Tragic Story of Karen Carpenter - the First Known Celebrity to Have Died from Anorexia

Karen Carpenter suffered from anorexia nervosa for years, but the underlying problem was more than a battling body image and a struggle to lose weight, but a lack of matriarchal love her entire life.

Karen Carpenter reached the height of her career, having a smooth velvet voice that charmed the world. With her brother, they formed the iconic band, “The Carpenters,” and sold over 100 million records in the ‘70s.

But behind her angelic voice and stardom, was a daughter who craved for a mother’s love and care, which she did not receive; not even until her last breath. The singer suffered from a then uncommon eating disorder called anorexia nervosa for years before her demise.

What started as a goal to lose weight became a catalyst for extreme dieting, driving Karen to deceive the people around her that she was eating, when in fact, she was not. In his book, “Little Girl Blue,” Randy Schmidt revealed the root of Karen’s eating disorder -- her mother’s inability to express love and affection.

CHUBBY TEENAGER

Although she was never classified as obese, Karen fell into a chubby category as a teenager, standing at 5”4 and weighing 145 lbs. Working her way through a slimmer figure, she leveled off at 120lbs and maintained a great figure, despite the eating difficulty she described to have on tour.

Richard and Karen Carpenter. | Source: Getty Images

Richard and Karen Carpenter. | Source: Getty Images

"When you're on the road it's hard to eat. Period. 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,” she said in 1973. “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."

‘SHE LOOKED FABULOUS’

After noticing her unflattering outfit in photos from the same year, Karen decided to hire a personal trainer to shed a few more pounds. However, her trainer’s new diet added muscle and caused her to bulk up.

Richard and Karen Carpenter. | Source: Getty Images

Richard and Karen Carpenter. | Source: Getty Images

Karen fired her trainer and vowed she would “do something about it” -- and diet she did. The iconic singer shed 20lbs more, which gained her compliments from her then boyfriend’s sister, Carol Curb.

“She lost around 20lbs, and she looked fabulous,” Curb recalled. “She weighed 110lb or so and looked amazing. If she’d been able to stop there, then life would have been beautiful.”

A CASE OF EXTREME DIETING

Losing weight became more than just a goal to Karen; it became an addiction. During meals, Karen devised a tactic to deceive her family and friends that she was eating, when, in fact, she was consuming nothing.

Karen Carpenter on stage, London. | Source: Getty Images

Karen Carpenter on stage, London. | Source: Getty Images

While pushing food around her plate, Karen would cut chunks of her “delicious” meal for her friends to try, and by the time everyone was through, her plate was clean, yet her stomach remained empty.

By the time Karen weighed 90lbs, she had began disguising her extreme weight loss by layering clothing, avoiding comments from those she knew to eat more.

"She would start with a long-sleeved shirt and then put a blouse over that," he explains, "and a sweater over that and a jacket over that. With all of it you had no idea of what she had become," her agent, Sherwin Bash said in 1975.

During a stage performance, Bash was horrified seeing what had happened to Karen’s body. Despite being in clothing, her bones protruded. When she stepped on stage, fans gasped at the figure that stood before them, thinking Karen had had cancer.

FOOD IS NOT THE ANSWER

On the surface, food seemed like the answer to Karen’s problems; just eat. But it was far more than just food the singer needed to be nourished with. After two years of extreme dieting and performing, Karen was admitted to the hospital in 1975. She was mentally and physically exhausted.

This caught her mother, Agnes’, attention and paid a close watch on her daughter who slept for 14-16 hours a day. Eventually, her weight went up to 104 lbs, and although she struggled with anorexia and bulimia nervosa for the next few years, something special happened to her.

TOM BURRIS

In 1980, Karen met Tom Buris, a handsome and seemingly well off property developer who fit all of Karen’s standards. “The Carpenter’s” singer’s dream of having a family was finally about to come true, after they decided to tie the knot, yet at the verge of perfection, Karen discovered Burris’ secret.

Her husband-to-be had a vasectomy and neglected to disclose it with her, despiting well knowing she wanted children. Devastated, Karen decided to call off the wedding, but Agnes did not allow, seeing as it would hurt their image.

On her final days, she abused a vomit-inducing medicine called Ipecac that caused her heart muscles to dissolve, leading to her demise.

Their marriage was nothing short of a disaster. Burris, who seemed wealthy with material possessions was, in reality, living over and beyond his means. He spent Karen’s money and mistreated her, even calling her a “bag of bones.” In 1981, Karen filed for divorce.

DR. LEVENKRON

Shortly after, Karen sought help from Steven Levenkron, a psychotherapist who wrote a book on eating disorders and admitted to having been taking 80 to 90 tablets of laxatives a night and using thyroid medication to speed up her metabolism, despite having a healthy thyroid.

A few months in, Levenkron called in Karen’s parents and brother to gather for a session, helping Karen by each telling her they loved the singer. Richard professed his love with ease, yet Agnes, whose love Karen needed most, responded differently. 

“Well, I’m from the north,” she said. “And we just don’t do things that way.”

DEPLETED AT 32

Karen went downhill with her unusual heartbeat that resulted in hospitalization from dehydration. She was fed through a tube that allowed her to gain weight, and with a thoughtful recovery, she showed everyone she started helping herself. 

On Friday morning, Agnes found her daughter lying on the floor, face down, dead. She was physically and emotionally depleted, having battled anorexia for years.

On her final days, she abused a vomit-inducing medicine called Ipecac that caused her heart muscles to dissolve, leading to her demise.

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