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This ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Urged Women To Be Physically Free

Kellerman railed against the restrictive clothing women were expected to wear — both in the sea and on land.

Illustration by Tatiana Cardenas/GOOD.

It was a story Annette Kellerman would often tell.

One day, circa 1907, the Australian champion swimmer went to Revere Beach in Boston to train for an upcoming race. While the bathers around her were clad in the frilly, oppressive women’s bathing costumes of the era, Kellerman wore her signature one-piece men’s bathing suit, which gave her the freedom she needed to excel. “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline,” she explained.

She was arrested for indecent exposure — and a legend was born.

Kellerman was already a star in Europe at the time of her arrest. As Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth recount in “The Original Million Dollar Mermaid,” she was famous for her swims in the English Channel and the Seine and Thames Rivers.

Kellerman hailed from Sydney, where she was born in 1886. A sickly child, she had worn leg braces as the result of rickets and, on doctor’s orders, began to swim. “Only a cripple can understand the intense joy I experienced,” she remembered. “After I learned, I’d go swimming anywhere, anytime.” For Kellerman, the water meant freedom, far away from “a black earth full of people that push.”

Her arrest in America was quickly followed by an even bigger PR coup. In 1908, Harvard professor Dr. Dudley Sargent declared that Kellerman’s svelte athlete’s body made her the perfect woman. Gibson and Firth note that Sargent proclaimed:

“Miss Kellerman has an appealing comeliness and at the same time has an all-around development very superior to any woman I have ever seen. I will say without qualification that Miss Kellerman embodies all the physical attributes that most of us demand in the perfect woman.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]When I say exercise and diet will make a woman healthy and beautiful, I don’t mean she’ll have a classical nose and gorgeous blonde hair.[/quote]

Despite this title, Kellerman was much more than “just a pretty fish” — she was even a movie star for a time. Capitalizing on her fame, she starred in silent films shot in exotic seaside locales, with titles like “Neptune’s Daughter” (1914) and “A Daughter of the Gods” (1916).

“Miss Kellerman is a delightful comedienne,” one reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote, “a sort of female Doug Fairbanks, with a crisp kind of drollery.” She was a vaudeville star and introduced the sports of synchronized swimming and high-diving to thousands of people who saw her elaborate shows, which also included her singing, dancing, and walking a high wire.

Kellerman was a vegetarian, teetotaler, and firm believer in women’s physical liberation. She used her fame as an athlete and a “body” to preach a new kind of healthy, active, holistic lifestyle for women. As early as 1909, she authored a self-help pamphlet, “Health, Beauty and Happiness,” using her own inspiring life story as a selling point.

Far from empty, pie-in-the-sky testimonials, Kellerman’s writings offered solid, practical advice. In the 1918 book “How to Swim,” she wrote, “Though it may seem paradoxical, one must have absolute abandon and at the same time minute precision to become a good swimmer.”

In her books, lectures, and articles for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, she taught the mechanisms of swimming step by step. She explained how women could learn the breaststroke by using a stool in their living room, but also appealed to their practical concerns, suggesting they coat their face with cold cream before swimming in the ocean, in order to avoid being burned.

Kellerman railed against the restrictive clothing women were expected to wear, both in the sea and on land. According to the New York Evening Journal, at a lecture in May 1912, she told a room full of women:

“Wear your new hobble skirt and tight waist, your hat which comes over your eyes like blinders and go into a crowded section of the city and try to cross the street; you will just naturally wait for the policeman to pilot you over because your clothes will make you timid. The corset has done more to make physical cowards of women than any other thing since slavery. You cannot be brave if your diaphragm is squeezed and you can’t breathe properly.”

At these packed lectures, she would occasionally disrobe to display her corsetry, which was more relaxed and natural than the slim silhouette in vogue at the time. At one lecture in New York in 1909, she stripped off her velvet gown to reveal her iconic one-piece bathing suit before jumping into a strategically placed water tank to swim.

An almost revolutionary act at the time, Kellerman actively encouraged women to enjoy using their bodies any way they pleased. “Put on a record,” she wrote in “Physical Beauty: How to Keep It,” continuing:

“Listen to it. What does it make you feel? What does it make you think? Play it again and dance your thoughts. Don’t be self-conscious. Don’t pay attention to the long-faced moralist who tells you dancing is only ‘hugging set to music.’ Don’t listen to him or teach him to dance.”

She made sure to explain that her definition of beauty was very different than that of men like Sargent. “When I say exercise and diet will make a woman healthy and beautiful, I don’t mean she’ll have a classical nose and gorgeous blonde hair,” she told The Pittsburgh Leader. “I have about three hairs myself and I don’t approve of my nose at all. I mean a woman can acquire vitality, health, magnetism and symmetry.”

As she got older, Kellerman continued to preach the values of exercise, a healthy diet, and physical freedom. She even opened a health food store in Long Beach, California, imaginatively named “Annette Kellerman’s Long Beach Health Food Store.”

When a curious reporter for the Los Angeles Times came to interview Kellerman in 1950, she soon found herself being taught simple exercises by the youthful mermaid, who still swam daily:

“She stood in the open doorway placing her hands on each side and started swinging one leg waist high back and forth. ‘I love this exercise,’ she [said as she] swung effortlessly. ‘It’s so good for the abdomen and the upper part of the back.’”

Annette Kellerman died in 1975 in her home country, Australia.

For all her efforts to help women become comfortable with their bodies, and for all her athletic and show-business accomplishments — the 1952 biopic “Million Dollar Mermaid” starred Esther Williams as Kellerman — she claimed the question that still dogged her the most was, “Do you still wear the one-piece bathing suit?”

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