Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman

Museums, History
Annette Kellerman
Photograph: State Library of NSW

Time Out says

She was a pioneer of women’s fitness and a total badass. Annette Kellerman’s life as a professional swimmer and Hollywood star is celebrated in this exhibition

If you’ve seen Hail, Caesar, you’ll remember the character Deanna Moran, a synchronised swimming star who wears seaweed green sequins. She's a fictional character in a fictional story, but screen sirens were real in 1950s Hollywood and one of them was Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman.

Kellerman starred in aquatic-themed silent movies as a mermaid (Queen of the Sea, Venus of the South Seas, The Australian Mermaid, Siren of the Sea) and she was the first major actress to appear nude in a Hollywood production (A Daughter of the Gods in 1916). But she was also an advocate of health, fitness and beauty as a competitive swimmer. She helped popularise synchronised swimming and wrote a swimming manual entitled How to Swim in 1918.

Kellerman was also a bit of a badass. She was famously arrested on Revere Beach in Boston in 1907 for indecency, wearing one of her own fitted one-piece costumes.

An icon of female empowerment around the world, she inspired generations of women to take up the sport of swimming, and now the Powerhouse Museum is celebrating her achievements in a new exhibition from August 10.

Curated by Peter Cox, the exhibition will showcase a collection of Kellerman’s costumes, photos and film footage. Highlights include different styles of her one-piece swimsuits, stage outfits and memorabilia. There will be footage showing Kellerman performing an underwater adagio ballet from the records of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Doing underwater ballet was not unusual for Kellerman, as it was just one part of an act she developed which included diving and swimming; she performed all of her own stunts!

She defied conventions left, right and centre – she was the first women to attempt to swim the English Channel at age 19 in 1905. After three unsuccessful attempts she said, "I had the endurance but not the brute strength.” 

At a time when female swimmers were expected to wear cumbersome garments, she created her own one-piece swimsuit by sewing stockings onto a men’s bathing suit.

As her fame took her to England and the US, Kellerman developed a vaudeville act that combined diving, swimming and graceful underwater ballet with elaborate staging of tanks, waterfalls and slides. It was a routine that foreshadowed synchronised swimming. During the exhibition, visitors will be able to experience an immersive, sensory environment that feels like you’re with Kellerman in the water thanks to a visual installation by artist collective 66b/cell. 

By: Camila Zagarzazu


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