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Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives: Annette Kellerman- Nude film star and disabled mermaid

When I started to accept that I was disabled, one of the first things I did was turn to the internet for examples of successful disabled people. Perhaps this is a common experience — suddenly becoming part of a minority group, and needing to reassure yourself that people like you have thrived in the past.

What I discovered was a long history of collective and individual pain, but also of resistance and triumph.

Since then, I’ve collected a wealth of information on disabled historical figures. Some are well-known, while others have flown under the radar of popular history, forgotten by many and remembered by few. 

The more people I uncovered, peeling back histories that often erased their subject’s disability, or discovering names and lives that were entirely new to me, the more I wanted to share them.

So, Unruly Bodies; Remarkable Lives was born.  

There’s always a risk in writing a column like this, that it will veer into ‘superhuman’ territory. That in writing about disabled success, I inadvertently popularise the view that all disabled people can do anything, if we just set our minds to it. Of course, this isn’t the case. In the same way that it would be impossible for every abled person to run as fast as Usain Bolt, disability isn’t a monolith.

We all have different abilities, access needs, support systems, and environments, and each of these shape how much we can achieve.

I want to be clear from the beginning that exceptionalism shouldn’t be a prerequisite for access, support, and success. Disabled people, like every other person, shouldn’t have to be extraordinary to be worthy of equality or equity. This column, then, seeks to uncover disabled historical figures without shying away from the barriers they faced.   

It’s a celebration of the tenacity of unruly bodies, the political and social resistance inherent in disabled lives, and the exceptional figures who raised their voices against a world that was designed to silence them. After all, how can you be something if you can’t see it? I want these people to be seen, and I hope you’ll enjoy discovering them too. 

So shall we?

Annette Kellerman: Silent film’s disabled mermaid

“It’s the most ghastly thing in the world to be called the perfect woman,” Annette Kellerman (1886 – 1975) told an interviewer in the year before her death. “Every other woman was saying [of me], I don’t see that she’s anything.” 

Although they might not have seen her as anything, Annette Kellerman was an Edwardian trailblazer, who credited her success as a swimmer, vaudeville star, silent film actress, and swimwear pioneer, to her early years of disability. 

“My early physical misfortune turned out to be the greatest blessing that could have come to me,” she wrote in her book, How To Swim (1918). 

She was speaking of the childhood rickets that had severely weakened the bones in her legs, and left her needing steel braces to walk. At the time, doctors told her father that she would never improve. Despite this prognosis, a single doctor advised them that swimming might help her to build muscle, which would compensate for the permanent damage to her bones. 

Although she was resistant to the idea at first, writing of her “humiliation” over “exposing my weak and ill-formed legs,” this early hydrotherapy proved to be the start of a lifetime of performance and success. 

“Only a cripple can understand the intense joy I felt, as little by little, strength began creeping into my legs,” she wrote of those early years.

The necessity of building her strength meant that Annette rejected the ideal that women ought to be naturally slim and delicate. Instead, she defied convention to champion her body as something that was muscular, ‘masculine’ in build, and strong. 

“I’d caught the mermaid fever,” she said.

Pretty soon, she was winning major swimming championships in her native New South Wales. She even set the world record for the woman’s 100-yard swim at the tender age of 16. And in her late teens, she began performing as a swimmer and high-diver, delighting the crowds who came to watch her at the Melbourne Exhibition Aquarium — then the largest glass tank in the world. 

Already something of an outsider because of her disability and her gender, Annette first made her name in long-distance swimming. She was one of only a handful of women to attempt to swim the Channel between England and France, and in her first effort, she made it further across the water than any of the men who swam with her.

But despite her success as a competitive swimmer, performance was where Annette’s heart truly found its home.

In London, she developed a unique vaudeville show, pioneering the art of synchronised swimming, and incorporating diving, ballet — both on-stage and underwater — wire walking, comedy, and music into her acts. Multi-talented, she performed for the Queen of England at the London Hippodrome before moving to the USA in 1907.

Before long, “the human mermaid” had taken America by storm. Not only was her vaudeville act in high-demand, earning her many admirers and thousands of dollars a week, she also made her debut as a silent film star. 

Neptune’s Daughter (1914) — for which she dived 28 metres into a pool of live crocodiles — became one of the first films to gross over $1 million at the box office. And Annette broke new boundaries again, when in A Daughter of the Gods (1916), she became the first woman ever to appear nude on-screen.

Many years later, she would demur that, in fact, she had been wearing a pair of incredibly thin tights at the time, but the accolade stuck — and she did little to challenge it. 

In 1918, this fearless performer and athlete even incorporated an early Drag King performance into her vaudeville act. Becoming a character that she called ‘The English Johnny’, she wore a tailored suit, top hat and monocle on-stage in front of thousands of paying crowds. 

Such risqué choices did little to dampen her appeal, and she was later nicknamed the Queen of Modern Vaudeville.

But if Annette Kellerman challenged gender stereotypes on-stage and in-water, she was equally fearless in the real world as well. During her long-distance swims, she realised that women’s swimwear, which was designed for modesty and usually featured a bulky dress and pantaloons, was far more difficult to manoeuvre in than the men’s skin-tight wool. 

Frustrated by the restrictive material, Annette designed a new one-piece swimsuit for women. In 1907, she was arrested on Revere Beach, Boston, under a charge of “indecency”, for wearing her new design that ended in shorts above the knees.  

Eventually conceding slightly to the Edwardian demands for modesty, Annette sewed stockings below the shorts to minimise the amount of skin on display; although she remained firmly against what she called the “pseudo-moral restriction” of designs that discouraged women’s physical activity.

“There is no more reason why you [women] should wear those awful water overcoats — those awkward, unnecessary, lumpy ‘bathing suits’ — than there is that you should wear lead chains,” she wrote. “Heavy bathing suits have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps …Anyone who persuades you to wear the heavy skirty kind is endangering your life.”

Later, she would launch a radical new one-piece swimwear line, and within a few short years, her designs would become the accepted women’s attire for the beach or the pool, helping to usher in a new era of women’s freedom to swim.

From being a self-described “sickly child” who was never expected to walk without braces or pain, Annette Kellerman’s early access to hydrotherapy led to her becoming an international film star, an aquatic protégé, and the “Million Dollar Mermaid” who revolutionised women’s equality in sports, on-stage, and on the beach. 

Watching videos of her performing her underwater ballet in the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine that this woman could ever have been anything other than a pioneer — or a mermaid. 

Further Reading and Watching

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