Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Annette Kellerman

Episode Summary

Annette Kellerman (1886-1975) was an aquatic sensation. She overcame physical challenges early in life to become a record-setting swimmer and a barrier breaking actress. She popularized synchronized swimming and revolutionized swimwear fashion.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s contender was an aquatic sensation. She overcame physical challenges early in life to become a record-setting swimmer and a barrier breaking actress. She popularized synchronized swimming and revolutionized swimwear fashion. Meet the one and only Annette Kellerman. 

Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann was born in 1886 in Marrickville, Australia, a suburb of Sydney. Her father was an Australian violinist and her mother was a French pianist and music teacher.

As a child Annette’s legs weren’t strong enough to support her, so she wore metal braces. As a form of physical therapy and conditioning, Annette’s parents took her to a local pool. 

She later described that experience saying, “Only a cripple can understand the intense joy I experienced. After I learned, I’d go swimming anywhere, anytime.” 

The swimming really did help strengthen Annette’s legs. She was a natural in the water and she had a flair for the dramatic. Throughout her life, Annette would combine her sport with theater to entertain the public. By the time she was around 15 years old, she was winning races and setting speed records. She was also performing in diving exhibitions and swimming in twice daily shows with fish at an aquarium. 

Her skill and ability to entertain set Annette apart and she further made a name for herself as a bit of a fashion icon. At that point in time, Victorian societal norms were strict when it came to swimming attire. Women were supposed to don pantaloons and a loose dress so as not to show their figures. Annette found that overly burdensome and created a new kind of bathing costume -- hers left her arms exposed and was very tight, more like one-piece bathing-suits today if they extended down as shorts or pants. 

Annette’s new style of bathing suit became so popular that she started her own fashion line. Still, not everyone accepted the new look. Annette was actually arrested for indecency while swimming on a beach during a U.S. trip to Massachusetts in 1907. 

While Annette spent much of her life making varied contributions to fashion, entertainment and society at large, these achievements stemmed from her incredible  talent at her sport. Among other feats, Annette set the world record for fastest mile swam and held the swim records for a number of major rivers around the world. 

After moving from Australia to England, she swam a daily circuit from town to town along the coast in preparation for an attempt to swim across the English Channel. She eventually tried and failed to swim across the body of water, though she made it ¾ of the way. 

Despite that failure, Annette kept on swimming and winning races. She swam in a 7-mile race in the Seine through Paris in front of 500,000 spectators, and tied with another woman to beat 16 men. 

After Europe, Annette headed across the Atlantic to the U.S. Stateside, Annette focused more on the performative part of her career. She wowed audiences by stunt swimming and high diving. She also wowed many with her physical appearance. A Harvard Professor deemed Annette, “The Perfect Woman” because her measurements were so similar to those of the Venus de Milo. Naturally, this proclamation helped to draw in even larger crowds. 

Even those who couldn’t make it to a live show were in luck- Annette took her talents to Hollywood, at the height of the silent movie era. She appeared in multiple films, though most are now considered lost because there is no known footage still in existence. Most of her movies had plots connected to water and she often played a mermaid. Notably, Annette was the first major actress to appear fully nude on screen. 

Annette continued swimming and performing until the 1940s. She credited the sport with changing her life. In 1918 she said, "But for swimming, I might have been hobbling about on crutches today instead of skating, dancing, and indulging in 25 mile constitutionals in addition to making my regular livelihood as a moving picture mermaid, or flirting with 'Toto, the funny fish,' through the walls of the glass tank at the New York Hippodrome."

Later in life, Annette became  an author, a speaker, and owned a health food store in Long Beach, California. She continued to swim till nearly the end of her life. In 1970, Annette and her husband, who had been her manager, moved back to Australia. Annette died in 1975. She was 89 years old. 

Annette Kellerman popularized her sport and bucked norms for her gender, paving the path for future women swimmers’ success. She was honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!