Colourful Wellington identity Carmen dies

Colourful frag queen Carmen has died aged 75.

The one-time stripper, gay rights advocate and former Wellington mayoral candidate had suffered months of poor heath and finally lost the battle to kidney failure.

"Even as recently as Monday night she was lucid and coherent and had a strong will to live," her close friend and guardian Jurgen Hoosma told

"But since her fall her mood and outlook had been adversely affected. "She had put on some weight but overall her health has been in a downward spiral throughout the year," Hoosma said.

She died very early this morning at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, in the company of friends who had been keeping a bedside vigil for several days.

Tributes have been flowing in this morning.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia, who knew Carmen as Trevor Rupe from Taumarunui, described her as a loved member of the gay community.

Wellington entertainer, Carmen, has died.
Wellington entertainer, Carmen, has died.

"Carmen was larger in life in so many respects," said Mrs Turia.  "When she walked in the room you always had a very strong sense of her presence."

"She literally created history when she opened Carmen's International Coffee Lounge in the late sixties.  It quickly became an established part of the Wellington landscape due to the unique character of its founder."

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said she was sad to hear of the passing of  "such a cheerful and colourful Wellington icon. I admired her strength in living her life on her terms and standing up against discrimination.".

Wellington entertainer, Carmen, has died.
Wellington entertainer, Carmen, has died.

New Zealand's first trans-sexual MP Georgina Beyer said Carmen was a hugely important figure for the trans-gender world and the wider gay community.

"She was a pioneer who broke down barriers that helped  people like myself and many others to move into the main stream of society and do things such as become a member of parliament, or a doctor or a meteorologist, said Ms Beyer who first worked with Carmen in her coffee bar back in the 1970s.

She provided "a safe place to be ourselves" and challenged the overt discrimination and prejudice against people in the trans-gender community.

Carmen was born into a family of 13 in Taumarunui and was known as Trevor Rupe for about the first 20 years of her life.

She entered the sex industry in Australia after leaving the army in the 1950s. She took the name Carmen from Dorothy Dandridge's character in the movie Carmen Jones.

Returning to New Zealand in the late 1960s, Carmen became an entrepreneur establishing several businesses in Wellington.

Of those, the most famous was Carmen's International Coffee Lounge, a "flamboyant space" festooned with avant-garde European art, mirrors, and tropical fish, according to Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

Although homosexuality was illegal, various types of sexual liaison were available at Carmen's. Patrons arranged their coffee cups in particular ways to indicate whether they were after a heterosexual, gay, transsexual, or drag queen encounter.

Should a police raid occur, an elaborate system of doors and stairways provided discreet escape routes.

"We had a secret door so you'd never know who was going up there, " she said in a 2001 interview.

"We had plenty of famous people but I'm terrible with names - although I always remember sizes."

When she ran for mayor in 1977, Carmen campaigned for hotel bars to be open till midnight or even 2am; the drinking age to be lowered to 18; prostitution to be made legal; abortion to be decriminalised; homosexual acts to be decriminalised; sex education in schools for 14-year-olds; and nudity on some beaches -  all of which are now legal.

"I enjoyed doing the campaign. I had Bob Jones help me. I haven't seen him in years. He's probably better looking than me now,” she said in a 2009 interview with The Dominion Post.

Carmen lived out her final years in Sydney, retuning home to Wellington in 2009 for what’s believed to be the last time. reported she will be buried at Sydney's Rookwood Maori Cemetery.

The Dominion Post