Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman exhibition

· Thursday August 25, 2016

When we think of Internationally famous Australians, our minds usually click to the 'Our Nicoles' or the 'Our Kylies' or the 'Our Hemsworthses'. Well, Annette Kellerman was an Aussie mega star before celebrity was even really a thing. A prolific competitive swimmer, vaudeville aquatic-ballerina and silent-film star she was a huge deal in the early 20th century and thanks to some passionate unearthing of artefacts by curator Peter Cox at the Powerhouse Museum she's getting the chance for some well deserved contemporary idolatry.

You might know her name from the aquatic centre in Marrickville, but unlike Thorpie and Dawn-y, Kellerman wasn't only content with the Australian competitive swimming scene of 1905. Actually, to be fair, Thorpie and Dawn aren't wholly satisfied with being 'only' famous swimmers either, which brings us to another golden chance to be reminded of Thorpie's Angels.

Getting back on track, Kellerman achieved great things in light of being diagnosed with rickets as a babe, she smashed records, beat heaps of men in races and made waves with her pragmatic approach to swimwear in conservative times. Bringing the recent policing of burkinis on the beaches in Nice to mind, Kellerman also faced swimmer-ridicule, but about her preference for men's racing suits over the frou-frou of the women's bathers of the time. She made an exception when performing for the Royal Family by sewing stockings to the suit to cover her legs though ditched this look for more practical, less bulky attire later on. Viewing examples of her bathers in the exhibition and clippings from the time really hit home for me. The policing of what a woman can and cannot wear is stunningly still a thing in 2016, and viewing Kellerman's pride in her own body and athleticism above how she should be dressed in the early 1900s stirred up a lot of admiration with the slightest twinge of feminist rage. Totally worth it.


Walking through the exhibition, you can also be treated to her eventual morph into an International superstar. There are costumes galore, as the show tracks her rise as a performer in England and the USA, where she dominated the vaudeville circuit with underwater theatrics. She was a pre-synchronised swimming, aquatic ballerina, something that needs to be seen to be believed. The exhibition supplements the fineries she wore with photographs, snippets of film footage and an entrancing video installation by 66b/cell.

There's more in store, of course, she became a silent film actress, a health guru, a passionate fundraiser, and the subject of a Busby Berkley choreographed biopic, and the Million Dollar Mermaid exhibition presents tidbits from her life that become more and more impressive the more you dig into her story. Annette Kellerman is an Australian woman who is so deserving of an 'Our'.