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Obituary: Carmen Rupe - "Rest well my darling"
By Jacquie Grant
15th December 2011 - 01:12 am

Tranny Granny Jacquie Grant looks back on her enduring friendship with the late Carmen Rupe, a bond which lasted more than half a century.


Carmen, Rita, Kahu and Troy at the Tabou nightclub, Kings Cross, in 1963
Carmen Rupe was my friend, a constant in my life for 53 years.

And what wonderful years they have been. Although, initially they were not without their ups and downs for a couple of drag queens who had an unwavering conviction that we were born into the wrong bodies.

I first met Carmen in a secret Sydney gay nite club called the Annex Club which was situated in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, above the Midnight Movie Theatre. It was one week after I had run away from home and figured out what I was and where I was heading. The year 1958 was not a good time for GLTBI people, as Carmen and I were to find out.


Our life in those days was a continual battle to dodge the police and grow our hair - which was our badge of honour. Long hair symbolised long periods of not being arrested and thrown into Long Bay Jail and of course the obligatory haircut. Carmen and I, and many of our peers, spent many a ten day or three month stint there... our crime: being dressed in, as we called it in those days, DRAG. Well actually, to tell the truth we did do a little hooking. Girls had to live you know.

Carmen's Coffee Bar in the early 1970s
It never mattered to the police if they saw you, no matter if you were just walking along the street there was no mercy. We were beaten, shot at, ridiculed, hung out of police station windows, stripped, and sometimes even forced to provide sexual favours. We saw it all us trans. We were part of the sub-culture - not by choice either.

After several years a group of us decided we had had enough and we just had to get out or we would either spend the rest of our lives in prison or even be killed.

Carmen as we all knew came from this exotic land of New Zealand. Often she told us how life was better for trans there but lacked the excitement of the Cross - something our little group were fast coming to realise we could do without.

Carmen and Carmen
By late 1964 Carmen had returned home with a small group of us following a few months later. There was myself, Gina, Troy and Natalie, we had somewhere to go as a friend, Passi, who had worked at Les Girls, had recently opened a Drag Club/Show in Wellington. Called The Purple Onion, it was where we started our Wellington love affair. The freedom we all felt in a country that had no laws to stop us being who we had to be was an incredible feeling and the start of an era as we took Wellington by storm.

Carmen soon opened her famous Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge,  famous for its coffee and toasted sandwiches down stairs and 'sweets' up stairs. At the same time I opened Jacquie’s Coffee Bar for the gay trans crowd. Our by then friend Chrissie Witoko was running the Powder Puff (called by us all the Powder Poof) and Wellington turned into a place where trans people were accepted and celebrated. And so it remains today.

Carmen made the headlines so often we would groan "Oh God, she’s in the paper again, posing with those lips girl!" She opened her Balcony Strip Club, which was designed along the lines of the lush Sydney Clubs like The Follie’s Bergere... good seating, meals and a fully choreographed show.

Inadvertently it was an act in that club that had the first trans girl in NZ legally declared female by the high court after an indecency case which was over a performance by a stunning TG.

Carmen then stood for the Wellington mayoralty and nearly won. She publicly claimed there were gay members of Parliament and was called up before the privileges committee. Even though she was shitting her pants she managed to pose for a classic photo on the steps of Parliament and ended up making prime Minister Rob Muldoon look like a fool.

Goodness, these days if someone said there were no Gay MPs they would be impeached!

There were many more small business ventures but none was as successful as the Balcony or the Coffee Bar and life was becoming boring for our friend. So in the 1980s she left Wellington in a blaze of publicity and returned to Sydney where she remained till this day.

Carmen made many visits back across the Tasman over the years and filled the role I guess as gay royalty, our celebrity for all sorts of occasions.

Carmen and Jacquie Grant at Carmen's 75th birthday party. (Pic: John Stanley)
Carmen had the ability to never forget a name or a face and her stock question was always, while giving those lips a big sensuous lick, “And how are you?” “What have you been doing?” and then usually she would tell you what she had been doing.

She has a huge circle of friends all of whom are going to miss that constant in their lives. Carmen wrote and communicated with many people from all over the world and every now and again I would get a note or a card in the mail I always recognised the envelopes with her lovely hand writing in
bold felt pen. I will miss that.

And even more so I will miss the phone calls and my all too infrequent visits to Sydney and our wonderful talks about friends long gone and sometimes even our respective philosophy on life. Carmen often talked about her family and her "beautiful mother." She loved her family and in later years developed a faith which has, I am sure, given her comfort.

Carmen, the first night we met something happened that bound us for a lifetime. So rest well my darling, you deserve it.


- Jacquie Grant is now a Hokitika-based businesswoman who serves on the Human Rights Review Tribunal and has over the years fostered many troubled children, hence her nickname, Tranny Granny.


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