Annette Kellerman


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(1887–1975) An Australian professional swimmer who popularized women's swimming attire and worked too in vaudeville/music hall and Hollywood feature films. In 1907 in the New York Hippodrome, performing a water ballet in a glass tank, she introduced what was to become synchronized swimming. As a child, a weakness in her legs meant that Kellerman had to wear steel leg braces, and she took up swimming to strengthen these limbs. As a schoolgirl in Melbourne, she began performing swimming and diving, including swimming with fish in tanks; and swimming beckoned as a career, though her three attempts to swim the English Channel (1905), from England to France, were unsuccessful. Kellerman had dramatic success in Hollywood, displaying a strong female physicality in films with swimming themes, diving stunts, and (for their time) sexual overtones; she was the first actress to appear nude in a Hollywood film (A Daughter of the Gods, 1916), and her earlier films featured her as a mermaid in costumes of her own design. Kellerman had innovated the one-piece swimming costume for women, even being arrested for indecency when wearing it on a Boston beach (1907). Her 1910 film The Perfectly Formed Woman echoed the judgement of Harvard's Dr Dudley A. Sargent in 1908 when he called Kellerman ‘the Perfect Woman’, comparing her body to that of the Venus de Milo, the ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite of Milos.

Kellerman's impact was worldwide, as Jennifer Hargreaves confirms when explaining the popularity of sports events as forms of spectacular entertainment at London's Wembley Stadium in the 1930s:there were female professionals in several of the “sporting” entertainments such as ice-pantomimes and water carnivals. The American influence was apparent in the aquatic shows which were modelled on the swimming and diving spectaculars of Annette Kellerman, and American performers like Gloria Nord, the ice-ballerina, were employed. These entertainments were new and exciting, and they produced an alluring world of fantasy, fun and spectacle. For women in particular, sports spectacles were suggestive of a much freer, more provocative use of the body than ever before, quite in contrast to the traditional attitudes to the sporting female institutionalized in clubs, schools and colleges. (Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women's Sports, 1994).Kellerman was portrayed by swimmer-turned-movie-star Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952; UK title The One Piece Bathing Suit); her life and career demonstrated the potential of the sporting body for both breaking stereotypes of female physicality, and extending the boundaries of the public erotic in the sporting—and entertainment—realm.

From A Dictionary of Sports Studies in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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