Karen Carpenter didn’t start her musical career as a singer.
In her high school band, she played the drums — and she was good at it. But then she started to sing while she played. And that then-strange combination — singing and drumming — is what originally brought attention to Karen when she and her brother Richard sang together.
As her voice matured into the resonant, smoky, deep alto we know so well, Carpenters fans and the music world realized that Karen was the true talent of the duo and, with a lot of resistance from her, moved her into the spotlight.
In an article for Advocate.com to coincide with the paperback release of Karen Carpenter’s bio, Little Girl Blue, author Randy Schmidt wrote about her legacy and impact on gay fans.
Karen was not a spotlight kind of girl. Her parents idolized big brother Richard and considered him a musical prodigy destined to be “the next Liberace.” (If only they knew.) Karen was an awkward tomboy who loved baseball.
No wonder we loved her — she is the perfect lesbian crush.
I’m surprised, though, that Schmidt considers her a gay icon. He writes:
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.
I know our gay brothers often are enthralled with female celebrities, but Karen is the antithesis of Barbra or Liza or Cher. She was decidedly not flashy and rarely wore more than a touch of makeup. Her onstage style was simple (she wore pants under her gowns) and down-to-earth. Can you imagine a Karen Carpenter drag queen?
Maybe my lesbian crush on Karen is blinding me to an element of camp, but I don’t see it. Or maybe this is one les/bi icon that I just plain refuse to share with the boys.
Certainly, though, we all can relate to the longing in her voice and lyrics and her ability to hide a big secret behind her incredible talent. The Carpenters were at the height of their popularity when Karen’s eating disorder became obvious – their 1975 world tour had to be cancelled when she got down to 91 pounds and collapsed from “exhaustion.” But not until 1982 did she admit to having anorexia and seek treatment. She then weighed 78 pounds. A year later, she died.
I had a date to a Carpenters concert as a teenager and, unsurprisingly, don’t remember who it was with. But I do remember Karen Carpenter. Judging by the timeline before her death, she was probably frightfully thin when I saw her, but I didn’t notice. I was far too enthralled with her voice. All these years later, I still remember that marvelous sound filling the auditorium — and me. I was on top of the world.
Are you a Carpenters fan? What’s your favorite sing-along song? Do you think she’s a gay icon?