Swimming against the tide: the life of Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman had an unconventional life for a woman born in the late 1800s; with a career spanning swimming, vaudeville variety entertainment, film and writing, she was a trailblazer in and out of the pool. She freed herself from the restrictive women’s swimwear of the time, completed amazing physical feats and helped to inspire a generation of women to expand their lives from the confines of the home to the realms of physical competition and professional entertainment.

Her path to success began in Australia when she started swimming classes as a child to strengthen her legs after a crippling disease left her with soft bones. While still only fifteen Annette became a champion swimmer, winning the 100 yards race and setting a world record for the mile.

During these years Annette also performed in the theatre as well as in swimming and diving demonstrations. This included a mermaid act involving swimming with fish to entertain the crowds. Then, in 1905 Annette moved to England, in search of more opportunities in a land where there were ‘more theatres and more money to be made’.

Annette had started endurance swimming while still in Australia. In England she made three attempts to swim the English Channel – the first woman in the world to try to do so. She also came third in a marathon swim down the Seine, the only woman in the field.

Annette’s choice of swimwear attracted controversy. In 1907, after moving to the United States, she was arrested on a beach in Boston for public indecency as she was wearing a boy’s one-piece bathing suit. In response to this event, she designed and popularised a women’s one-piece swimming costume composed of a tunic over the top of a one-piece. This contrasted with the common restrictive women’s swimwear of the time, which involved a smock and pantaloons that went down to the ankles. By wearing better fitted swimwear, Annette had more freedom of movement and was able to swim better and compete at the highest level.  In her book, How to Swim, she states, ‘There is no more reason why you should wear…those awkward, unnecessary, lumpy “bathing suits,” than there is that you should wear lead chains.’

After underwater ballet performances in London, Annette once again combined her swimming and theatrical skills, creating her own stage show complete with dancing, singing and diving. By 1917 Annette had become the United States’ highest-paid female vaudeville performer.

Annette went on to star in silent films, including some which involved swimming such as Siren of the Sea and Neptune’s Daughter. She also famously starred in the 1916 film A Daughter of the Gods where she was she was nude in several of the scenes. With her athletic build, swimmer’s muscles and fitted swimsuits, Annette was a far cry from the look associated with the era of the tiny-waisted and corseted women with her long skirts. A Harvard professor christened her “the perfect woman” after comparing her physique to that of the Venus de Milo.

Annette was also a shrewd marketer, taking on the title of “The Australian Mermaid”. She became a role model of healthy Australian womanhood, something which she focused on in her two books, the semi-autobiographical How to Swim, and Physical Beauty and how to keep it, published in 1918. In Physical Beauty, Annette promoted the virtues of fresh air and exercise and emphasised the importance good posture on a person’s wellbeing. However, alongside this emphasis on healthy living and chapters like “Swimming, a Woman’s Sport”; she pushed the line that a woman needed to take care of her appearance with chapters like “The Right to be Beautiful” and “The Elements of Woman’s Beauty”. The book also contains such messages as, ‘if women will insist on becoming ugly, men will instinctively turn again and yet again to the fleeting beauty of youth’.

During the Second World War, Annette worked for the Red Cross as an entertainer. She kept performing in aquatic shows until she was in her 50s. In later years, Annette shunned the spotlight. She continued to swim well into her old age, retiring to a quiet life in Australia in 1970 where she passed away in 1975.

Annette Kellerman was an inspiration for women to explore life outside of the domestic sphere. She encouraged women to participate in physical activity, both through her example as a champion swimmer, and in her books which focused on exercise as a form of escape and as a health benefit.

During Annette’s early years, women’s participation in sporting activities (and in particular competitive sport) was still relatively new, and women’s sporting activities were often segregated from men’s, something Annette defied by competing against them. By completing gruelling swims as well as undertaking her own (often dangerous) stunts for films, she showed that women were equally as tough and capable as men and were not to be discounted in the realm of physical activity.

Annette was a pioneer for women in the field of sports and physical exercise. She focused on exercise as important part of women’s health, at a time when many women were still lacing themselves into corsets and wearing restrictive clothing and some of her advice, particularly concerning breathing and posture, still seems relevant today.

At a time when “respectability” would have been regarded as vital for a women Annette also showed that she was not afraid to use and to expose her body, in her films as well as with her wearing of close-fitting swimming costumes. Without Annette’s legacy, the progress of women in the field of swimming may well have been held back by their cumbersome swimwear for a much longer period.

Although her status as a champion of women’s freedom may not be perfect by modern standards; Annette Kellerman proved that women could undertake acts of physical endurance and be competitive in sport. While her name may not be familiar to many today, she helped to pave the way for the generations of champion female swimmers who would come after her.

Image: Luke McKernan

Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.

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