Revisiting Karen Carpenter: A Timeless Voice Taken Too Soon


Poster for AMS Pictures’ new documentary, “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection.” It was  released on Feb. 10, 2023.

The newest documentary about Karen Carpenter’s tragic life story titled, “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection,” was released on Feb. 10, 2023 by AMS Pictures. It has taken part in many screenings all along the West Coast since the beginning of February – including the Sonoma International Film Festival, Milwaukee Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival, and Santa Barbara International Film Festival. This documentary also won Best Documentary at the California Music Video Awards. Directed by Randy Martin alongside executive producers Carnie Wilson and Andy Streitfeld and producers Randy Schmidt and Brad Osborne, it brings the previously small known condition of eating disorders to light and how they affected Carpenter throughout her life. Karen Carpenter was known as the bright and humorous girl with the distinctive, velvet voice. She made the whole world stop and listen to soft rock classics such as “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “Top of the World,” but there was a side to her no one knew. 

Karen Anne Carpenter was born on March 2, 1950, to Harold and Agnes Carpenter in New Haven, Conn. Her older brother, Richard, was born almost three years earlier. As they grew up, both became interested in music, but there was a bit of time before Carpenter found her instrument, her voice. K. Carpenter first began to play the glockenspiel in high school, but found a love for drums. R. Carpenter began to play the accordion and moved onto the piano as he grew older. In 1963, the Carpenter family moved to Downey, Calif., where the Carpenter siblings continued their love for music by competing in the seventh annual Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands in 1966. They performed with a bass player, Wes Jacobs, and called themselves “The Richard Carpenter Trio.” The trio won the contest and were awarded a recording contract with RCA Records. 

Though the trio won, they disbanded later that year due to Jacobs being accepted into Julliard Music School in New York. Soon after, R. Carpenter met John Bettis, a guitarist, who later became the Carpenters’ lyricist. Bettis, the two siblings, and three other artists formed “Spectrum,” a vocal harmony sextet. K. Carpenter sang as well as played the drums. The sextet ended as quickly as they started; record company scouts didn’t find much interest, leading to the group going their separate ways in 1968. Though the band was no more, Carpenter and Bettis made a skillful songwriting team. They co-wrote many of the Carpenters’ songs leading to countless international successes.

In 1968, the duo was asked to be on the television program Your All American College Show – their first television appearance. The siblings duo’s manager on the program sent one of their demos to A&M Records and not soon after, they began to record songs there. This was the defining moment for Carpenter; her voice was found and it was something special. She was a three-octave contralto, the lowest register for a female singer, and she had the ability to sing even lower notes than that of a contralto; Richard called this “her basement.” Carpenter was able to sing as low as D3 and as high as B♭5. Her distinct voice allowed for a melancholy flair in the songs sung. Duane Edwards, history teacher, said, “her voice is angelic. It’s such a unique voice – I haven’t heard anything like it before or since.” The duo decided on the name “Carpenters” without a “the” to give the sibling duo a hip name. With her brother’s beautiful arrangements and her velvet vocals, the Carpenters had only just begun in the music industry.

 In 1969, they released their debut album titled “Offering,” but it was later changed to “Ticket To Ride” to boost the album’s growing popularity. The original titled album never reached the charts and only sold 18,000 copies. The new title for which is named after the Beatles’ song “Ticket To Ride,” the Carpenters sang the ballad version, reached #54 on the Billboard singles chart and remained there for 12 weeks. Once the title was changed on the album, it sold 400,000 copies; the copies of the original album are valued at over $1,000. Throughout the Carpenters’ entire music career and in the present, they sold over 150 million records. 

Though K. Carpenter was known for her fabulous singing ability, she had an impeccable talent for the drums. She often stated that she was “the drummer who sang” and that singing was just a hobby of hers, not something she enjoyed as much as drumming. Carpenter’s extraordinary abilities allowed for the Carpenters to skyrocket to fame. But along with fame, came criticism not only on the Carpenters’ image, but was centralized on K. Carpenter’s body image. The media played a huge role by introducing a more extensive, strained effect on how she perceived herself as well as affected how she lived her life, on and off the stage. Mark Gomperts, counselor, said, “even now, a big part of the problem is the media. The media portrays what women are ‘supposed’ to look like.”

According to the new documentary, as she grew up, the relationship with her mother became more and more distant. It’s believed that this was the start of her mental health depletion. “From what I’ve read and knowing a little about Karen, her mother loved both children but Richard was seen as the favorite of the family. I think that Karen maybe had a sense of insecurity and that she wasn’t as well loved or embraced by her mother, so that insecurity certainly could’ve played a role in her eating disorder,” said Edwards. Others believe that it wasn’t her mother’s fault but something that was harped on to Agnes as a child as well. Diana Glakas, counselor, stated “I think ideals can be passed down generationally. So if your grandma said, ‘ladies don’t eat like that,’ then grandma says that to mom, then mom now says it to you, I think maybe that if this had happened, it would’ve been really hard to avoid that if it’s something that you hear all the time.”

Once the Carpenters became an overnight sensation, the sibling duo embarked on many journeys around the nation and the world. These hectic schedules decreased K. Carpenter’s appetite and increased her mental health struggles. Carlota Urban, Spanish teacher, said “I think her career affected her eating habits because she was in the public eye so much.” While the band was on the road, the times to eat would be affected and she would also have trouble sleeping. In her later years, she would abuse thyroid medication in order to have a faster metabolism as well as take ipecac syrup to induce vomiting. 

One of the final interviews where the Carpenter siblings were together, K. Carpenter was asked what happened during the duo’s break between 1978 and 1980 and that it was rumored she had dropped a lot of weight. To which she responded that she was just tired and drained from the bustling schedules they faced while on tour. It’s also believed that her marriage affected and worsened her mental and physical struggles. K. Carpenter married a well-known real estate developer, Thomas James Burris, on Aug. 31, 1980 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Cali. At the beginning of their marriage, everything was going well, but slowly the couple grew apart. It is rumored that the day Carpenter died, she was set to sign the divorce papers. 

During the spring of 1980, Carpenter and one of her closest friends, Olivia Newton-John, went on a retreat to the Golden Door health spa in San Diego. While Carpenter was there she worked with a Beverly Hills internist, a specialist in internal medicine, to improve her eating and restore the 20 pounds she had lost. Glakas mentioned, “many eating disorders are actually psychological illnesses and I think that’s another thing that has taken people a while to understand that it’s not necessarily a choice. People that experience eating disorders need medical help, even celebrities today.” She moved to New York City at the start of 1982 and went to therapy for her eating disorder with psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. In April, she returned to Los Angeles to record “Now” for the “Voice of the Heart” album, the final song she recorded. A few months later, she called her psychotherapist telling him that her heart wasn’t beating correctly and that she felt dizzy. She admitted herself to the hospital only a few weeks later, and gained 30 pounds in eight weeks. 

In November 1982, she left the hospital even though her family and friends advised her not to. K. Carpenter returned back to California to stay at her parents house for a few weeks and stated that she was cured; she maintained her weight at 108 pounds until she passed away. On Feb. 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter died due to complications of anorexia nervosa in her parents’ home in Downey, Calif. She was only 32 years old. The “Voice of the Heart” album was released on Oct. 18, 1983, only eight months after she died. Many believe it as a way to commemorate her. 

Her death was a pivotal point in society. It shined a light on eating disorders and indicated the importance of mental health in life. Glakas commented, “over the years, I think that it’s become a little more destigmatized in talking about it and I think her death and her experience probably started the conversation about it.” Not only did it contribute to social awareness of eating disorders, but signified how in the past, a person could be struggling but no one knew what so nothing was said. “At the time, in the early eighties, no one had really heard of people dying of eating disorders,” said Urban. 

The media coverage and attention of her death was another more pivotal point in society. “Now more attention on eating disorders – her death has created the last four decades of concerted and continuation to combat it,” stated Edwards. In the forty years since her death, there has been a lot of improvement in the understanding of eating disorders and the effects of them. There is still much more to be done to help those who are struggling and need help. Eating disorders still exist but we now are more aware and help as opposed to just being, if not ignorant of it, just indifferent in some way within society; it’s getting better but plenty of people still need assistance,” said Glakas. 

The media still affects today’s society both mentally and physically, whether that’s online or printed. Glakas said, “as pictures, videos, and filters become more readily available, I think it becomes harder and harder for people to differentiate from what is real and what is not real and what is attainable and what is not attainable. I think that sometimes this feeds into negative self-talk.” School counselors Glakas and Gomperts shared what Robinson can do to help anyone who is currently struggling with eating disorders or anyone who needs help. “As school counselors, our main role is to be a support and advocate for our students. We can help with how their [students] day-to-day school is with homework, assessments, other accommodations but in order to make sure that they’re getting supported and treated outside of school. We would work with our student services team or social workers and the psychologist about how to connect that individual and their family with support outside of school”, said Glakas. Gomperts said, “We would refer students to a therapist of some kind because it [an eating disorder] is both a physical and mental issue. What we can do best is support them in school, work with the families, and help the families get the necessary help.” 

Karen Carpenter not only had an impact on society, but on the music industry as well; she was named one of the top 100 greatest singers of all time by Rolling Stone, an accomplishment not many singers can obtain. The new documentary “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection” includes interviews from many of her close friends, co-stars, and actors who know about her tragic story. The interviewee’s include Karen Carpenter’s hair and makeup stylist, Maria Galeazzi, singer Olivia Newton-John, drummer for the Carpenters, Cubby O’Brien, actress Cynthia Gibb, who portrayed Carpenter in The Karen Carpenter Story, singer Kristin Chenoweth, her high school drum mate, Frankie Chavez, and many more incredible actors, producers, and musicians. More information on “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection” can be found on Instagram, @karencarpenterdoc, and on their website,