Carmen Rupe was a trailblazing transgender woman and entertainer, a larger-than-life personality, sex worker, and celebrated LGBTIQ+ icon. Proprietor of several notorious Wellington nightspots and one-time mayoral candidate, she pushed the boundaries of Wellington nightlife and both entertained and outraged New Zealanders during the 1960s and 1970s. The most visible transgender New Zealander of her time, she used her celebrity to advocate for LGBTIQ+ rights. She was well-known for helping homeless people and others in need.
Carmen was born Trevor David Rupe on 10 October 1936 at Waimiha, between Taumarunui and Te Kuiti, the child of Elsie Tekahukete Wilson (Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Heke-a-Wai) and her husband, John Edward Rupe (Ngāti Maniapoto). She spent her early years on the Rupe farm at Waimiha with her three brothers and three sisters. After John Rupe committed suicide in about 1941, Elsie married Inuhaere Rupe (Te Rupe), John’s brother. The couple had a further six children before Te Rupe’s death in 1947.
Family life revolved around the farm and the local marae, with extended family constantly present and te reo Māori commonly spoken. The children’s koro (grandfather) was a respected tohunga (priest), while their kuia (grandmother) had a moko (facial tattoo) and was an expert weaver of korowai (cloaks). The Māori maramataka (calendar) guided vegetable production and the garden provided most of what they needed, along with locally hunted meat and fish. The old farmhouse had no electricity, no refrigeration and an outside toilet.
Carmen dreamed of being female throughout childhood, and was sexually attracted to men; she accepted these feelings and did not worry about them. She enjoyed dressing in frocks, daydreaming of being a Hollywood movie starlet, and at 15 performed a hula in women’s dress at an Anzac Day concert in Taumarunui. As a child she stole small objects, and though she outgrew this habit the desire to own intriguing curiosities remained a defining characteristic in later life.
Carmen left school at 15, working initially at a local sawmill and then the Taumarunui Post Office before taking up a role at the Mosgiel Woollen Mills, near Dunedin. There she had her first relationship with a man, and enjoyed performing the hula at RNZAF parties at Taieri airport. In about 1953 she briefly shifted to Auckland, where she discovered a lively ‘camp’ (homosexual) social scene and enjoyed socialising with ‘drag queens’. The scene also had its risks and could be violent; on one occasion she was sexually assaulted while unconscious.
Carmen worked in hotels in Dunedin and Te Anau until turning 21, when she could follow her ambition of becoming a nurse. In 1956 she attended 10 weeks of compulsory military training in Auckland and Christchurch, including a period with the Medical Corps to help advance her nursing prospects. The showgirl was never far from the surface and needed little encouragement. At the end of CMT, Carmen performed in a comic sketch named the ‘Ballet Latrines Les Girls’, dressed in semi-drag.
In about 1957 Carmen started work as an orderly at Cornwall Hospital in Auckland. At 21 she moved beyond hula performances and began cross-dressing in public. She also began experimenting with paid sex work after a chance meeting with an English businessman, who arranged two or three paying clients per week. Carmen travelled by ship between Auckland and Sydney with some of these men, enjoying the luxury and excitement of these escapades. When asked her name by a customer, she responded ‘Carmen’ – a name inspired by silver-screen icons from childhood, including actresses Carmen Miranda and Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen. She enjoyed playing ‘beautiful Trevor Rupe, well-dressed young man about the city’, but sex work as Carmen in Auckland’s dark back streets was more compelling. It was there that ‘Carmen’ began to fully emerge. 1
Carmen moved to Sydney in 1959, unsettled by her mother’s recent death, and prompted by a dispute with her employer over her sexuality and an eagerness for adventure. She worked briefly as a nurse before switching to waiting tables in restaurants. At the same time she performed in drag in clubs and by night sought sex work on Darlinghurst Rd, Kings Cross. It was here she honed her skills as an entertainer and sex worker – despite a heavy, often brutal and intolerant police presence and harassment by local crimelords.
Returning to Wellington in the early 1960s, Carmen worked at Wellington Hospital until sent to prison for six months in December 1962 for ‘permitting premises to be used as a brothel’ (a charge she denied). On her release from prison she returned to Auckland, and a timely inheritance enabled her to open a boarding house and live permanently as a woman. By night she performed as an exotic dancer at Strip-A-Rama on Karangahape Road and at private parties. Her repertoire included hula, belly dancing and mime. At the end of the performance she removed her wig to reveal ‘Trevor’ beneath the costume – a dramatic act intended to shock.
In January 1966, police officers arrested Carmen on her way home from a strip show and charged her with ‘behaving in an offensive manner in a public place’ because she was dressed as a woman. Justice McCarthy ruled that it was not illegal for men to dress in women’s clothing and dismissed the case. It was a win for all trans women, and Carmen never wore male clothing again. She legally changed her name to Carmen Tione Rupe on 2 September 1968. She had begun to physically transform her body with female hormones in the 1950s, and in the 1970s she had breast augmentation surgery along with electrolysis. A final win was the insertion of a dash in the sex section of her passport in 1982, and she was later classified as female. Carmen never had genital reassignment surgery; she investigated the possibility but eventually decided against it.
Carmen returned to Sydney soon after the 1966 court case, registering as a solo night club entertainer with the Keith Crockett agency. She again worked the Kings Cross area, developing her signature belly dance and exotic snake dance (with two-metre-long snakes). She focused on quality performances and glamorous clothing, most of which she made herself. As a sex worker Carmen was forced to work in specific areas designated for transgender people and was arrested many times. Police protection was rare, and encounters with police could be violently abusive. Sex workers were often mugged, robbed and sometimes raped.
Carmen returned to Wellington in 1967 and decided to open a late-night café and illicit sex venue. Making use of her experience in the hotel and service industries, nightclub entertainment and sex work, she created Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge at 86 Vivian St. The interior design was an eccentric mix of Asian, Egyptian, Arabian and African décor. Plush red velvet curtains, oriental rugs and reproductions of classical European paintings adorned the walls, while antiques were juxtaposed with a tropical fish tank, piano and jukebox, displays of peacock features and wild grasses. Madam Carmen presided, dressed in an exotic gypsy, bohemian style – big hair with dramatic but meticulous makeup.
The Coffee Lounge operated between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., serving tea, coffee, soft drinks, toasted sandwiches, cakes, pastries and scones. The café was unlicensed, though brandy was kept under the counter and could be added to coffee on request. The upstairs bedrooms were for sex work, with customers indicating their preferences by how they arranged their teacups and saucers. A cup placed upside down on a saucer requested sex with a woman; a cup on the side a transgender liaison; a saucer on top of a cup a homosexual encounter. The staff were a mix of drag queens, female impersonators, transvestites and transsexuals, plus a few gay men, straight men and lesbian women. Some of the hosts were sex workers but many were not. Above all, staff were expected to be welcoming to everyone. Regular clientele included businessmen, sailors and men on stag nights.
The café was soon a popular attraction, and the national media began to take an interest in both the International Coffee Lounge and in Carmen herself. Local and international celebrities made regular appearances. This growing notoriety brought problems as well as rewards. The Lounge was regularly overcrowded, and fights sometimes broke out among people impatient to get in. Carmen fielded threatening phone calls, and paint was splattered across the front windows on one occasion. The police tried frequently to prosecute Carmen for running a brothel, but she usually managed to alert the sex workers by pressing a concealed buzzer when they arrived. Carmen, and other transgender people with whom she socialised, remembered that police violence towards them was common during this period. Carmen often took on a protective role with newcomers to the sex industry, and helped people who were transitioning from one gender to another.
Carmen’s success allowed her to open several other coffee lounges, including The Peacock, an ‘overflow house’ for the Coffee Lounge, The Egyptian Tearoom at 287 Cuba St, Carmen’s Down Town on Cuba St, and Cleopatra’s Coffee Lounge at 144 Vivian St. Carmen’s Curios sold antiques and second-hand goods, while The Cottage was a 10-bedroom brothel in suburban Hataitai. Each room in the Cottage had a different theme: Egyptian, African, English, Asian, a school classroom, bondage.
In the late 1960s Carmen opened a nightclub, The Balcony, at 57A Victoria St, which soon became one of her most notorious establishments. Running for about ten years, The Balcony was lavishly decorated, predominantly in red, and offered a variety of shows, including female, male and transgender striptease acts, performances by drag queens and cross-dressers, fire dancers, Spanish flamenco, comic acts, and belly dancing. The venue could seat about 400 people. Carmen, as maître d’, opened and closed the shows and did the occasional special performance.
By the mid-1970s Carmen had become a local celebrity of some notoriety. She enjoyed the attention and publicity, and shocking the public. She caused a national scandal in 1975 when she claimed in a television interview that one (unnamed) member of Parliament was homosexual and others were bisexual. Parliament’s Privileges Committee considered Carmen’s comments that parliamentarians were guilty of illegal sexual acts a breach of parliamentary privilege, and ordered her and the interviewer, Spencer Jolly, to appear before it. Carmen embraced the massive media and public interest, arriving at Parliament in a chauffeur-driven limousine, dressed regally in black, to be met by a crowd of fans and media. Found guilty of a breach of privilege, she formally apologised by letter and no further action was taken against her.
Carmen generated a fresh media frenzy when she appeared topless at the Trentham races soon afterwards. She orchestrated the event, arriving fully clothed before removing a fur stole to reveal bare breasts. The prearranged photographer put Carmen on the front page of the Sunday newspapers.
In the mid-1970s Carmen began using her fame to support community initiatives. She announced her availability to do public talks for charity, and the response was so overwhelming she immediately took 25 bookings. Her appearances included joining Whina Cooper on the steps of Parliament at the end of the 1975 land march. She was also a regular judge for the Miss New Zealand Drag Queen show in Auckland, and appeared three times on fundraising Telethons.
Carmen’s most remarkable public performance came in 1977, when she stood for mayor of Wellington at the instigation of a committee led by property developer Bob Jones. Her campaign – featuring the double entendre slogan, ‘Get in behind!’ – pushed the accepted parameters of local-body politics. Carmen’s policies included extending bar opening hours, lowering the drinking age, and making sex work legal. Homosexual law reform and the decriminalisation of abortion were also on her agenda. Carmen thrived on the publicity, appearing in glamorous ball gowns throughout the campaign. She regularly made appearances in Wellington city, waving from the backseat of a limousine. Michael Fowler won the election; Carmen came fourth, with 1,686 votes but succeeded in enlivening the election.
At the end of 1979, after the lease on The Balcony building ended, Carmen decided to close all her businesses and move permanently to Sydney. Friends hosted a glittering farewell ball at Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret, attended by about 300 guests. Carmen was crowned Queen of Wellington, and gifted a specially woven korowai (cloak).
Carmen’s life continued to be intertwined with Sydney’s Kings Cross red light district; she made occasional guest appearances at Les Girls and other clubs and returned to sex work when the opportunity arose. She maintained her ties with New Zealand and regularly returned as an invited celebrity and respected matriarch, making guest appearances at the 1989 Auckland Mardi Gras and attending New Zealand’s first transgender conference in the early 2000s.
She maintained her affinity for social support work in Sydney, managing a small community centre and helping homeless and vulnerable people. She was an advocate for safe sex and HIV/AIDS education as well as LGBTIQ+ rights. As a respected and enthusiastic member of the Sydney-based Te Rau Aroha kapa haka group, she raised money for the casualties of Kings Cross.
Carmen became a Diva Hall of Fame recipient in 1996 and received a Hero (NZ) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. In 2002 she performed at the Sydney Gay Games – a worldwide sporting and cultural event for LGBT athletes and artists. In 2008 she rode her mobility scooter, which had been donated by the local community, at the lead of the ‘Decade of the Divas’ float in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. She was, once again, bare-breasted.
Carmen died of kidney failure in Sydney on 15 December 2011, aged 75. Her legacy continues; in Wellington’s Cuba St pedestrian crossing lights depicting Carmen were installed in 2016 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986.
Carmen described herself as a ‘tri-sexual’, because she liked to ‘try anything’. 2 Her family’s live and let live philosophy set her up for a lifetime of pushing boundaries and making the impossible happen. Her out and proud attitude paved the way for transgender visibility and LGBTIQ+ rights in New Zealand and Australia.