Karen Carpenter: Unlikely Gay Icon
BY Randy L. Schmidt
August 22 2011 4:00 AM ET UPDATED: February 04 2013 7:57 PM ET
In the pantheon of gay icons, Karen Carpenter may not be seated at Judy’s right hand, but she’s closer than you think. Our divas come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And some aren’t divas at all. That was the case with Karen. And perhaps it is the anti-diva aspect we find appealing. Karen was addicted to needlepoint, and her favorite drink was iced tea. She loved Disneyland and collected Mickey Mouse memorabilia. She adored Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, and reruns of I Love Lucy. She enjoyed shopping with friends in Beverly Hills but was at home bargain-shopping down at the neighborhood Gemco store. Most of all, Karen longed for normality. She wanted to find the love of her life, have children, and live happily ever inside a white picket fence. In hindsight, the lyrics of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” recorded by Karen in 1977, become hauntingly autobiographical:
And as for fortune and as for fame
I never invited them in
Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired
They are illusions
They’re not the solutions they promised to be
The answer was here all the time.
The girl next door from Downey, Calif., by way of New Haven, Conn., Karen was an awkward tomboy who loved all things baseball. She lived in the shadow of her older brother, the obvious favorite of mom Agnes. Her father, Harold, rarely spoke and was often shushed. Richard was the family’s musical prodigy, being groomed to be the next Liberace.
Like mom, Karen idolized Richard and took on many of his interests, with music becoming their shared passion. She took up drums at Downey High, becoming the school’s first female drummer. It was at the age of 16 that the voice surfaced. That deep, resonant Karen Carpenter alto was husky and rough around the edges, but it was there. It was her unusual combo of singing and drumming that grabbed the music world’s attention just a few years later when the sibling duo debuted on Herb Alpert’s A&M Records label.
In opposition to the supporting role she was given within the confines of the Carpenter family enclave, the rest of the world realized Karen was clearly the star of this fresh-faced, burgeoning musical act. Against her will, though, she was soon weaned from her singing drummer safe haven and pushed into the center-stage spotlight to front the group.
When Karen’s eating disorder surfaced during the summer of 1975, collective gasps were audible from audiences when she took the stage. Fans grew concerned and knew something was terribly wrong. Some assumed she had cancer. By September, Karen was down to 91 pounds. Mammoth tours of Europe and Japan were canceled and she was hospitalized for mental and physical exhaustion. Always known for her honesty and sincerity, she became an expert in deception when it came to hiding her bout with anorexia nervosa.