Australian Annette Kellerman became the first important woman sports celebrity of the 20th century, setting world records in distance swimming and diving in 1905. She would also become the first nude movie star. An innovative woman, she devised a form-fitting unitard suit to cut water drag while racing that became as controversial as pink tights in the debates over female modesty.
Her arrest at a Boston beach in 1909 for immodesty owed much to the spectacularly attractive figure being revealed by her swimsuit: "The Australian girl's beautifully molded limbs and remarkable well-developed shoulders have nothing masculine about them, but leave no doubt of their strength. . . . Her feet are small, insteps high, and as they move through the air during a dive, resembling those of a Parisian premiere danseuse . . . . Out of the water Miss Kellermann would be taken for an American product, so closely does she resemble the outdoor sport loving Vassar young woman." Kellerman indicated that she sculpted her figure through ballet dancing, a remark that piqued the interest of theatrical managers.
In 1906 Kellerman's dramatic career commenced in "The Treasure Ship in Fairy Seas," at the Hippodrome in London, in which she played a fairy mermaid who rescued trapped treasure hunters. In the United States, Kellerman appeared as a headliner on Keith's vaudeville circuit with an act that included juggling, dancing before banks of mirrors, a motion picture recap of her sports career, and a diving exhibition into a huge water tank.
The reproduction of her figure though mirrors, film, and publicity photography made it by 1909 a cultural touchstone - as widely publicized a body as that of Eugene Sandow's or Barnarr MacFadden's. She began banking on its fame in 1909, organizing a correspondence school for women's health and physical development. Ads featured a black silhouette of Kellermann's body band a bold headline: "Annette Kellerman is teaching Women How to Acquire Health and a beautiful Figure."
By 1909 Kellermann's credibility as a show business attraction, her importance as a model of feminine form, and her daring in self-exhibition, convinced the Vitagraph Company that she could be a motion picture star. J. Stuart Blackton in 1911 featured her in one- and two-reel releases with the company's biggest male star, Maurice Costello. In these aquatic adventure movies, audiences got to see the famous "Diving Venus" bare legged and vivacious on sand and in the sea. Blackton was a genius at advertising, and saw that presenting her as a model physical specimen would draw. He contacted Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, director of Harvard University's Hemenway Gymnasium, who had since 1900 been measuring young American women. Kellerman, according to Sargent, was the most perfect of the 10,000 young women he had measured. Kellerman weighed 137 lbs, stood 5-foot, 4.5-inches tall, with measurements of 35.2 x 26.2 x 37.2. Certifiably perfect, Kellerman in 1914 determined that she would insure that everyone could see as much of it as possible.
Working with director Herbert Brenon on location in Bermuda, she inserted a suggestive disrobing scene in "Neptune's Daughter." Shot from a distance, the spectator witnesses her "in the woods undressing, and later flitting white and nymph-like through the trees en route to the ocean for a swim." The fairy tale atmosphere of the film, the distance of the shot, and the sumptuousness of the scenery forestalled most public objections. David S. Shields/ALS