People who knew Karen de la Carriere well say there is one subject she would never discuss, even with those close to her in the past. That subject is where she was born. And for that matter, the color of her skin and hair. Whenever the subject of her birth in Calcutta came up, she would react in one of three ways:
a) Have a hyperemotional reaction and sometimes go into a raving tantrum.
b) Shut down and say nothing.
c) Concoct stories of her family’s heritage.
Of the latter, de la Carriere told a coworker in the early 1970s that she had descended from exotic royalty or nobility in Northern Africa. That coworker wasn’t fooled—he was a linguist and pegged her accent as Indian-English.
In another version of her life story, de la Carriere said her father worked for the British firm ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) at their Calcutta outpost.
A former intimate of de la Carriere’s says of her ever-morphing stories: “Nobody cared, but she was obsessed with the subject. She wanted, for mysterious reasons, to keep secret everything surrounding her childhood. Her fear was that her first son would be born with dark skin—which he was.”
But the most telling manifestation of her psychotic behavior was de la Carriere’s obsession with everything white or blond, such as her choice of blond wigs and bleaching her skin. This latter is especially intriguing, since early photos of Karen show her with jet black hair and a dark complexion. And according to those who have known her for many years, she has been fanatical about always wearing a blond wig and thick layers of pale makeup.
Why in this multicultural society would she hide her heritage, even if she had come from India’s untouchable, or Dalit, caste?
This may be partially explained by the historical origins of the modern Indian obsession with fair skin. Millions of Indians today are bleaching their skin using dangerous chemicals. According to the Historum website, this is a pervasive cultural phenomenon—the traditional portrayal of Brahmins as the “light” caste and other castes (such as the untouchables) as “dark.”
An article posted on the Australian website dailylife.com.au surrounding the obsession with lighter skin noted, “So what is driving this obsession with lighter skin? In a word: colourism. Coined by writer, African American Alice Walker, colourism refers to discrimination within communities of colour, towards those with darker skin.”
De la Carriere’s obsessive rage directed at anyone asking where she was born is an indicator, but not a complete answer.