At Te Ara we were saddened to hear of the passing of Carmen Rupe in Sydney. The irrepressible, flamboyant Carmen (Ngāti Maniapoto) was a ground-breaker in so many ways. In the resolutely conservative Wellington of the 1960s and 1970s she was openly and proudly transsexual – and incredibly glamorous to boot. As an entrepreneur she provided the city with a series of glittering businesses, many of them involving commercial sex. Her unswerving insistence on being exactly who she was has been an inspiration to many – especially in New Zealand’s then-fledgling transgender community.
Carmen was a loved and respected kuia of the Australian and New Zealand queer communities, spending the last 32 years in Sydney, where in recent years she was the caretaker of a community centre attached to a block of flats in Surry Hills. However, she had been ill on and off for a number of months after a fall and hip surgery, and died from kidney failure on the morning of 15 December, aged 75.
Carmen was born Trevor Rupe, one of a family of 13 from Taumarunui. After a stint in the army (where, with characteristic confidence, she lip-synched in drag at a farewell concert), she moved to Sydney, working in the sex industry and as a drag performer – including performances with a live snake. Returning to Wellington in 1967, she rented a former clothing factory in Vivian Street and opened Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge, fancifully decorated and staffed by glamorous transgender hostesses who served tea, coffee, toasted sandwiches and pastries – as well as various sexual services, which customers requested through an ingenious system of positioning their cups and saucers. ‘All my girls were boys, or had been boys at some time,’ Carmen wrote in her 1988 memoir Carmen: my life. ‘They had to be beautiful … Dress in high fashion was de rigueur.’
Her other business ventures included striptease club The Balcony, an Egyptian tearoom in Cuba Street (’I had the walls sprayed with golden sand which sparkled … a large wooden elephant from Egypt stood by the doorway’), a curio shop, a massage parlour, and a brothel in a big old house in Hataitai. Her unsuccessful 1977 bid for the Wellington mayoralty – backed by businessman Bob Jones, under the slogan ‘Get in behind’ – saw her shoot to national prominence. In 1979 Carmen returned to Sydney, where she spent the rest of her life. Last year the Sydney Morning Herald featured her in this affectionate photographic tribute and interview, where she discusses the need for facilities for the transgendered elderly.
Carmen will be much missed by her many friends and admirers. The hundreds of tributes that have appeared online in the last day describe her as a ‘transgender goddess’, a ‘legend’, ‘the showgirl of all showgirls’ and a ‘GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] icon’. One thing is for sure: she was a pioneer and a role model for many. Moe mai ra e te kahurangi, moe mai ra.