Karen Carpenter: Unlikely Gay Icon
BY Randy L. Schmidt
August 22 2011 4:00 AM ET UPDATED: February 04 2013 7:57 PM ET
It was later revealed that Richard was simultaneously battling his own demons — an addiction to Quaaludes — and entered a six-week chemical dependency program in January 1979. Just two weeks in, Karen revealed plans to record a solo album, something she’d longed to do for years.
With Phil Ramone at the helm, Karen set forth on a creative mission of experimentation and soul-searching. She realized this break from the duo and family was the perfect opportunity to explore and to push the envelope musically. It was time to establish herself as an independent 29-year-old woman. Friends called the project her “emancipation proclamation.”
Champagne toasts and congratulatory cheers flowed freely during the solo album playbacks in New York, but on the West Coast, brother and label execs sat stone-faced as Karen shared the recordings. She was deeply discouraged after hearing that Richard felt the album was “shit” and eventually folded under pressure, agreeing to shelve the entire project. She retreated to Los Angeles and went to work with Richard on a new Carpenters television special.
In 1980, Karen rebounded in a whirlwind relationship with smarmy real estate developer Tom Burris. The two wed in a posh ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel on August 30, just four months after their first date. The disastrous marriage was short-lived, serving only to exacerbate the bride’s mental illness and physical descent. By the time the couple split in November 1981, Karen’s weight had plummeted to below 90 pounds.
Eventually owning the anorexia, Karen set off on a recovery mission, relocating to New York City in January 1982. She arrived at the office of self-styled eating disorder expert Steven Levenkron weighing just 78 pounds and nursing a deadly cocktail of diuretics, laxatives, and even thyroid pills to speed metabolism. It was later revealed that she also abused ipecac to induce vomiting. Karen’s condition only worsened and she was eventually admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in September for hyperalimentation (intravenous feeding). Gaining a quick 30 pounds and a dose of momentum, she proclaimed she was fully cured and checked herself out of the hospital, returning to Downey in time for Thanksgiving. Within three months she was dead.
On the eve of her death, Karen phoned Phil Ramone and the two spoke of the infamous solo album. Ramone encouraged her to look upon their work together as a positive milestone in her career, regardless of the way it was received by others. “You will make many more records with your brother,” he told her, “but don’t lose the landmark just because it’s not out in the marketplace.”
“Can I use the f word?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Well, I think we made a fucking great album!”
Following Karen’s death in 1983, fans were relentless in pushing for the solo album’s release. Posthumous vindication finally came in 1996 when Karen Carpenter — the album — finally hit record store shelves. Outtakes from the sessions surfaced on the Internet a few years later and provide an intriguing glimpse into a daring and exciting departure for this sheltered, tortured soul.
See rare photos of Karen on the following pages. Little Girl Blue is now available in paperback.