Iconic NZ drag queen Carmen dies

03:31, Dec 15 2011
Carmen 1
Carmen at her 73rd birthday party at Hope Bros in Wellington.
Carmen 1
Carmen at te opening of the Maori Art Market.
Carmen 1
Carmen at Hope Bros before her 74th birthday party.
Carmen 1
Carmen pictured in 2009.
Carmen 1
Carmen at a public meeting during the 1977 local body elections.
Carmen 1
Carmen with Wellington property magnate Bob Jones in 1988 at the launch of her biography.
Carmen 1
Carmen before her 70th birthday celebrations in Wellington.
Carmen 1
Carmen at the opening of the Telling Tales exhibition at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea in 2005.
Carmen 1
Carmen at Wellington Cup Week at Trentham in 2003.
Carmen 1
An early shot of Carmen with two performers in 1974.

Iconic drag 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 succumbed 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 GayNZ.com.

Hoosma said since suffering a fall earlier this year she had been down.

"She had put on some weight but overall her health has been in a downward spiral throughout the year," Hoosma said.

New Zealand's first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, said Carmen's "warmth and aroha'' always shone through.

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.

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, opening 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. 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, returning home to Wellington in 2009 for what's believed to be the last time.

GayNz.com reported she will be buried at Sydney's Rookwood Maori Cemetery.