Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery is temporarily closed to the public until further notice.

Menu

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.

Annette Kellerman

In their own words

Annette Kellerman
Audio: 2 minutes

My family had no intention of making a mermaid of me, amateur or professional. My swimming came about as a means of curing of a very distressing condition of my legs, which one doctor said was caused by allowing me to walk too soon; but the other doctor said that I had chalk in my bones, which seemed a very much more scientific explanation. But while the cause was a matter for argument, there was no doubt about the effect, for I had to wear painful and humiliating steel braces when I walked.

When I was still a very little girl, my father went to see a third doctor, and came home and informed me that I was to take swimming lessons. For those of you who know me now as the Diving Venus, Queen of the Mermaids, Neptune’s Daughter and what not, this may sound very strange; but the truth was that I was terrified at the thought of swimming. Perhaps my fears were increased by my humiliation because of my dread of exposing my weak and ill-formed legs. But all pleading availed me nothing. The doctor was very, very sure that swimming was the only thing that would help me.

In Cavill’s baths in Sydney I received my first swimming lessons. My brothers and sisters had learned to swim in four or five lessons but 18 were required for me.

Only a cripple can understand the intense joy that I experienced when little by little I found that my legs were growing stronger and taking on the normal shape and the normal powers with which the legs of other youngsters were endowed.

In Australia, practically all children are taught to swim, but if my father had not been especially persistent, I am sure I never could have overcome my childish fears and dreads. But for his wisdom, I might have been hobbling about on crutches today, instead of skating, dancing and indulging in 25-mile constitutionals in addition to making my regular livelihood as a moving picture mermaid, or flirting with Toto, the funny fish through the walls of the glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.

Acknowledgements

Kellerman, Annette (1918) How to swim, 1918, New York, George H. Doran Company, Bib ID 4904107 National Library of Australia

Attribution

Voiced by Natasha Vickery

Related people

Annette Kellerman

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.

Annette Kellerman
Annette Kellerman
Annette Kellerman
Annette Kellerman

Indecent exposure

Annette Kellerman

Previous exhibition, 2011

'Diving Venus' and 'the perfect woman' are two of the numerous descriptions applied to Annette Kellerman, who achieved international fame during the early decades of the twentieth century.

The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

The Gallery

Visit us, learn with us, support us or work with us! Here’s a range of information about planning your visit, our history and more!

© National Portrait Gallery 2021
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency