (Thus inspiring the title of biopic Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams.) 
  • A 1912 newsreel announcing Kellerman as ‘The Perfectly Formed Woman’, comparing her to the Venus de Milo..
  • A home movie shot in 1956, showing her athleticism at 70 years of age.
  • Clips from an oral history interview with Kellerman, recorded one year before her passing where she talks about the time she was thrown into a crocodile pit.
  • An underwater ballet shot in 1939, when Kellerman was 52 years old, but still able to move with grace and hold her breath for more than three minutes. 

You can watch that extraordinary clip here:

Water Ballet from ArtsHub on Vimeo.

Suffering from childhood illness, Kellerman's doctor advised swimming as therapy, and by the age of 16 she held all the world records for women's swimming. She moved to England in 1905, where she embarked on a vaudeville career showcasing her skills in underwater ballet, dancing, and wire walking. She even included a drag act.

One thing that strikes you from the exhibition is how fit and body-confident Kellerman was, in an era we think of (often rightly) as prudish and sexist. In 1916 in the now lost film Daughter of the Gods, she became the first woman to appear nude on screen, a luscious mane of well-place hair notwithstanding. (She later maintained she was wearing a thin body stocking.) It's fitting that this was the woman who popularised the one-piece bathing suit. Before her time, both women and men wore bulky woollen outfits that meant record-breaking swims had to be done in the nude.


Image: Annette Kellerman, baring it all in a still from lost film A Daughter of the Gods (1916). Source: NFSA

Apparently, however, Kellerman hated being called 'The Perfectly Formed Woman' - a label given to her by Dr Sargent, Director of the Harvard University Gymnasium. You can listen to here here, describing it as ‘the most ghastly thing in the world.’

Annette Kellerman 1974 interview - being called The Perfectly Formed Woman from ArtsHub on Vimeo.

History buffs may enjoy making links from the Kellerman exhibition to Hannah and Eliza O'Reilly's Sheilas web series, with its four short comic histories celebrating Australian women, including Fanny Durack, the first Australian woman swimmer to win gold when she swam at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Durack wore a one-piece swimsuit, as popularised by Kellerman.

And in another fun link, we note with glee Hannah Gadsby's acknowledgement of the 2018 Australians in Film Award she will receive in LA on 24 October. The Tasmanian comedian will be given the Create NSW Annette Kellerman Award following her acclaimed Netflix comedy special Nanette.

On receiving the honour, Gadsby said:

'There is no mystery to how I came to be the recipient of the Annette Kellerman Award, I love neck to knee swimwear, I excelled at synchronised swimming (individual category) and Annette is an anagram of Nanette – like everything in Hollywood it is about connections.' 

So now it's confirmed: Annette Kellerman is definitely having a moment.

Click through to watch the NFSA's Australia's Fearless Mermaid Exhibition

About the author

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She is now the the co-host of Australia's longest running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates'. She has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can follow her musings on Australian film and television on Twitter @Milan2Pinsk.