Friday, December 16, 2011

Carmen: Going Down, Smiling

Transgender icon Carmen Rupe died yesterday in Sydney, aged 75, from kidney failure following months of poor health.
Born into a Taumaranui farming family in 1935, Trevor Rupe was dressing in his mother's clothing at age 11. As soon as he could leave school, Rupe headed to The Big Smoke of Auckland and Wellington, doing drag performances while undergoing compulsory military training and working as a nurse and waiter.
She moved to Sydney's Kings Cross in the late '50s, where she took the name Carmen and became Australia's first maori drag performer. She got a breast job and worked as a prostitute. In 1963 she joined the famous Les Girls revue.
She returned to NZ in 1968 and became an entrepreneur, opening several businesses including the famous Wellington venue Carmen's International Coffee Lounge, where customers could get something hot in a cup downstairs and receive the same in a bed upstairs. It was the place to be, with its red walls, purple carpets and staff of drag queens, transgenders and gay men. It defined an era where homosexuality was illegal but festooned fabulousness was not. Carmen had an elaborate system of doors and stairways for escape, should police ever raid it.
I can remember as a teenager standing on the opposite side of Vivian Street, looking across at Carmen's... wondering what on earth happened in there, and how on earth the Salvation Army right next door could tolerate it!
Carmen also opened the Balcony strip club where Wellington's library now stands, and with the backing of Sir Bob Jones ran for mayor in 1977 with the slogan "Get in Behind", promising gay marriage and legalised brothels.
In 1979 Carmen returned to Sydney where she lived out her final decades. She became a much-adored and respected senior citizen and in 2008 led the Decade of the Divas float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras aboard her mobility scooter... topless.
Carmen: flamboyant to the end!
[...thanks to]

1 comment:

Timespanner said...

Carmen would support the Telethons over here, as I recall. Her appearance on the telly was both like a stamp of approval and a celebration that we Kiwis aren't all just plain and deadly dull.