I could certainly identify with why the tail company idolized her as a mermaid but as I began to do a few internet searches I found my own independent reasons. Kellerman had been afflicted with a type of paralysis and used her swimming as therapy. Kellerman had to wear braces on her legs and her disability kept her very isolated until she found swimming at age 7. She'd swim with her brothers and push herself constantly taking huge joy in the little difference she's notice in her legs as she swam. As her legs and fitness got better she began to swim competitively. She'd swim any chance she got and even accepted dares from local boys to dive from high altitudes. She felt like she could do anything in the water. She went against many odds to win her first title at the age of 15 (beating men in sprint races!) then she set a world record for the mile.
Kellerman's family was finding it hard to make ends meet when she and sister went to look for jobs at the local aquarium. Her sister made a joke about Kellerman performing with the fish and Kellerman took it seriously proposing the idea to the Melbourne aquarium. After she created her own swimming performance routine it wasn't long before she'd acquired a long glittery mermaid tail and earned the nickname "Mermaid". She had what has been described in many biography pieces an "incredible breath hold " that people would come from miles around to see. Kellerman used the money she made to support her family though her mother disapproved of her spending her days swimming with seals and eels.
Her Father continued to book stunts and performances for her and very quickly she began performing each feat one after the other. She swam the British Coast, competed in races against men, and performed an underwater ballet at London's Hippodrome theatre (which can be seen in the movie about her life Million Dollar Mermaid) Kellerman performed any chance she could even for the Royalty of the time. She attempted three times to swim the English Channel and it was the only goal she set that she didn't make.
Kellerman it turned out was a champion for women's rights and very much responsible for the modern day swim suit for women. In her day women were expected to swim in bathing gowns and forbidden to show any bare leg so she first started with a sort of unitard skin tight suit. A few historical websites claim that she propelled that look into stardom as it started to be worn all over by celebrities. In 1908 Kellerman makes the jump to a bathing suit that shows her thigh and is arrested for it in Boston with Sullivan by her side- a scene dramatized in the movie about her life Million Dollar Mermaid. Kellerman managed to have the case dismissed by proving to the judge how previous swim outfits were too restrictive. Her look became the main style on both the beach and in advertisements.
Kellerman married Sullivan in 1914 and quickly following her successful swimming career she branched out into movies (a few clips you can still find online). She told people she was tired of "flopping around in tanks" and did her first major movie Neptune's Daughter and her mother was able to see it and give her approval before passing away shortly after. Kellerman was happy to finally act in a movie and didn't mind the swimming part of it though she mentioned "this trained seal stuff gets on ones nerves".
Kellerman was offered a five-movie deal with Fox but she turned it down in order to pursue theatre and she toured America performing with the likes of Grace Kelly and Coco Chanel. In 1937 when theatre sales began to lag she moved to Florida where she worked on many charities and even advised President Roosevelt on exercises for his polio-affected leg. In 1939 she returned to Australia to live by the Great Barrier Reef and humours legends unfurled of a Kellerman who swam shark infested waters to do her shopping and hitched rides back on local boats.