A Look Behind the Death of Karen Carpenter

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Karen Carpenter had one of the greatest voices of all time during her days as The Carpenters’ frontwoman. Her death at the age of 32 shocked the music world, succumbing to heart failure brought on by her long, unpublicized struggle with anorexia.

Carpenter, particularly known for her low register, joined forces with her brother Richard in the early ’60s to create the eponymous duo. The group quickly rose to fame in the pop sphere, garnering a decades-long career before Carpenter’s death in 1983.

Diet Culture

Carpenter reportedly started dieting while still in high school. Under the doctor’s advice, she began the Stillman diet, sticking to only lean foods and drinking eight glasses of water a day. Despite losing weight, Carpenter saw photos of herself while performing that she believed made her look “heavy.”

A new diet and a failed trainer later, Carpenter opted to continue her weight loss on her own, relying on counting calories and skipping meals. While using these methods, fans started to write to the outfit, asking if the singer was sick. She denied any claims of an eating disorder and instead told the media she was just “pooped.”

Reportedly, Carpenter’s insecurities only grew as she solidified into one of the biggest pop stars of her era.

By mid-1975, The Carpenters were forced to cancel tours of Japan and Europe after Karen collapsed on stage during a show in Las Vegas. Her weight had plummeted to only 90 lbs. Those around her thought some time spent in a hospital would turn things around for the “Close to You” singer. The next seven years were a repeating cycle of dramatic weight loss, collapse, and then hospitalization.

Anorexia Nervosa

While the reality of her condition had stayed relatively under the radar, on February 4, 1983, Carpenter suffered from a deadly heart attack at her parent’s home in Downey, California. Her sudden heart failure was brought on by the physiological stresses placed on her system by the disease whose name soon entered the public consciousness: anorexia nervosa.

Paramedics said her heart was beating once every 10 seconds before she died at Downey Community Hospital a few hours later at 9:15 am. An autopsy ruled out drugs or a medication overdose, describing her death as “emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.”

A coroner blamed a repeated use of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter emetic used to induce vomiting.

Carpenter’s death raised awareness of eating disorders in a way that had seldom been discussed before. From a generation of women who saw Twiggy as an icon of the ideal body shape, Carpenter’s death proved it was, in fact, possible to be too thin.

After her death, a number of public figures shared their own struggles with anorexia and bulimia, most notably Princess Diana. While a group of doctors and therapists, who specialized in eating disorders, urged the FDA to ban the over-the-counter sale of the vomit-inducing drug ipecac.

Legacy

Many fellow pop stars have heralded Carpenter as a pioneer of the genre. The likes of Chrissie Hynde, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Althea Gordon have all noted her influence.

A 1994 tribute album featured a host of popular artists taking on the duo’s greatest hits. The Cranberries brought their shoe-gaze rock to “(They Long To Be) Close To You” while Sheryl Crow strummed through a rendition of “Solitaire.”

Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

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