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Thread: Annette Kellerman: The First Professional Mermaid

  1. #1
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    Annette Kellerman: The First Professional Mermaid

    So a while back I researched and wrote an article for a magazine that was NEVER printed. Years later, I figure I'd share some of the cool info I found.

    Annette Kellerman, as far as history knows, was the first professional mermaid! Here's on of her self-made mermaid tails she performed in underwater, 100 years ago!

    Here's a copy of my article, I think you'd find it interesting!


    I first came across the story of Annette Kellerman before I'd ventured into the world of professional mermaiding while researching. A now long gone tail making company claimed her as their inspiration and a few trips to youtube showed me why- Annette was an underwater performer who'd been in movies wearing a mermaid tail and at the Hippodrome in New York in giant glass tanks. While this isn't a completely new idea now a days with places like Weeki Wachi; in the early 1900's Annette was ground breaking.

    I could certainly identify with why the tail company idolized her as a mermaid but as I began to do a few internet searches I found my own independent reasons. Kellerman had been afflicted with a type of paralysis and used her swimming as therapy. Kellerman had to wear braces on her legs and her disability kept her very isolated until she found swimming at age 7. She'd swim with her brothers and push herself constantly taking huge joy in the little difference she's notice in her legs as she swam. As her legs and fitness got better she began to swim competitively. She'd swim any chance she got and even accepted dares from local boys to dive from high altitudes. She felt like she could do anything in the water. She went against many odds to win her first title at the age of 15 (beating men in sprint races!) then she set a world record for the mile.

    I was using getting a tail as motivation to continue painful physiotherapy for a similar ailment and while I didn't have hopes of breaking any records I envied my fellow mers who seems to have had no trouble in or out of the water while I couldn't make it up the stairs some days. Kellerman inspired me with her swimming feats and I would eagerly search our anything I could find about her. Her recording breaking races were only the tip of the iceberg.

    Kellerman's family was finding it hard to make ends meet when she and sister went to look for jobs at the local aquarium. Her sister made a joke about Kellerman performing with the fish and Kellerman took it seriously proposing the idea to the Melbourne aquarium. After she created her own swimming performance routine it wasn't long before she'd acquired a long glittery mermaid tail and earned the nickname "Mermaid". She had what has been described in many biography pieces an "incredible breath hold " that people would come from miles around to see. Kellerman used the money she made to support her family though her mother disapproved of her spending her days swimming with seals and eels.

    In 1904 Kellerman was becoming quite known in Australia and on a leap of faith she and her Father moved to England with him acting as her manager. It was hard work when they first arrived and no one seemed to notice Kellerman's abilities and their small amount of funds was dwindling. She decided to change that when she announced she would swim a section of the Thames. At the end of June she made good on her word and dove into dirty water and did the 42-km swim. No man had ever attempted this let alone a woman so people from all over flocked to see her. The next day she was on the front page of the daily newspaper with the name "Australian Mermaid".

    Her Father continued to book stunts and performances for her and very quickly she began performing each feat one after the other. She swam the British Coast, competed in races against men, and performed an underwater ballet at London's Hippodrome theatre (which can be seen in the movie about her life Million Dollar Mermaid) Kellerman performed any chance she could even for the Royalty of the time. She attempted three times to swim the English Channel and it was the only goal she set that she didn't make.

    In 1907 with her tiny costumes in tow Kellerman headed to Chicago where she continued to entertain. She became the highest paid vaudeville star in the US and her Father decided to appoint a new manager; Jimmie Sullivan. It was planned that Sullivan would handle all her bookings as well as keep distracting men at bay. Sullivan couldn't swim but poured all of his energies into supporting Kellerman and he became her main support when her father passed away and they soon fell in love and moved to Boston.

    Kellerman it turned out was a champion for women's rights and very much responsible for the modern day swim suit for women. In her day women were expected to swim in bathing gowns and forbidden to show any bare leg so she first started with a sort of unitard skin tight suit. A few historical websites claim that she propelled that look into stardom as it started to be worn all over by celebrities. In 1908 Kellerman makes the jump to a bathing suit that shows her thigh and is arrested for it in Boston with Sullivan by her side- a scene dramatized in the movie about her life Million Dollar Mermaid. Kellerman managed to have the case dismissed by proving to the judge how previous swim outfits were too restrictive. Her look became the main style on both the beach and in advertisements.

    The scandal didn't go unnoticed and a Harvard University Professor named Dudley Sargent propositioned her to be able to study her unique body. Sargent had been researching the female body for 25 years and after taking her measurements he believed she was the first woman whose measurements were almost that of the Venus De Milo. He was so sure of this he pulled her on stage at Harvard in her bathing suit and declared to his students that she was the real "perfect woman". She started to gain so much attention from then on for her looks though she preferred to be known for her capabilities and fitness. She expressed that she did not want "to be known as just a pretty fish".

    Kellerman married Sullivan in 1914 and quickly following her successful swimming career she branched out into movies (a few clips you can still find online). She told people she was tired of "flopping around in tanks" and did her first major movie Neptune's Daughter and her mother was able to see it and give her approval before passing away shortly after. Kellerman was happy to finally act in a movie and didn't mind the swimming part of it though she mentioned "this trained seal stuff gets on ones nerves".

    Kellermans legs are barer and barer as she pushes the limits of what's accepted and actresses around the world embrace. In 1916 she took this a step further and while breaking boundaries by starring in the film A Daughter of the Gods which was the first movie to cost over 1 million dollars, Kellerman appears as a nude goddess and the movie was a roaring success. The movie featured 150 "mermaids" all trained by Kellerman and she performed dangerous stunts such as diving with crocodiles that she made everyone on cast keep quiet from her husband until the movie premiered! She never had a body double and attributed her healthy coordinated body to her fitness and being a vegetarian.

    Kellerman started to evolve into a business woman and began giving lectures on fitness and health (unheard of in those days especially for a woman). She wrote what is believed to be the first ever diet and fitness book Physical Beauty: How to Keep It and designed and marketed the very first modern day swimsuit which was a version of her own with a small skirt for modesty. She was really the first woman to come up with simple exercises women could do at home and fit into their usual routines and she encouraged women to find their talent.

    Kellerman was offered a five-movie deal with Fox but she turned it down in order to pursue theatre and she toured America performing with the likes of Grace Kelly and Coco Chanel. In 1937 when theatre sales began to lag she moved to Florida where she worked on many charities and even advised President Roosevelt on exercises for his polio-affected leg. In 1939 she returned to Australia to live by the Great Barrier Reef and humours legends unfurled of a Kellerman who swam shark infested waters to do her shopping and hitched rides back on local boats.

    During the war in the 40's she went home to Australia and entertained troops and raised money for the red cross through performances. Kellerman started to fade into the background with age until the movie Million Dollar Mermaid a biography about her life came out and she was once again the center of attention. At 65 she said little about the movie except that the actress who portrayed her was beautiful though she didn't care much for anything below her neck. Kellerman lived out the rest of her days swimming and keeping fit though people began to forget who she was they still marvelled at this young looking elderly woman who swam in a body suit daily. People said Kellerman did not accept the limits of aging and before her death could still show how nimble she was.

    Kellerman passed away in 1975. She was and still is regarded as a trailblazer for women's rights and I believe if a mermaid is to look up to anyone it should be her. She overcame illness, was the first mermaid with a tail, the first to perform in a tank on stage, and knew the value of nude art. The movie Million Dollar Mermaid is a unique tribute to her life that would be loved by mers everywhere so give it a watch and give her an internet search and you may just find she'll be your mer-role model too.

    Last edited by AniaR; 10-19-2013 at 02:20 PM.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Undisclosed Pod PearlieMae's Avatar
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    Excellent article! I'm so glad you shared it!

    Will you be posting it on facebook or online elsewhere?

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    Thanks, I worked so hard on it that I was sad to keep it hidden away. I posted it on my blog, which I am sharing on fb I think it's a cool bit of mer-history that people don't really know about!

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    Senior Member Undisclosed Pod MerAnthony's Avatar
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    Very interesting Raina. I have heard of that movie (million dallor mermaid) My grand mother before she passed away, she would watch old movies like that, but I was never told on who the actress was. I guess it goes to show that there was somebody that proved that you can do almost anything if you put your mind to it.
    Be Happy Swim Free

  5. #5
    Great article! I've seen this clip before, but I didn't know she was the first mermaid! I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks for posting it

  6. #6
    Senior Member Euro Pod Echidna's Avatar
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    I bought "Million Dollar Mermaid" awhile ago, because I was interested in Kellerman's life.

    Sadly, it's a really cliché, very hollywoody movie, that concentrates on doing a hugely overblown (and inaccurate!) depiction of Kellerman's relationship with her husband, in order to fabricate the obligatory "tragical romance",
    even making up huge stuff to add "drama" that's surely not needed.

    The only upside are the swimming scenes.
    There aren't even that many though, and just one from the hippodrome show.

    I just wish Kellerman's real movies would be available, but they all seem to be lost.

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    I think I'd like to include a bit about Annette in my next book. I feel such a kinship to her. And yeah I totally agree with the movie *rolls eyes* honestly people confuse her and Ester Williams alllll the time and attribute her successes to Ester. It was sad when Ester died but I was so frustrated with all the misinformation I saw floating around the internet. -_-. it's weird, Annette died 10 years before I was born. Wish I could have met her

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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by caltuna View Post
    I just wish Kellerman's real movies would be available, but they all seem to be lost.
    One movie has survived. Venus of the seas from 1924. You can even buy it on a region-free DVD:

    and about 19 minutes have survived from Neptune's Daughter, 1914, and these surviving clips are included on the DVD.

    BTW: here's an original promotional poster for Neptune's Daughter

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    Senior Member Pod of Cali deepblue's Avatar
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    I'd made a separate thread for the Stuff You Missed in History Class ep about Annette Kellerman, because this one is a few years old. But it makes more sense to have her all in one place. So this I'll just put here. Maybe an admin can merge the other Kellerman thread into this.

    Today the Mighty Girl FB page featured Kellerman! I'm so excited every time she gets exposure and more people learn about her.

    Here is what it says:

    Known as the "Australian Mermaid," swimmer Annette Kellerman -- who was born on this day in 1886 -- took the world by storm at the turn of the twentieth century, not just as a skilled long-distance swimmer, but also a daring stunts woman, vaudeville performer, silent movie star, and swimsuit innovator who was once arrested for "indecency" due to her one-piece suit!

    Originally a therapy for legs weakened by a childhood illness, swimming became a passion for Kellerman -- but often with a dramatic twist. Dressed as a mermaid, she earned money as a teen by diving into a glass tank of underwater creatures. As a young woman, she swam 26 miles (42 km) of the Thames River – making her the first woman to do so; repeatedly attempted the cross the English Channel (without success, but with no shortage of gumption), and was arrested for indecency in 1907 for wearing a fitted, one-piece bathing suit on Revere Beach near Boston, Massachusetts (in place of the contemporary costume with pantaloons that she considered far too impractical).

    In later years, she incorporated theatrics and risky dives into performances throughout the US, including on Hollywood's screens. Always a revolutionary, synchronized swimming is considered the brainchild of the talented Ms. Kellerman, as is the one-piece swimsuit. Her one-piece suit became so popular that it was known as the “Annette Kellerman” and was the first step toward the invention of modern swimwear.

    For an inspiring picture book about Annette Kellerman for ages 4 to 8, we highly recommend "Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story Of Annette Kellerman" at

    To introduce young readers to another woman who challenged the restrictive clothing conventions of her time, check out "Mary Walker Wears The Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero" for ages 5 to 9 at

    For several books about Mighty Girls who love swimming, check out "Ladybug Girl at the Beach" for ages 3 to 6 (, "Wave" for ages 2 to 8 (, "Stella, Star of the Sea" for ages 3 to 7 (, and the newly released "There Might Be Lobsters" for ages 4 to 8 (

    For more stories for children and teens about female sports trailblazers, visit our “Sports & Games” book section at

    And, for books about both real-life and fictional girls and women who, like Kellerman, challenged sexism and gender discrimination in a multitude of forms, visit our "Gender Discrimination" section at

  13. #13
    I agree with deepblue that it would be nice to have all the Annette Kellerman information in one place. I stumbled across some cool Annette Kellerman nostalgia, and so thought I would share on here.

    Thanks to vintage fashion diva Pamela Fierro (aka Glamoursplash) here are pages 24-25 (with a colour insert advertising bathing caps) from the 1917 Spring & Summer mail order catalogue of the Murray-Kay Limited, one of the first department stores that also did mail order, from 1863 to 1923.

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    And you'll notice that there is listing for No 56 The "Annette Kellerman"" swimming tights. So here was Kellerman's invention on sale back in the day, in Toronto in Canada!

    The price is what really stands out though: $1.

    The dollar just ain't worth what it used to be.
    Last edited by AptaMer; 08-07-2017 at 07:46 PM.

  14. #14
    Here's a newspaper item from 1918 with Charlotte Boyle in an Annette Kellerman suit demonstrating the "American Crawl", an modification of the Australian Crawl that we now call the front crawl, or freestyle.

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    The stroke was introduced to Sydney, Australia in 1898 by Alick Wickham, the famous swimmer from the Solomon Islands, where the stroke was also used. Annette Kellerman would have been 11 at the time and was in the midst of learning to swim, and the rest is history. It was used by Kellerman to great effect to win races and perform her open water feats.

    Also, while Annette Kellerman is mostly remembered for her black bathing suit that took the world of competitive swimming by storm, for her exhibitions, she often wore decorative suits like this one

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    Last edited by AptaMer; 08-07-2017 at 07:56 PM.

  15. #15
    And last, but not least, vintage fashion blogger Lizzie Bramlet, aka The Vintage Traveller, actually owns an official Annette Kellerman Swimming Tights suit made by Ashbury Mills (the Licensee of the Annette Kellerman brand back in the day.)

    Attachment 41792


    She also has an ad from 1914 run by Kellerman promoting her book and fitness for women business

    Attachment 41793


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