Annette Kellerman – changed the way we looked at women’s bodies

Annette Kellerman appeals to me on lots of levels. She had a fabulously diverse career: swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress, writer and inventor of synchronised swimming. But her lasting fame lies in the way she revolutionised women’s swimwear, freeing women to enjoy a sport that had previously been denied to them.

Annette was born in Sydney in 1886 and took up swimming aged six, solely as a means of strengthening her muscles; rickets had left her with weakness in her legs and she had to wear steel braces for support. To say she was a natural was an understatement; at age twenty she held all the world’s swimming records and the diving record for women. Admittedly, few women swam competitively in those days. But what gained Annette the most attention was the daring tight-fitting one-piece costume she wore. The acceptable dress and pantaloons of the early 1900s were so cumbersome that they didn’t actually allow women to swim. In Australia, women had been wearing men’s costumes since the 1870s; this was permitted for competitive swimming. But in 1905, when told she couldn’t show her legs during a performance for the English royal family, Annette sewed a pair of black stockings onto her costume. The resulting one-piece costume was manufactured and marketed, and Annette wore it wherever possible, determined to challenge restrictions in women’s swimwear. In the US in 1907, she was even arrested for indecency.

By this time, Annette was internationally famous. In London, she swam 27 km of the Thames, the first woman to do so, making front-page news. In Paris, she competed with seventeen men and came third in a race down the river Seine. In 1905, she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. At this stage, only one man had succeeded in this feat. But despite three attempts, Annette didn’t succeed. ‘I had the endurance but not the brute strength’, she said.

Annette’s talents weren’t restricted to swimming; she was a natural performer. She gave exhibitions and performed spectacular high dives as part of a vaudeville show, named the Perfect Woman, a description of her made by a Harvard professor, since her measurements were the closest to those of the Venus de Milo among the the10,000 women he studied. As part of her act, Annette made dramatic entrances in a long garment that was discarded before her dive into a glass tank, from which she emerged in her wet, body-hugging swimsuit. Her underwater swimming was also spectacular; she could hold her breath for an impressive three and a half minutes.

Soon Hollywood beckoned and she became a silent movie star, mostly in aquatic-themed movies, and was the first high-profile star to appear fully nude. She performed her own stunts, including jumping into a pool of live crocodiles, and when the studio executive decided against a scene because it looked too risky, complained: “Somebody’s always trying to take the joy out of life.” Some of her movies featured a troupe of ‘Kellerman girls’ that performed choreographed movements with her in the water, and as a result she has been credited with inventing the sport of synchronized swimming.

In her long life (she died at 89 and could perform a high kick into her old age), she also became a health guru, wrote bestselling books on swimming and fitness, pioneered exercise regimes for women and as a lifelong vegetarian, owned a health-food store in San Diego. But she’ll be remembered for promoting the female body as a thing of power and beauty at a time when women’s activities were limited by the restrictive clothes society imposed on them.