The Million Dollar Mermaid Was Once Arrested For Indecency
She was a world champion and movie star, but at the end of her career her greatest pride was freeing women from police measuring their skirts on the beach
Annette Kellerman was crippled as a child. Some say she had polio while others say it was rickets. Either way, she had heavy iron braces on her legs and little mobility.
At seven, the doctor took her braces off and told her mom to take her swimming. So she did. Took her to Australia’s famous Cavill Baths where she was taught to swim.
That’s when everything changed for that little girl.
“My braces came off when I was seven and I was made to swim. At first I was terrified of the water.” — Annette Kellerman in The Original Mermaid
By 13, she was healed.
By 15, she’d won her first race.
By 16, she’ broke the women’s world record for the 100 meter and the mile.
At 17, she held every single world record for women’s swimming.
The joy was intense, she said.
“Only a cripple can understand the intense joy that I experienced when little by little I found that my legs were growing stronger and taking on the normal shape and powers with which the legs of other youngsters were endowed.” — Annette Kellerman, source
Swimming wasn’t enough. Not after those braces.
Annette wasn’t just a natural born swimmer.
She was a natural born performer.
Some say she caught mermaid fever and maybe she did. She started doing a mermaid act at the local Entertainment Center and they said she was captivating.
Then she started doing two shows a day swimming with eels and fish in a giant glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium.
After that, she started a sensational high dive act. Her first show was an acrobatic leap from the 50 foot board at the Cavill Baths where she’d learned to swim.
That’s when her Dad thought they should leave small town Australia and go somewhere bigger. Find bigger opportunities for her.
Movie star, stunt woman, and crocodiles!
Let me give you the highlight reel first.
Annette went to the UK first, where she performed for royalty at age 18, and gained international fame trying to swim the English Channel. She didn’t make it, but set a record for how far she got, and how fast. Also? She beat the male contenders.
Two years later she was off to America.
In Chicago she wowed crowds by diving 72ft from the topmast of a steamship.
She became the first woman to appear nude on film, thanks to extremely long hair that covered everything that needed covering. The movie was produced by none other than William Fox of 20th Century Fox. He’d produce her next movie, too.
She made several feature films and performed all her own stunts. They called her the ‘Australian Mermaid’ and the movies capitalized on that.
1914, Neptune's Daughter
1916, A Daughter of the Gods
1918, Queen of the Sea
1924, Venus of the South Seas
In those movies, she set a world high diving record of 28 meters. She made a 20-metre dive into the ocean with her hands and feet bound by rope. She danced underwater ballet and leaped 18 meters into a pool full of crocodiles.
Later, in her 80s, she gave an interview about her career and laughed about the crocodile scene, saying ‘That was honest to God you know’.
Kellerman was a record setting swimming champion, a film star, a vaudeville entertainer, a bestselling author and an entrepreneur — but her greatest achievement, in her own eyes, started one fateful day on the beach shortly after arriving in America.
Me! Arrested for indecency!
When Annette arrived in America, most women didn’t swim. Their bathing suits were more conducive to drowning than swimming. A woman’s “bathing suit” was a black, knee-length wool dress worn over bloomers with long black stockings, bathing slippers, and a swim cap. Yards of wool. In the water.
A few brave “modern” women worn lighter colored bathing costumes, with slightly shorter skirts. But still, with full skirts, bloomers and stockings.
Men were allowed to wear a form fitting swimsuit that allowed them to swim.
Swimwear was super controversial at the turn of the century.
In the USA, police measured women’s swimsuits on the beach. Modesty laws required that a woman’s swim suit must have a full skirt to cover the crotch and must be not more than 6 inches above the knee.
And then there was Annette. Wearing a men’s swimsuit. In her native Australia, women had worn the same swimwear as men since the 1870s.
In 1907 she was scheduled to compete in a 13 mile swim event in Boston, so she went to Revere Beach to practice. And created a very big scandal. She was fully covered, but to the people on the beach, she might as well have been buck nekkid.
No one cared that she was a champion swimmer, there to practice.
Women didn’t show the shape of their breasts. Or their crotch. Someone called the police and she was arrested for indecency and hauled away.
“Me, arrested!’’ she would say years later.
She was shocked. Her father was shocked.
“Kellerman may have been thoroughly covered, but to her fellow bathers, she may as well have been naked.” — Boston Globe
Off to court she went.
The judge ended up saying it was okay to wear her one piece swimming suit as long as she wore a full-length cape to the water’s edge.
Appalled by what women had to wear, she invented a bathing suit.
It was called the Kellermann. There was no one who could stop that train once it started rolling. In just a few short years the Kellerman one-piece bathing suit for women was the accepted female attire for beach and pool.
Then she wrote a book telling women to throw out their corset and start swimming and exercising. Instead of telling women to lose weight and be beautiful like most beauty advice of the era, she told them to work out and get strong.
Love your body, she told women. Her book went bestseller.
When Annette Kellerman was inducted into the swimming hall of fame in 1974 at 88 years of age, she said the greatest success of her career wasn’t her swim records. It was freeing women from those cumbersome Victorian neck-to-knee bathing suits.
A 2 minute tribute with rare footage…
People TV made a tribute to Kellerman with rare footage, narrated by Katie Couric. At 1:57 you’ll see her underwater. It’s stunning. She’s in her 50s in that shot. Enjoy!
“Be who you are, wear what you want”
— Annette Kellerman
My ex husband huffed and puffed when I handed my phone to him - were traveling together— but he read every word and said, That was good!😉
Great story - thanks so much!