New Zealand's first lady of drag is preparing to write her memoirs. But rest assured: none of the mystery men she loved - and there were many - at Carmen's International Coffee Lounge will be outed. A queen doesn't break a promise. And this one promised to keep all of her secrets.
"I was paid well. I was paid well under the table," she laughs. It's a naughty, deep rumbling laugh down the line from Sydney, where Carmen sits, surrounded by mementos of her colourful past, in her tiny pensioner's flat.
Dressed in her finest velvet and jewels with her man-made boobs pressed to the heavens, Carmen was the madam of Wellington's most notorious coffee lounge, where tea and toasted sandwiches were served downstairs and delicacies of the more discrete kind on the floor above. But that all ended 30 years ago.
The keeper of secrets is 70 this year. She's just had a knee op and spends her days looking after a community centre attached to a block of 100 flats in Surry Hills.
Cleaning up after German and karate classes is a far cry from the heady days of the coffee lounge, or the strip bars and streets of 60s Kings Cross that preceded them.
Back then, young Trevor Rupe, a farmer's son from Taumarunui, took one whiff of the Cross' seedy, sensual delights, and was caught forever in its intoxicating grip.
It was 1957. The days when the mafia ran the show and the players were hustlers, pimps, hoons and queens. "You had flower people, you had the bohemians, you had voodoo, witchcraft, and black magic. It was just the most wonderful, interesting era."
Trevor had toyed with drag in Auckland and Wellington but the Cross was something else. His days as a nurse and part-time waiter were quickly over.
"As soon as I heard about the drag shows opening there I said 'bye bye men's clothes'. I've never put anything on since. Never."
Trevor's first taste of performing in drag was about two years earlier when he was finishing compulsory military training, during which he learned to be a nurse.
"It was 1955. We had a farewell concert. I got up and did this impersonation of Eartha Kitt and lip-synched to one of her numbers. The guys were fantastic. I thought I was going to get something thrown at me. But I got a standing ovation! There were thousands of soldiers there. Gorgeous too."
Trevor grew up one of 13 children on a sheep and cattle farm. It was clear early on that he was different. His mother caught him dressing in her clothes when he was 11 but loved him too much to worry.
"I think my mother looked at me as sort of another girl, because my two sisters were 18 when they got married so it was just me left. I had a younger sister but she was a bit slow. So I think my mother picked me because I was sort of helpful around the house, picking flowers for the table."
He left school, headed for Auckland and Wellington then ended up in Kings Cross, as Carmen after Dorothy Dandridge's character in the movie Carmen Jones, becoming the first Maori drag queen performer in Australia.
"I used to come out on stage and strip. I had this huge purple umbrella and this red dress made in Hong Kong of glittering fabric, and I wore that with red high-heeled shoes and red gloves and red jewellery and lots of makeup."
She had two snakes and danced the hula. She got a breast job and started working the clubs as a prostitute as well.
They were thrilling but terrifying times.
"The police were very, very heavy. They hated gay people. They hated drag queens and they hated lesbians. They used to take us into the police station and give us a hiding and beat us up. I was locked up in Long Bay prison about a dozen times. But it made me a stronger person today."
Would the police storm into clubs and grab her? "Yes, that's right, and the other sad part is that when you worked at these night clubs and cabarets in full drag, and you're sitting there in the audience with these wealthy businessmen and the police would call out 'that's a bloke there, sitting with you at the table', and the men would get a fright or a shock. We were humiliated and then we would sort of move to another table. The guys didn't want us to sit at the table. They didn't know we were drag queens."
Were men back then naive? "Naive," she agrees, "and square. And we looked pretty good. We were all in our 20s and we would con and charm the businessmen - they didn't know that we were drag - for sex and payment."
When did you let them know? "Well you don't. You just go off with them and do the best you can."
Eventually police harassment got too much. In 1968 she returned to New Zealand. Here, Rainton Hastie was establishing a strip and nightclub scene in Auckland. Carmen wanted a part of it despite being arrested during an earlier trip home.
"A Constable Green arrested me because I was in drag. I was in a car with another guy, at about 3am. He pulled me out of the car and arrested me for wearing women's clothes. But when I went to court the magistrate let me go. He said: 'There's no law for women dressing up as men and there's no law for men dressing up in women's clothes.'"
With money inherited from her grandfather she opened her own coffee bar in Wellington.
She found an old house in the centre of town and had it done up like a harem.
"I opened up. I was allowed 100 customers a day in those days. I painted the whole place red, with purple carpets and black leather furniture and all the staff were drag queens, female impersonators and also gay guys."
Customers played the "teacups", leaving them a certain way to signal their sexual preference. "It was instantly famous because it was so beautifully done out and decorated.
"And I dressed up as a madam, you know, a classy madam, tits hanging out and split dresses. And all the drag queens I had working for me were very, very stunning and beautiful. They used to wear a lot of wigs, a lot of makeup and lovely miniskirts or split dresses and low-top dresses. Because a lot of my girls had to have their busts done in Cairo, Egypt."
Staff didn't have to sleep with the customers. But they had to be gorgeous. The coffee lounge became a hangout for some of the richest and most powerful people in Wellington. Including several MPs.
Carmen opened the Balcony strip club where Wellington's library now stands, and ran for mayor in 1977, with backing from businessman Bob Jones, under the banner "Get in Behind". She quit Wellington in 1979 and returned to Sydney.
These days it is home, she says. The cliquey drag scene has its quirks but it loves her, she reckons. And she loves it.
Later this year she will be back in the capital for a birthday party hosted by local drag queens and city dignitaries with dinner for 350. A similar bash is planned for Sydney.
Does she miss the days when she was the star of the show in Wellington? "Yes I doooo," she enthuses. "I was treated like royalty there. It was wonderful."
She would love to make Wellington her home again. The catch is money. Her beautiful frocks were sold years ago to free up much needed cash.
"I'll come back as soon as someone buys me a lovely house." Perhaps one of your many mystery gentlemen might, I suggest. "Yes," she says, sounding whimsical. Then laughs again. "Yes, a mystery Rich Gentleman."
* Jacqui Grant is helping to organise Carmen's October birthday bash and would like to hear from anyone who played a significant role in Carmen's past. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org