Karen Carpenter, a singer who long suffered under the burden of the expectations that came with pop stardom, died on this day in 1983, succumbing to heart failure brought on by her long, unpublicized struggle with anorexia.
Carpenter had a fixation with her weight from her earliest days performing with her brother, Richard, in and around their hometown of Downey, California. As a teenager, she dropped at least 25 pounds on a popular and severe weight-loss program known as “the Water Diet,” so that by the time she and Richard burst on the pop scene with their smash hit “Close To You” in the summer of 1970, she was a thin but healthy 20-year-old carrying 120 lbs. on a 5′ 5″ frame. She maintained that weight through the early years of the Carpenters’ success, yet it appears that Karen’s insecurities about her appearance only grew, even as she was becoming one of the biggest pop stars of her era.
In pictures printed in Rolling Stone magazine in late 1974, when the Carpenters were one of the most successful acts in all of pop music, Karen looks fit and healthy. Yet by mid-1975, the Carpenters were forced to cancel tours of Japan and Europe after Karen collapsed on stage in Las Vegas. Her weight had plummeted to only 90 lbs., and though it would rebound somewhat after a brief hospitalization, the next seven years were a repeating cycle of dramatic weight loss, collapse and then hospitalization. The name of Karen’s condition was virtually unknown to the public at this time, but all that was about to change. Early on the morning of February 4, 1983, while staying in her parents home in Downey, Karen suffered a deadly heart attack, brought on by the physiological stresses placed on her system by the disease whose name soon entered the public consciousness: anorexia nervosa. She was only 32 years old.