Saturday, December 17, 2011

Darlinghurst Blog: People: Carmen

The area lost one of its most friendly and best-dressed residents this week when Carmen died at St Vincent's Hospital on Thursday morning. I used to love seeing Carmen around the neighbourhood and will really miss those brief and colourful encounters.
I first came across her in the late 1990s when she was standing outside the Legion taxi base on Foveaux Street in Surry Hills chatting away to some of the drivers. It was early in the morning and Carmen was dressed in a bright figure-hugging gown that showed off her curves while her long, dark hair was pinned with art flowers. She was the epitome of old fashioned film star glamour.
I was so enchanted by her and over the years would see her everywhere: always on Foveaux Street and often outside the taxi base; up on Riley Street, outside her home; over on Elizabeth Street near the Downing Centre courts building; and around Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. 
More recently she would be cruising along in her colourful frocks on a motorised scooter, its front basket festooned with the same flowers that graced her hair, her fingernails immaculately painted, lipstick in place. 
I had taken to smiling and waving at her when she went by and this was always returned with a smile so warm; she seemed to be the most carefree and content person in the world. 
Then I heard recently that she had been ill and was at St Vincent's Hospice; she wasn't expected to make it I was told.
But then, at the opening of the new Wayside Chapel building in July, there she was, glowing with good health and looking as fabulous and meticulously groomed as ever.
For the first time, I decided to introduce myself and tell her I was glad to see that she was well again and that her presence on the streets had been missed. She happily posed for a photograph (above) and you cannot miss the warmth in that smile. 
But Carmen's battle wasn't over and she died of kidney failure this week, aged 75.
It is only since then, that I have learnt what an amazingly strong character she was.
Born in New Zealand as Trevor Rupe, she worked in the army before joining the sex industry in Australia in the 1950s where she became the country's first Maori drag queen, taking her name from the title character in the 1954 Otto Preminger musical, Carmen Jones.
She worked at Les Girls in the Cross and Tabu, and according to this Sydney Morning Herald article, (third item down),  was a regular at Sydney's first gay bar, The Purple Onion, and mates with underworld figure, Abe Saffron.
The Stations of the X video history project interviewed Carmen and she discussed this era: how she made her name dancing with snakes and how the police would regularly raid the clubs and brutally beat the drag queens.
In the 1960s, she returned to New Zealand and opened a number of businesses in Wellington, including a "notorious massage parlour", TVNZ reports, which was frequented by politicians and businessmen.

"Despite homosexuality being illegal in NZ at the time, sexual liaisons could be organised at Carmen's," TVNZ writes.
"Interested patrons would arrange their coffee cups in particular ways to show what kind of liaison they wanted: a heterosexual, gay, transsexual, or drag queen encounter.
"In the event of a police raid, Carmen had created an elaborate system of doors and stairways that offered patrons various escape routes."
In a 2001 interview, Carmen said: "We had a secret door so you'd never know who was going up there . . . we had plenty of famous people but I'm terrible with names - although I always remember sizes."

In the mid-1970s Carmen was forced to give evidence before New Zealand parliament's privilege's committee for apparently hinting that a number of politicians were gay. 
And in 1977, she unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of Wellington, pushing for abortion and homosexual acts to be decriminalised and the drinking age to be lowered to 18 - all which are now part of legislation in New Zealand.
In Sydney, she was treated as royalty in the community and in 2002 led the Decade of Divas float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.
Her funeral will be held at midday on Tuesday at the Church of Te Wairua Tapu, 587 Elizabeth Street, Redfern, followed by burial at Rookwood Cemetery, at Lidcombe, in Sydney's west.

Carmen Tione Rupe
10/10/1936 - 15/12/2011

4 comments:

DARIAN ZAM said...

More thoughtfully written than some of the accounts from major newspapers.

The Fitzroy Flasher said...

Beautiful tribute

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you wrote about Carmen.... people like her make life in the Inner City so great.

Terry Page said...

I met Carmen once at a party in Farrel st where I lived and she was like a Polenesian princess a Lovely woman, radiant!