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6.25am: Carmen Rupe, legend, dies in Sydney

Posted in: New Zealand Daily News
By GayNZ.com Daily News staff - 15th December 2011

carmen_montage.jpg

6.25am: Transgender goddess and glbt community icon Carmen Rupe has died in Sydney, aged 75, from kidney failure following months of poor health.


Carmen had suffered a fall and subsequently underwent hip surgery earlier this year but never retained her vigour after a series of return visits to hospital. "Even as recently as Monday night she was lucid and coherent and had a strong will to live," says close friend and guardian Jurgen Hoffman. But since her fall her mood and outlook had been adversely affected. "She had put on some weight but overall her health has been in a downward spiral throughout the year," says Hoffman.

She died just under an hour ago at St. Vincent's Hospital, in the company of friends who have been keeping a bedside vigil for several days. With Carmen at the end were Hoffman's partner Robin Waerea plus two other of her closest friends, Diego and Kelley.

The word 'icon' does not quite encompass New Zealand's most-loved tranny, who over her 75 years achieved everything from belly dancing with a snake in Kings Cross to running for Mayor of Wellington.


Born into a family of 13 children in 1935 on a Taumarunui farm as Trevor Rupe, Carmen-to-be was dressing in his mother's clothing at age 11. As soon as he could leave school Rupe headed to Auckland and Wellington and experimented with drag performances while doing compulsory military training and working as a nurse and waiter, before everything changed when she arrived in Sydney's Kings Cross in the late 50s.

In was then that she took the name Carmen from Dorothy Dandridge's character in the movie Carmen Jones and Australia's first ever Maori drag performer vowed to give up men's clothes forever. She took to dabbling with snakes onstage and dancing the hula. She got a breast job and started working as a prostitute as well. In 1963 she joined the famous Les Girls revue.

"The police were very, very heavy," Carmen recalled in an 2006 interview with the New Zealand Herald. "They hated gay people. They hated drag queens and they hated lesbians. They used to take us into the police station and give us a hiding and beat us up. I was locked up in Long Bay prison about a dozen times. But it made me a stronger person today."

Carmen was arrested during a trip home, when she was in a car with a man, but the case was thrown out in court because in New Zealand, unlike Australia, there was no law against men dressing in women's clothes.

In 1968 she returned to live in New Zealand and became an entrepreneur, opening several businesses including her flamboyant and famed 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 defined an era where homosexuality was illegal but festooned fabulousness was not. Tea cups were the secret code which allowed people to romp with whoever they preferred and Carmen set up an elaborate system of doors and stairways for escape, should it ever be raided.


It was the place to be, with its red walls, purple carpets and staff of drag queens, transgenders and gay men.

"And I dressed up as a madam, you know, a classy madam, tits hanging out and split dresses..." she once said. "And all the drag queens I had working for me were very, very stunning and beautiful. They used to wear a lot of wigs, a lot of makeup and lovely miniskirts or split dresses and low-top dresses. A lot of my girls had to have their busts done in Cairo, Egypt."

Carmen also opened the Balcony strip club where Wellington's library now stands, and with the backing of Sir Bob Jones she ran for mayor in 1977, with the slogan "Get in Behind" and promising gay marriage and legalised brothels.

In 1979 Carmen's jaunt at home ended and she returned to Sydney, the city where she lived out her final years. She became a much-adored and respected senior citizen. In 2008 she led the Decade of the Divas float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras aboard her mobility scooter... topless.

Robin Waerea says Carmen expressed a wish to be buried at Sydney's Rookwood Maori Cemetery.


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