Last week a small dazzling selection of headdresses belonging to Carmen Rupe (1936 – 2011), went on display at Te Papa. Carmen was a legendary transgender performer and brothel owner – the headwear represents her more flamboyant side.
Each headdress is part of an ensemble, specially selected by Carmen for Te Papa’s history collection. Also included were an unusual array of items such as voodoo dolls, a Tutankhamun bust and a disco ball. Together the objects represent Carmen’s distinctive exotic style, but they also provide an opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of this incredible trailblazing personality.
Carmen (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) was born Trevor Rupe and grew up in a large family in Taumarunui. When, aged 9, he performed a hula dance in a local concert, the ovation he received enflamed his desire to be an exotic female dancer.
In the late 1950s, Carmen moved to Australia, where her flamboyant drag act became legendary in Sydney nightclubs. She returned to Wellington in 1968 and opened two new venues: Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge and The Balcony.
Carmen had a generosity and openness that won her many supporters and helped break down prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. In 1977 Carmen ran for Wellington mayor, and although unsuccessful, it was a significant moment in New Zealand history and shows the gutsy determination by which Carmen led her life.
Carmen readily lent her time, and persona to promote health initiatives in both Australia and New Zealand. The painting above is based on a photograph used in an Australian ‘Safe Drinking’ campaign in 1998. Her image also graced packets of condoms in a New Zealand AIDS Foundation safe sex campaign in 2006.
You can find the Carmen display at Te Papa on Level 4. Opposite Contraception: Uncovering the collection of Dame Margaret Sparrow