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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Indecent exposure

Annette Kellerman

Previous exhibition
from Friday 21 January until Monday 25 April 2011

'Diving Venus' and 'the perfect woman' are two of the numerous descriptions applied to Annette Kellerman, the Australian-born endurance swimmer, vaudeville performer and silent-era film star who achieved international fame during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Annette Kellerman, c. 1907 (printed 2003) H. Walter Barnett

Indecent exposure presents a portrait of Kellerman with samples from the vivid material culture of her career - from sequinned mermaid suits and stage costumes to the film footage and photographs documenting her extraordinary and cinematic story. Click the image to read more about the exhibition and see scenes from the silent film 'Venus of the South Seas'.

Annette Kellerman (1886–1975), swimmer and entertainer, was among the early twentieth century's most recognisable women. Born in Sydney, Kellerman was diagnosed with rickets as a child and learnt to swim when the sport was recommended as a means of strengthening her legs. In 1902, aged fifteen, Kellerman became the state champion for the 100 yards and set a world record (of 33 minutes, 49 seconds) for the mile. In Melbourne from 1903, she performed diving demonstrations and other aquatic routines and accomplished the first of her notable feats of endurance swimming. By 1905, discontent with the limited opportunities on offer at home, she went to England where there were 'more theatres and more money to be made.' Annette Kellerman embodied ideas about fit and vigorous Australian womanhood and during two years in Europe gave these an international airing through epic swims in England and Europe, including three attempts at swimming the English Channel. A deft self-promoter, Kellerman styled herself as the 'Australian Mermaid' and the 'Diving Venus', devising a unique stage show that eventually combined music, singing, dancing and wire-walking with diving and underwater ballet. She left for the USA in 1907. By 1917, she was reputedly the highest paid woman in vaudeville and had starred in the first of several films, each a vehicle for her swimming, stunts and mermaid routines. The fame generated by these ventures powered her parallel profile as a fitness advocate and populariser of the women's one-piece swimming costume. Declared 'the Perfect Woman' in 1908, Kellerman was a potent embodiment of modern femininity and her attitudes on exercise and swimwear issued a strident challenge to notions of 'decency'. She promoted her beliefs about bodies, beauty and fitness for women in the pioneering books Physical Beauty: how to keep it and How to swim, both published in 1918.

Indecent Exposure is supported by the Powerhouse Museum; the National Film and Sound Archive; and the New Zealand Film Archive.

Related people

Annette Kellerman

Joanna Gilmour (curator)

Related information

Annette Kellerman, c. 1916
Annette Kellerman, c. 1916
Annette Kellerman, c. 1916
Annette Kellerman, c. 1916

Naked ambition

Magazine article by Joanna Gilmour, 2009

Joanna Gilmour dives into the life of Australian swimming legend Annette Kellerman.

Elegance in exile

Portrait drawings from colonial Australia

Previous exhibition, 2012

Elegance in exile is an exhibition surveying the work of Richard Read senior, Thomas Bock, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and Charles Rodius: four artists who, though exiled to Australia as convicts, created many of the most significant and elegant portraits of the colonial period.

Husbands and Wives

Photographic Portraits from 19th Century Australia

Previous exhibition, 2010

'I have just been to my dressing case to take a peep at you.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency