Was their mother's undisguised favouritism for the son she called a musical genius the real reason Karen Carpenter succumbed to the anorexia that claimed her life?
by: Hani Kamal El-Din
One evening in 1981, the popular BBC1 programme Nationwide broadcast an interview with one of the most loved musical parterships of the time: The Carpenters, a squeaky-clean duo, comprising the velvet-voiced singer Karen and her brother Richard.
They were interviewed by Sue Lawley, and fans no doubt expected to hear about new record releases and concerts that the American pair had planned. Instead, viewers saw a painfully thin, gaunt and fragile-looking Karen sitting on a sofa – her huge, brown eyes staring, hauntingly, from her drawn face.
Forty years ago, it was a condition that most people hadn’t heard of, and few understood.
Karen, then 31, was instantly defensive. ‘No, I was just pooped… tired out,’ she protested.
Her brother, sitting by her side, hastily stepped in. He called a halt to filming, claiming that Karen’s eating issues were in the past. When the interview re-started, there was no mention of Karen’s weight or her gaunt appearance.
Sixteen months later, Karen was dead. Her death, an inquest later recorded, was due to heart failure as a consquence of anorexia.
More than four decades on, a new book and documentary are re-evaluating the life and legacy of one of the world’s best-known singers, who became the first celebrity casualty of an eating disorder and whose death put a face on anorexia, triggering widespread attention and research, for which many young people can be grateful today.
That awkward BBC encounter is re-shown in the documentary film, Karen Carpenter: Starving For Perfection, which reveals fresh insights into the singer’s life and legacy. The recently published biography, Lead Sister: The Story Of Karen Carpenter by British author Lucy O’Brien, also re-examines Karen’s battle with anorexia and body dysmorphia, which saw her consume up to 90 laxatives at a time and her weight plunge to less than five-and-a-half stones.