Looking forward to Summer and the lovely swimming costumes you’re going to wear? Well you can thank Annette Kellermann for that, Australia’s ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’. Annette took up swimming as physio for her disability, and never imagined she would end up as one of the highest paid mermaid performers at the time.



Hello everyone, welcome. This is Girls! Girls! Girls!, I’m Bea and I’m currently being held hostage in my house by wind and rain. It’s sad but it’s true. In the UK we’re being ravaged by something called Storm Gareth, which I know doesn’t really sound that menacing but the wind and the rain really had been picking up force here. I’ve just given it away, but f you didn’t clock already by my accent, I am from the UK, and if you haven’t been keeping up to date with UK politics at the moment, firstly I totally understand. I wish I didn’t have to keep up with it either. And secondly, that means you might not know that the entire political system here is basically self-imploding. Which is totally cool, you know, we didn’t need it anyway, not a problem. Not a problem at all. Now usually when something like this happens I like to do a themed episode or just something relating to what’s going on, but I’m going to be brutally honest with you, I just can’t be bothered anymore. I need a break from the chaos, and honestly I think everyone else does too. I’m also aware that my episodes recently have been quite dramatic and heavy in their topics, which is totally cool and it’s all been very important, but I also want people to know you can come to this podcast for fun, light-hearted stuff too. 

So, instead of boring everyone talking about UK politics , or politics in general because it’s all rubbish at the moment, I’m going to talk today about the so called ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’, Annette Kellermann. She is basically the closest thing to a mermaid I think we’re ever going to get, but not only that she is also the person who fought for women to be able to wear swimming costumes like the ones we do now that we know and love today rather than swimming in literal clothes and risking drowning. So we have her to thank for that. When I was trying to find a photo for this episode’s social media content I was absolutely stumped because every single photo of this girl is pure gold. Absolute pure, solid gold. I’m going to be posted a few more than I usually do, a few of my favourites on Instagram, so head over to @GGGpod for that or just Google her, Google image. They’re all just amazing.  

So she was quite coy herself about the date of her birth, it’s kind of generally agreed to be the 6thof July 1887 but she kind of changed the year, she was coy about the date as well. And she was born in Marrickville in New South Wales in Australia which I guess tells you a little bit about what is to come about her life. She had very musical parents – her dad was a violinist, and her mother was a pianist and music teacher. Now at the age of 6, or around about the age of 6, her legs were incredibly weak. It’s thought that it might have been polio, maybe rickets, no one is entirely sure, and so she needed to wear basically steel braces around her legs to strengthen them because she was having trouble walking and having trouble going about everyday activities. To help strengthen them even more, her parents decided to try and take her to swimming classes at Cavill’s Baths in Sydney. They thought that maybe her swimming around in the water where there’s a bit less resistance might help her to do a bit more physio essentially. She really took to it like a duck to water, she swam for many many years and by the age of 15 she had won her first race, and she was a master at most of the swimming stokes. She had also started doing diving displays. 

In 1902 she won the 100 yards and mile championships of New South Wales in record times – so she swam the 100 yards in 1 minute, 22 seconds, and she swam the mile in 33 minutes, 49 seconds. And her family were surprised by this – they had always seen the swimming as a kind of a form of physio I suppose for her disability, and not at something that she would end up being pretty incredible at. So they were really surprised and they struggled to understand how this was happening, but once she was shown to be winning races and doing really really well, her family really got behind her and her dad especially really started helping out and making sure that she was doing the best she could. 

In 1902 her mum got a music teaching position at Mentone girl’s grammar school which in Melbourne, and so the whole family uprooted and they moved across to Melbourne. Annette went to that same school, and she really started stepping up her swimming and she did loads and loads of exhibitions at the main Melbourne baths. This was when she started doing her mermaid acts. If you don’t know, this is a sort of interesting act that was very popular at the time where people would dress as mermaids and they would kind of do swimming performances as mermaids. She was also doing 2 shows a day swimming with fish in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium which sounds a lovely way to pass the time. 

In June and July of 1903 she performed these absolutely spectacular high dives in Bland Holt’s Spectacular, it was called ‘The Breaking of the Drought’, at that was at the Melbourne Theatre Royal. Bland Holt was kind of a producer, comedian and entertainer in Australia at the time. 

So there was another swimmer called Beatrice Kerr, same name as me which is very exciting. Beatrice was billed as “Australia’s champion lady swimmer and diver”, so you can imagine that kind of rubbed Annette up the wrong way. So they were sort of rivals in a sense, but Beatrice did actually challenge Annette quite a few time to have a competitive race – Annette never answered, so that rivalry never came to fruition but that was an interesting little dynamic that they had. 

In 1905 Annette moved to London and on the 24thAugust of that same year, she was one of the first women to attempt to swim the English channel. She made 3 attempts to do that. She was just 19 years old which is incredible. This didn’t really have anything to do with actually wanting to do it, basically she didn’t have very much money and she thought that this would get her publicity and she was right she was sponsored to do these tries by The Daily Mirror, which is a newspaper here in the UK. The first woman who did actually attempt this swim was an Austrian Baroness, Walburga Von Isacescu and she tried first in September of 1900. So Kellermann was not actually the first woman to try it and as you can imagine, she wasn’t one to be bested, she was annoyed about that, so Kellermann did eventually challeng her to a race in the Danube and she won which is cool. In her book which is called How To Swim, Annettee said she had the endurance to swim the channel but not the strength. A little bit of internalised misogyny here, she said she didn’t think a woman would ever be able to swim the channel which as we know now is incorrect, they can do it. Incredibly we are amazing. It might have been so hard for her because while the men were allowed to swim naked, she had to wear a literal full outfit. So that might have annoyed her and we’ll get onto that and see what she did about that because that would have been a very irritating thing to have to do and no wonder she lacked the strength because she was lucking along soaking wet clothes while she was also trying to swim the Channel when she was 19 years old. 

In 1907 she moved to America and in the same year she performed a water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome and this was thought to be the first ever water ballet, and it’s also thought this really helped to popularise synchronised swimming. 

The next year she was on the cover of Variety and in 1910 she was cited as the fourth highest paid vaudeville entertainer in the country, and by 1914 she was receiving around £45,000 a week (that’s how much it would have been today). So she was really really popular and she was getting heaps of money, I mean it’s extraordinary the amount of money that she getting. Per week! Really incredible. I mean, if somebody told me I could get into a glass tank and swim about for £45,000 a week I totally would. 

So we’re going to hop back in time just a tiny bit to talk about the whole swimming costume palaver because I mean it’s awful, but it’s also quite a funny story. So in 1907 Annette was arrested on a beach in Massachusetts on Revere Beach. This was also when she was at the height of her fame and popularity. She was arrested for indecency. Her crime? She wasn’t nude or flashing anyone or anything like that, her crime was that she was wearing a fitted one-piece swimming costume. Shocking, right? Absolutely shocking. Can’t believe she did that. As I mentioned a little bit before, in the early 1900’s women were expected to basically wear really heavy pieces of clothing for swimming, they were essentially just full on outfits. Annette had started to design a line of one-piece swimsuits, and that was what she was wearing when she was arrested. When I say one-piece swimsuits though, and you can look these up, I’m not talking about the kinds of one-pieces you can get today like on Asos or Boohoo with halter necks and cleavages and high V’s on the thighs, no no no. These are full-length unitards – the kind of things that Olympian cyclists wear when they’re going round on the velodrome. They’re unitards. I’ll post a photo of it on Instagram I think, if you head over there to @GGGpod…did I say 3 G’s? GGGPod. It’s easy to get carried away – GGGG… But yeah, they were full on unitards, they weren’t even these skimpy little outfits that you might find today, and she was arrested for indecency. In 1912 she got quoted in the Observer Sport monthly by saying “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” Which is entirely true, I mean it’s baffling! She literally had to fightto let women wear clothes that wouldn’t make them drown. They were swimming in full on outfits. If you’ve ever tried to even swim in a wet t-shirt it can be hard, you feel like you’re being dragged down. So she was arrested for indecency and this is what started off her fight to really try and equalise the opportunities I guess for swimming costumes for men and women. Her one-piece suits were known as Annette Kellermans, and they were the first step toward the modern one-pieces that we have now. So I can thank Annette for the lovely little number that I wore on my summer holiday last year, which is good.

In 1908 there was a study of 3,000 women conducted by a guy called Dudley A Sargent from Harvard University. It was kind of seedy, he was basically trying to find what he called the perfect woman from those 3,000. And lucky Annette, she was chosen as the perfect woman! Basically her figure had very similar almost exactly the same measurements as Venus de Milo, the famous Greek statue so it makes sense why she would want to wear a nice little fitted unitard, she’s got the perfect body, she’s the perfect woman, why not show it off on the beach! Come on, girl! It’s great. And she continued to keep the hearts racing all through the 1900’s, in 1916 she became the first major actress to appear in a nude scene on film. Totally shocking! She appeared totally naked in a film called ‘A Daughter of Gods’. This film broke the record also because it became the first million dollar film production. So at the time it was the most expensive film that was made, basically. Really sadly however, for anyone whose excited about seeing the perfect woman in the nude, there there are no known copies of this film. Most of her films actually there are no real full copies of it, which is a real shame. Because of her swimming prowess, most of her films were to do with water. In 1911 she began what he called her fairy tale films, so she was in a film called ‘The Mermaid’, where she was the first actress to wear a swimmable mermaid costume on film. In fact, she actually designed her mermaid costumes and she even sometimes made them herself. The only feature film with her in it to exist completely is ‘Venus of the South Seas’, from 1924. That was one of the last films made in Pizma colour, it had 55 minutes underwater all in colour. There are some great stills from that film, also on Instagram. She, of course, as would be expected because she was a very headstrong and cool lady, she performed all of her own stunts and these ranged from things like jumping into the sea from 92 feet up and diving 60 feet into a pool filled with crocodiles, because why not?

She was very very proud of her body and very proud of her physical prowess so that’s why she refused she stunt double. She was like, ‘I can do it! It’s fine! I’ll dive into a pool of crocodiles, why not? Watch me!’. Very cool, but slightly bonkers. 

She wrote a couple of books, I’ve mentioned ‘How to Swim’, she wrote that in 1918. And in 1919 she also had a book called ‘Physical Beauty & How to Keep It’, basically a self-help book. She promised that if readers followed her advice, they too could, this is a quote, “have a figure as perfect as mine”. I don’t quite agree with that, it feels in a similar vein to wellness books and trends that we have at the moment, but at least what she was going was she was concentrating mostly on women building up their bodies, not trying to decrease the size so that’s kind of good I suppose?

In 1912 Annette had married her manager James Sullivan and the two of them returned eventually to live in Australia in 1970. Later on in her life Annette opened up a health food store in Long Beach in California. As I said she was very very proud of her body, she was into health and healthy eating pretty much through her whole life. She had been a vegetarian most of her life, she was teetotal, she was really into all of that stuff, so it’s quite a good place for her to end up I suppose. In 1975 Annette was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale in Florida. But unfortunately, just a year later, on 6thNovember 1975, she died in hospital in Australia. She was, we think, aged 88. As I mentioned, we don’t entirely know the year she was born because she was very coy about it, but around 88 years old. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Great Barrier Reef, which is a lovely and fitting tribute to this Australian mermaid.

If you want to know any more about Annette, obviously unfortunately her films that she was in most of them do not exist, but there are a handful of films about her. She was played by Esther Williams in a film called ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ in 1952, that film is known as ‘The One-piece Bathing Suit’ in the UK which is just not as catchy, it just isn’t, and in 2002 there was an award winning Australian documentary called ‘The Original Mermaid’

If you’re more into places rather than watching films, you can visit her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is very cool. Also Kellerman Close in Canberra which is, obviously, named after her. There is also a costume collection of her various mermaid costumes and costumes she wore in films and water ballets at The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney so if you’re near any of those places, I’m not, but if you are go look! Send me a picture. That’d be cool. 

Annette was a really really cool lady, there’s no doubting that. She is essentially the closest thing  that we have had to a real life mermaid so very very cool. There’s a  guy called Peter Cox  who is an expert on Annette, and about her life he said:“You couldn’t make this story up, and if you did make it up probably nobody would believe you”. Now I think that’s ever so slightly an exaggeration in some aspects, but even so it tells you what an exciting and interesting and unexpected life she led. And so as summer approaches, very very slowly, as it creeps towards us, we can think of Annette as we pose on the beach in our lovely one-piece or even bikini’s that don’t make us feel like we’re wrestling a dead shark as we swim. Yay! Very exciting. 


There is no better way to end an episode than giving a shout out to something or someone that is inspiring me at the moment or something that I’m looking forward to, I am of course talking about the cel-her-bration. I feel like I’ve neglected the cel-her-bration somewhat recently, so I want to do another call out now to just remind people that if you have someone or something that you want to give a little shout out to, let me know. This can be literally anything, a project, a collective, one singular person doing something cool, even just your mum. I have cel-her-brated someone’s mum before. Just DM me on Twitter or Instagram, GGGpod, you can email me at girlsgirlsgirls@gmail.com. I want to hear it! Let me know, and you might be hearing me talk about it on this segment. 

So I want to cel-her-brate today a cool new platform called The Good Eggs. It was set up by some incredible women in their own rights, I could cel-her-brate individually too. So we’ve got Natalie, who is a fantastic illustrator, she’s got a great illustrated book out called ‘Period’ which you should definitely go and take a look at it. As you can take a hint from the title it’s about periods, menstruation. Then there’s Emma, who started the amazing platform Gal Cal. This is a must for any activist interested in going to more events and panels, she basically collates all the events going on, puts them in a calendar so you never miss out. And finally, Break the Habit Press are also involved, they are publishers who are trying to publish books that go a bit more against the grain, challenging the norms. They published Period, Natalie’s book, they also published a great book from the 100 Women I Know platform, which is all about sexual assault. Both of those are really incredible and the publishers are really great too. So The Good Eggs, it’s here to basically connect and support people, from small business owners to creative to activists to freelancers. It’s a very very new platform, but they have really big plans so you’ll definitely going to want to keep up to date with everything tahat they’re doing. So you can head over to @TheGoodEggsUK on Instagram to find out everything that you might want to know about it. There’s an event coming up that I’m going to, kind of a launch brunch I think, in a couple of weeks time which is extremely exciting, but basically keep your eyes peeled and all of the exciting things that they’re going to be getting up to you can find on that account. 

That’s it from me this week, but I’ll see you guys ever so soon for more women doing awesome things but until then, bye bye.



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