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Music

The Karen Carpenter Story and the sorry side of pop culture’s body ideals

@TomTaylorFO

With over 100 million record sales to their name, The Carpenters were Superstars who defied an era that seemed contrary to their harmonious tones. Their success was a symbol of the all-American dream. Tragically that dream proved a short-lived fantasy as the harrowing truth came to the surface when Karen Carpenter died at the age of 32. The star became the first celebrity to succumb to anorexia nervosa. In part, pop culture contributed to this sad end and the discussion remains as pertinent as ever as NEDA and other organisations continue to raise awareness of the problems that perpetuate eating disorder conditions.

When Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard first achieved major success in 1970 with ‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’, Karen was only 20 years old. In the intervening years, the hair racing act of their rapid rise to fame began to have a huge effect on her. In 1975, when the anorexia became unmistakably apparent, Karen told biographer Ray Coleman: “[I was sleeping 14-16 hours a day]. My mother thought I was dead. I normally manage on four to six hours. It was obvious that for the past two years I’d been running on nervous energy.”

It was in 1975 that Karen was finally admitted to hospital. At the time she reportedly weighed under 7st (<44Kg). Her obsession with her weight reportedly began around 2 years earlier when unflattering pictures from a Lake Tahoe concert hit the papers and left her distraught and seeking a diet plan. The issue was it was already hard enough maintaining a healthy diet amid the hectic touring plan. 

A 1973 interview offered up a worrying portent of this. “When you’re on the road it’s hard to eat. Period,” she once said. “On top of that, it’s rough to eat well. We don’t like to eat before a show because I can’t stand singing with a full stomach… You never get to dinner until, like, midnight, and if you eat heavy you’re not going to sleep, and you’re going to be a balloon.” Karen’s subsequent diet got her down to a healthy 110lbs, however, when friends commented on how great she looked, warning signs rang out once more as she told them, “Well, I’m just going to get down to around 105.”

While hectic touring might have made a healthy eating habit difficult to maintain, her bandmate John Bettis claimed it had a range of other impacts, and the era complicated the prognosis. “Anorexia nervosa was so new that I didn’t even know how to pronounce it until 1980,” Bettis recalled. “From the outside, the solution looks so simple. All a person has to do is eat. So, we were constantly trying to shove food at Karen… My opinion about anorexia is it’s an attempt to have control – something in your life you can do something about, that you can regiment. That just got out of control with her.”

It is also claimed by those around her at the time and ratified on some rudimentary levels, that Karen was trying to compete for her mother’s affections. Agnes Carpenter doted on Richard but many commentators around the family at the time claim that she did not give Karen the same level of affection. 

All of these factors created a whirlpool and in 1975, when Karen was admitted to hospital, the subsequent cancellation of their planned European tour apparently cost around $250,000. While Karen was afforded time to initially recover. There was money to be made and despite being hospitalised in the Autumn, in December 1975, the band were back in the studio to record A Kind of Hush.

Recent studies into eating disorders among musicians by Marianna Kapsetaki and Charlie Easmon in 2019 found that “eating disorders are prevalent in musicians and possible risk factors are their increased perfectionism, depression, anxiety and stress due to the demands of their job.” With long hours on the road and the perceived presence of constant competition, problems are perpetuated within the industry.

However, even outside of the industry itself, external factors prove huge. For Karen, these manifested when it came to her failed marriage to Tom Burris. Karen had wanted to start a family but Burris only revealed after their wedding had already been planned and fast-tracked that he had had a vasectomy. However, although Karen didn’t want to go ahead with it, her mother sent her a stern message that the show must go on. “The invitations have gone out,” she reportedly said. “There are reporters and photographers coming. People magazine is going to be there. The wedding is on, and you will walk down that aisle. You made your bed, Karen. Now you’ll have to lay in it.” 

This notion of keeping up appearances for the sake of a PR standing sadly continues to this day and is a sorry exemplar of how much we still have to learn about mental health. If you compare the story of Karen’s tragic struggles and the tour itinerary and discography of the band, the two are inconceivable. 

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This whirlwind of ideals, mismanagement and a range of other problems are probed in detail in the experimental film The Karen Carpenter Story. The Joseph Sargent and Richard Carpenter directed film remains the most innovative and striking music documentary ever made, as it parodies the harsh realities of show business by using Barbie doll reenactments of scenes in an allegory of the disposable consumerist ways that conspired against a musician who deserved so much more.

The sad end for Karen came when she was happy and outwardly healthy in Los Angeles after a stay in a New York hospital had saved her life. However, her appearances in restaurants and return to everyday life masked the fact that she had now become reliant on a drug called ipecac that induced vomiting. Thus, although her weight was stable, she was determined not to gain any further pounds and the heart muscle thinning side-effect of ipecac abuse eventually killed her at the tragic age of 32. She was a star and a symbol of the progressive world of pop culture—sadly she also embodied the dark flipside of all that entails too.