'Million dollar mermaid' back in the limelight

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The Independent Online

A century ago, Annette Kellerman was as renowned as that other Australian icon, Dame Nellie Melba. While the opera singer remains a household name, Kellerman has been all but forgotten, even in her own country. Now a documentary by the Australian director Michael Cordell aims to revive the legend of a woman who was the world's first female marathon swimmer as well as a vaudeville performer, silent movie star and pioneer for women's rights.

A century ago, Annette Kellerman was as renowned as that other Australian icon, Dame Nellie Melba. While the opera singer remains a household name, Kellerman has been all but forgotten, even in her own country. Now a documentary by the Australian director Michael Cordell aims to revive the legend of a woman who was the world's first female marathon swimmer as well as a vaudeville performer, silent movie star and pioneer for women's rights.

The first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel, Kellerman raced 17 men along the River Seine in Paris in 1905 and finished third. The French went wild and the newspapers asked: "How can a woman do this?" She replied: "What a man can do, a woman can do."

She was also famously beautiful; after examining 3,000 women for a ground-breaking study of physical fitness, Dr Dudley Sargent, a Harvard University scientist, declared Kellerman to be "the closest to physical perfection". To cap it all, Hollywood star Esther Williams played her in a 1952 biopic, Million Dollar Mermaid.

Dubbed by one modern commentator the Madonna of her generation - she was arrested for indecency in 1906 after strolling along a Boston beach in a figure-hugging swimsuit - Kellerman was born in Sydney in 1896. Crippled by rickets as a small child, she took up swimming to strengthen her limbs. By the time she was 16, she held the world record for a woman's 100-yard swim. People congregated to watch her dive and perform modern strokes in the baths around Sydney Harbour. "There is nothing more liberating than swimming," she once said. "Swimming out beyond the surf line is freedom itself. All life's shackles are washed away with the waves."

In London, she achieved fame after swimming 26 miles down the muddy Thames for five hours, dodging tugboats and swallowing "what seemed like pints of oil from the greasy surface of the river". She even invented a sensual underwater ballet act - the precursor of synchronised swimming. After she died in 1975, her ashes were strewn on the Great Barrier Reef.

Michael Cordell made the documentary, which draws on excerpts from her three films, to remind people what an extraordinary woman she was. "We're a nation of people who cling to the coast," he said. "She helped pioneer that love we have of swimming and the water." And Esther Williams, now in her 80s, said: "She didn't follow any rules. She wasn't content to float. She was determined to swim."

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