Saturday, 19 October 2013

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.

Click here to view the original image of 640x360px.

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.


1 comment:

  1. Great article! I saw Million Dollar Mermaid on home video. It was a great movie. I couldn't imagine anyone but Esther Williams in the role. By the way, according to Wikipedia, the Hippodrome in New York was torn down in 1939. An office building, called The Hippodrome Center, is on the site now.