Karen Carpenter’s Death, 30 Years On: The Tipping Point For Eating Disorder Awareness
In the interim, dozens of mostly female stars have spoken up about their past or sometimes ongoing bouts with bulimia or anorexia. Jane Fonda dealt with her 30-year battle with eating disorders in her memoir, My Life So Far. Former teen stars Justine Bateman and Tracy Gold became activists on the issue. Others who've been candid about their own struggles include singers Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Lily Allen, Fiona Apple, Katherine McPhee, Nicole Scherzinger, and Paula Abdul, along with other celebs like Katie Couric, Mary-Kate Olsen, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Calista Flockhart, Kathy Griffin, and even the late Princess Diana.
Such a list did not exist in 1983. There were no well-known cautionary tales to speak of. "If this had happened in today's world I think Karen would have lived," said Frenda Franklin, Carpenter's best friend, in a 2010 biography of the singer. "I think we would have had a good shot. They know so much more. We were dancing in the dark.”
"Anorexia was not something that was talked about or known in those days," pal Olivia Newton-John said in Little Girl Blue, Randy L. Schmitt's excellent biography, the only major one unauthorized by the Carpenter family. "People were very thin, but you didn’t realize what it was…"
Unless you were part of the wink-wink sorority of binge-and-purgers, that is. "In that era we all had little bouts of it," said Carole Curb, Mike Curb's wife and another friend of Carpenter's. "It was really in vogue then.” But it was only Karen, in her circle, who took it to the extreme. "Her face was all eyes," Curb recalled.
At the time, Carpenter had one friend who'd dealt with anorexia nervosa and come out the other side—Cherry Boone O'Neill, daughter of Pat Boone, who was then at work on a landmark book, Starving for Attention, that came out a few months after Karen died. "The fact that I had blazed the trail of recover before her gave her hope to think she could do the same,” O'Neill said, although Carpenter's denial ran much deeper.
O'Neill recalled her own pre-recovery routine: "For quite some time I was taking 60 laxatives at once," she told Schmitt, "mainly because that was how many came in the box. I would ingest the entire contents so as not to leave any evidence.” But Carpenter made that shocking dosage look like child's play, revealing to a therapist in the final year of her life that she'd been taking 80-90 Dulcolax a night.