Million Dollar Mermaid

Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman is a current exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Kellerman was an Anglo Australian woman who broke many records and was a superstar in her day. Born into a highly educated and musical family in Sydney, she was diagnosed with rickets as a girl. She took up swimming to strengthen her legs and showed such prowess that male athletes encouraged her to take up high diving in the early 1900s, which high class Anglo Australian women did not do at the time. Still a teenager and having swam across the mighty Yarra River in Melbourne, she went to London in 1905 and competed in men’s marathon swims in the Thames, Seine and Danube rivers.

Two years later she moved to the USA permanently and became a famous and highly paid entertainer. She starred in movies filmed all over, from North America to Jamaica to New Zealand. Her performances involved synchronised swimming, tank diving, ballet, acrobatics and dancing. Variety called her The Diving Venus. She was known as the most perfect woman in the world.

A 1952 film, The Million Dollar Mermaid, was based on Kellerman. It starred Esther Williams (with Olympian Edith Motridge doing some of the swimming). She returned to Australia in her later years and died in Queensland in 1975. I’ll point out a couple of images in this video. All of her outfits are beautiful custom made pieces with influences from Greek myths to more risque modern sensibilities of Paris.

She also performed in drag. “English Johnny” was a character she performed in top hat and monocle, singing satirical songs about men. One of the outfits is a cultural appropriation of Native American headdress which was popular in the 1920s, though no less exploitative than in the present day. At the end you see a display of outfits Kellerman used in her act. They represent the evolution of bathing suits worn by women from 1900 to 1950.

A father is playing with his daughter here but they stop and chat. He explains to his daughter her feats, with an emphasis on her athleticism and achievements as a woman with context of the time. He does not mention her beauty. His daughter asks thoughtful questions and they keep laughing and chatting.