In 1955, at the end of military training in which he was trained as a nurse, he did an impersonation of Eartha Kitt as part of the farewell concert. He worked as a nurse in Auckland and Wellington doing part-time drag.
In 1957 Rupe moved to Kings Cross in Sydney, took the name Carmen from the 1954 film, Carmen Jones, stopped wearing men’s clothes altogether, and became the first Maori drag performer in Australia. She stripped, danced the hula and had two snakes. She also got breast implants and worked as a prostitute. In 1963 she joined the famous Les Girls revue, and worked with Carlotta. She was a friend of Noel McKay.
On a trip home Carmen was arrested in a car at 3am and charged with wearing women’s clothes. However the magistrate threw out the case because there was no such law. In 1968, the police harassment in Sydney got to be too much, and she returned to Wellington. An inheritance from her grandfather enabled her to open a coffee bar that was a brothel upstairs. The place became popular with the local rich and famous, including several MPs.
She ran for mayor of Wellington in 1977 under the banner ‘Get in Behind’ promising gay marriage and legalized brothels.
In 1979 she returned to Sydney, and to working in nightclubs. She had small parts in television dramas in 1992/3.
In 2003 she was inducted into the Variety Hall of Fame. In 2008, she lead the Decade of the Diva float at Sydney’s Mardi Gras. She was a prominent member of Agender, the New Zealand transgender group.
She died at age 75 after some months of medical problems.
- “Carmen recalls Coffee Lounge glory days”. Gay.co.nz. www.qna.net.nz/news/696.html.
- Carmen Rupe. “Madame Carmen”. In Tracie O’Keefe (ed) Trans People in Love. Routledge 2008.
- “Carmen”. Time Out Sydney. 2010. www.timeoutsydney.com.au/thebridge/colourfulsydneyidentity/carmen.aspx.