Carmen – ahead of her time

Carmen Rupe (1936-2011), a New Zealand transgendered entrepreneur, entertainer, and role model, passed away in Sydney this morning.

Carmen was a pioneer of greater sexual tolerance, who came to prominence through the entertainment and nightlife options she provided for Wellingtonians during the 1970s.

Taumaranui-born, as Trevor, Carmen graced Auckland, Wellington, and Sydney with her fearlessness, style, and entrepreneurial spirit. During her working life, she entertained audiences in these cities as an exotic dancer and stripper, as celebrated in the painting below.

Painting, Portrait of Carmen Rupe, 1997. J. Langlois. Gift of Carmen Rupe, 2010. Te Papa

Painting, Portrait of Carmen Rupe, 1997. J. Langlois. Gift of Carmen Rupe, 2010. Te Papa

Carmen’s memorable entertainment enterprises in Wellington included her International Coffee Lounge (pictured below) and nightclub, The Balcony.

Maoritanga - Scenes from Maori Life, Carmen, 1970s, Wellington. Ans Westra. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Carmen, 1970s. Ans Westra. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Carmen’s 1977 bid for the city’s mayoralty received much attention. Some people say that her campaign broke barriers that later enabled a more diverse political arena.

I met Carmen in Sydney in 2006 when she offered Te Papa a collection paintings and photographs related to her life. We gladly accepted her offer of 18 items as a way to mark a key personality from a period when attitudes towards homosexuality, prostitution, and alcohol licensing were not as liberal as they are today.

After that, Carmen and I kept in touch, and always exchanged Christmas cards. She sent these in envelopes that were often plastered with personalised postage stamps, featuring her portrait and sometimes her star sign Libra (see below).

Envelopes from Carmen. Photo by Kirstie Ross
Envelopes from Carmen. Photo by Kirstie Ross
Close up of stamps of Carmen. Photo by Kirstie Ross

Close up of stamps of Carmen. Photo by Kirstie Ross

While Carmen lived in Sydney for many years, she continued to visit New Zealand regularly. No doubt she appreciated changes such as the legalisation of homosexuality and prostitution, and the relaxation of drinking laws that she advocated  over thirty years ago.

Read more about Carmen on the Slice of Heaven minisite.

Carmen will be sadly missed. If you have any memories of her, and her influence on life in Wellington, please feel free to add them to this blog.

2 Responses

  1. Ron Brownson

    You may like to read what I wrote about Carmen:

    http://aucklandartgallery.blogspot.com/

    Reply

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