(Credit: Alamy)

The tragic story of Karen Carpenter: An artist failed by a faltering society

“People never think of entertainers as being human. When you walk out on stage, the audience think, ‘Nothing can go wrong with them.’ We get sick and we have headaches just like they do. When we are cut, we bleed.” – Karen Carpenter.

Celebrities are often on the receiving end of a lot of negative comments – some, offhandedly directed towards them and others, genuinely spoken with an intent of putting them down or merely throwing hate. Sure, there is all the love from the fans who adore them, but even that can take a toll on the artist, especially one in the entertainment business. Artists tend to become more vulnerable to both the love and the hate which, in turn, makes them prone to over-analysing their own selves and that can prove to be harmful to them and, in some cases, even fatal.

Karen Carpenter was part of the iconic duo The Carpenters, along with her brother Richard. She was initially a full-time drummer and co-lead singer for the group, but later took the role of the frontwoman in the band. Carpenter had a distinctive voice and was praised for her three-octave contralto. Along with the drums and the vocals, she also played the bass guitar on a couple of songs in the albums produced during the formative years of the group (before it became a duo). During the group’s hiatus, she also released some of her solo works, which quickly gained acclaim from audience and critics alike. But behind all the popularity and the stardom was a woman struggling to find some sense of control over her life, one which appeared to be slipping away from her and the only way she could control her life was to control her body.

Too many artists have fallen victims to mental illnesses because of living a life that is under constant scrutiny. The spotlight, for them, becomes both a boon and a bane, and sometimes, the cons overpower the pros to the extent that they struggle even to be recognisable. With the topic of mental health coming into the purview of mainstream conversation more and more in recent times, and many celebrities speaking up about the issue, it encourages people to accept and acknowledge their personal struggles and seek help, too.

This was not the case in the late 1970s and ’80s. Mental health was a topic that was rarely discussed, and so were mental illnesses. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia were little-known. It was only after celebrities, one of whom was Karen Carpenter who struggled with and lost her battle to anorexia, that sensitised and started to raise awareness about such illnesses.

Growing up, Carpenter was never particularly encouraged by her mother, a parental figure who largely favoured her elder brother. Even when she gained more popularity than her brother Richard, she was met not with words of encouragement, but with looks of disappointment that she had overshadowed her sibling. Struggling to find a space where she was accepted and loved for who she was, from a very young age, Carpenter started to take up dieting as a means of controlling the part of her which she thought was the most visible to the outsider’s eyes – her body.

It started out innocently enough. She went on a professionally prescribed diet and drastically lost a lot of weight. But she wanted to lose more. In her eyes, she still wasn’t skinny enough. She changed her diet, but this resulted in her growing muscles which made her look “heavy” – something she absolutely despised. She fired her personal trainer and took matters into her own hands which resulted in her losing an unhealthy amount of weight and falling sick.

(Credit: Knudsen, Robert L.)

The issue became more and more visible as time passed. When asked about it, she simply dismissed all assumptions and said she was just “pooped”. She refused to publicly acknowledge and accept that she was unwell, not just physically but mentally, too. However, she did tell her family that she needed help, and she did get help, if only for a little while. She chose to be treated in New York City by a psychotherapist. Her brother, Richard, later said that they (him and their parents) didn’t know how to help her when she told them about it.

In the 1980s, Carpenter’s condition fluctuated immensely – from periods of low in which she started taking thyroid replacement medication to speed up her metabolism, to periods where she began to get better – a time when she was Lennox Hill Hospital in New York and placed on an intravenous drip which seemed to helped to gain back her weight. However, the stress of the change put pressure on her heart. On 4th February 1983, Carpenter collapsed in her bedroom at her parents’ house. She passed away at Downey community hospital later in the day. An autopsy described her death as “emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.” The coroner further said that Carpenter’s heart failure could be attributed to overuse of ipecac syrup, used to induce vomiting.

This does seem like an awful lot of information, doesn’t it? But it just goes to show how cruel things can get when one is under the constant pressure of being under the limelight or constantly anxious about being caught unaware by the paparazzi. Karen Carpenter fell victim to this, and it proved fatal for her.

Celebrities are often idolised, and perhaps that is the issue. They are put so high up on the pedestal that they barely remain human in the eyes of the audience – as if they are beyond all human emotions and feelings as if nothing can go wrong with them. But, of course, that is not the case. Figures within the public aren’t plastic. They feel the same way as any other person does. In fact, they probably have to deal with more – the public as well as the private and somewhere between balancing both, it goes terribly wrong for them.

As a woman in the entertainment industry, things get even worse. Women, in the cis-gendered heteronormative patriarchal society, have always been seen as a body, made only for the pleasure of men. It is sexist and brutal, and somehow, even with as progressive as the world is getting, things are barely changing. Female artists are still humiliated for not having “attractive” physical attributes, for not being thin enough or for being too fat, for not being pretty enough, and the list goes on.

Artists, to this day, struggle with mental disorders, eating disorders and body image. Karen Carpenter was one of the first to have lost her life over the problem. It was only after her tragic and untimely death that brought public attention to these less-discussed issues, and it helped spread awareness so that another life wasn’t lost to mental illness as hers was.


For anybody who might be struggling to deal with mental health issues, here are some helpline numbers for you to talk to: 

Mind

Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems.

Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)

Website: www.mind.org.uk

Anxiety UK

Charity providing support if you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety condition.

Phone: 03444 775 774 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm)

Website: www.anxietyuk.org.uk

No Panic

Voluntary charity offering support for sufferers of panic attacks and OCD. Offers a course to help overcome your phobia/OCD. Includes a helpline.

Phone: 0844 967 4848 (daily, 10am-10pm)

Website: www.nopanic.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness

Support and advice for people living with mental illness.

Phone: 0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4pm)

Website: www.rethink.org

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