Woman Kellerman, Annette (1886 - 1975)

6 July 1886
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Queensland, Australia
Actor and Swimmer

Written by Jennifer Gall, National Film and Sound Archive

In a 1915 press interview Annette Kellerman described the principal motivation at the heart of her successful career as performer, movie star, athlete and role model for the emerging 20th century modern woman: 'Swimming for women is more than physical, it can engender self-confidence, and in the art and science of swimming, a kind of equality, even superiority to that of men. My chief pride and pleasure has been the knowledge that my work has stimulated an interest in swimming as a woman's sport' (Kellerman, 1915, p. 9).

Born on July 6, 1886, at 101 Victoria Street Darlinghurst, Sydney, Kellerman carved an identity based on determination to prove to women that independence could be achieved by taking ownership of their bodies through a physical fitness regime. She attributed her longevity to the independence she maintained through financial security. Resilience, physical fitness and the ability to adapt and learn new skills were her core strengths. Her husband and manager Jimmie Sullivan supported Kellerman's desire for new challenges.

The foundations of Kellerman's courage, originality and entrepreneurial power were laid in her Australian childhood. Her parents were both musicians, running the successful Conservatoire de Musique and they were part of a lively artistic scene in the Sydney of the late 1800s. Annette's mother, Alice Charbonnet Kellerman, was the daughter of an American mother and French father, born in Cincinnati in 1860. She arrived in Australia in 1879 as a promising concert pianist and composer who taught the young Nellie Melba piano.

Kellerman's first great challenge came when her childhood difficulty in walking was diagnosed as rickets. Swimming lessons were the treatment prescribed. Always a great supporter and motivator for Annette, her father Frederick was an organiser of the first Australian competitive swimming event for women - the NSW Ladies' State Swimming Championship Swimming Carnival at St George's Baths, Redfern. Annette won the 100 yards and the mile freestyle races. Soon Australia could not contain the ambitions of Kellerman and her father who became her manager. In April 1905, they left for London where, after weeks of little employment, in a last desperate attempt to gain publicity and earn enough money to remain in England, her father arranged for Annette's to swim 26 miles through the polluted waters of the Thames, dodging watercraft from Putney to Blackwall. The Daily Mirror picked up the story, and her European career was launched.

Annette's aquatic talents made her an attractive Vaudeville star. The variety of her accomplishments suited the genre and most importantly, Vaudeville paid well - a rare workplace in which women could earn more than men. Arriving in the USA in 1906, Annette worked hard to develop her image as a water spirit, billed as 'Peerless Performer with Form Divine', 'The Divine Venus' and 'The Australian Mermaid'. In one simple and spectacular event in 1907, Kellerman gained world notoriety when she walked across Revere Beach Massachusetts in a form-fitting one piece bathing costume and was arrested for indecent exposure. Her action characterised the revolutionary mood of the time and women's struggle to redefine their roles. By shedding the cumbersome bathing dress and revealing a body both beautiful and powerful, Kellerman was a beacon of inspiration. Emancipation through comfortable clothing was part of her message to women: 'The corset has done more to make physical cowards of women than any other thing since slavery. You cannot be brave if your diaphragm is squeezed and you cannot breathe properly' (Kellerman, El Paso Herald, March 19, 1912, p. 9).

In 1910, Kellerman was proclaimed by Dr Dudley Sargent, Director of Harvard University Gymnasium as having the bodily proportions closest to the 'Greek ideal of the beautiful... nearest to a perfectly proportioned woman' with height of 64.5 inches, waist 26.2 inches and weight of 128 pounds. By 1912, she had convinced Universal studios that film was the perfect medium for promoting her talents. In Neptune's Daughter Annette created a heroine who fought her own battles - quite literally as she refused to use stunt doubles. The film opened on April 25th 1914 and ran for seven months.

Annette Kellerman seized opportunities in Vaudeville and cinema to earn a living which adhered to the rigorous discipline that had brought about the transformation into an aquatic goddess from the childhood disfigurement of rickets. The strength of her conviction inspired a generation of women to cherish physical fitness as a pathway to independence. She returned to Australia to live in 1970 and died in Queensland in 1975.

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Kellerman, Annette : Interviewed By Joel Greenberg, 1974 : Oral History, 1974, 563992; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources


  • Gibson, Emily and Firth, Barbara, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2005. Details
  • Woollacott, Angela, Race and the Modern Exotic, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Wright, AndrĂ©e, Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

  • Kellerman, Annette, 'The Right Road To Health', El Paso Herald, 19 March 1912. Details

Online Resources