Annette Kellerman

Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann (1886-1975), swimming champion, pioneer of physical culture, film star and vaudeville artiste, was born on 6 July 1886 at Marrickville, Sydney, second of four children of Alice (born Charbonnet), pianist and music teacher, and Frederick Kellermann, violinist.

Annette is primarily remembered as the first woman to attempt the English Channel. As a young child she wore leg braces in order to strengthen her legs until swimming and diving lessons at Cavill's Baths, Sydney, corrected the problem. She received further tuition from film star and sportsman Snowy Baker, and Olympic swimmer Freddy Lane and, in 1902, she established the record times in New South Wales of one minute 22 seconds for the women's 100 yards, and 33 minutes and 41 seconds for the mile championship. Arriving in England during 1905, she established world records in all areas of women's swimming and also diversified her international vaudeville act until it included a spectacular underwater performance in a glass tank, wire walking, ballet dancing, a physical culture comedy number and humorous male impersonations.

Annette turned the eyes of the world her way when she was arrested by the Boston police in 1907 for wearing a one piece, skirtless bathing suit. Arguing that the bathing suits of the day were as dangerous in the water as lead chains - and about as ridiculous - Annette was billed in American newspapers as a fighter for women's rights. Her books - How to Swim (1918) and Physical Beauty and How to Keep It (1919) - helped to foster interest in physical culture. Adjudged the winner from 10,000 participants in a Harvard Beauty Contest, she firmly believed it to be every woman's right and duty to be beautiful: 'It is a more potent sermon on 'How to Keep a Husband' than all that drivel about 'tact' and 'sympathy' and 'warm slippers' and 'attractive dishes from left- overs'.' As an early vegetarian, it was one of her boasts that, even after 60 years in America, she had never tasted a cocktail.

The first Australian to play a lead in an American film, Annette appeared in the title role of the Biblical tragedy, Jepthah's Daughter (1909), a short film without close-ups or the aquatic stunts associated with her later film work. Neptune's Daughter (1914), made by Universal Studios, established her as a popular star responsible for her own stunts, including the eighteen metre dive into a pool containing five crocodiles. Her sister remembers that although 'she was in and out almost before her back was wet . . . for months after she would wake up screaming'.

Other films included Fox Studio's million dollar production, A Daughter of the Gods, and The Queen of the Sea (1919), What Women Love (1920), The Art of Diving (1920), and Venus of the South Seas, directed in New Zealand in 1923 by her American born husband and manager, James Sullivan, whom she had married in 1912.

Diverse in both interests and ability, Annette wrote Fairytales of the South Seas in England during the 1926 general strike, lectured on health and fitness in Europe and America, entertained the troops as well as working with Sister Kenny (q.v.) in Australia during World War II and later ran a Californian health food store, before finally returning permanently to Australia in 1970. The International Swimming Hall of Fame, Florida, USA, honoured Annette in 1974. She died in Queensland on 6 November 1975, having donated all her theatrical gowns, swimming costumes and mementos to the Sydney Opera House. In 1952 MGM starred Esther Williams as Annette in The Million Dollar Mermaid, a film noted for spectacular aquatic sequences rather than biographical accuracy.

André Wright