Who is Wendy Carlos? The first transgender woman in history to win a Grammy

Wendy Carlos won three Grammys in 1970 (Corbis via Getty Images)
Wendy Carlos won three Grammys in 1970 (Corbis via Getty Images)

Singer Kim Petras made Grammys history earlier this month when she became the first transgender woman to win the award for the best pop duo/group collaboration for her song Unholy with Sam Smith.

And although Petras is the first openly transgender woman to win a Grammy, she is not the first trans woman to win a Grammy award.

That feat happened more than 50 years ago, with the honour going to Wendy Carlos, who won three Grammys in 1970.

Who is Wendy Carlos?

Carlos, 83, is an American musician and composer from Rhode Island.

She studied music and physics at Brown University, before gaining a master's in music from Columbia University, New York.

At Columbia, Carlos was taught by composer Vladimir Ussachevsky, who she described as “the pioneer of American electronic music”.

She met the creator of the Moog synthesiser, Robert Moog, in 1964, and influenced some of the original features the instrument would go on to have.

By the mid-1960s, Carlos was one of only three practitioners of the instrument.

She began working as a freelance composer, creating music and sound effects for TV adverts, before deciding to take music seriously.

Grammys success

Her change in direction paid off, and in 1970, Carlos won three Grammys for her album Switched-On Bach.

She won best classical album, best-engineered album (classical), and best classical performance (instrumental soloist).

The album also topped the US classical charts for the next three years and was only the second classical album ever to go platinum in the US.

Although Carlos was living as a woman at the time, she kept her identity private from the music industry.

Transgender identity

The composer began living privately as a woman in the late 1960s and underwent gender confirmation surgery in the early 1970s. She first discussed this with Playboy magazine in 1979.

She said that she waited so long before revealing she was living as Wendy, partly because she was afraid that it may prevent her from being taken seriously in the music world.

She added: “But I’ve gotten tired of lying. I think that in the past couple of years, the dangers of allowing the public to know about me have lessened.”

Carlos also said that she “lost a decade as an artist” because she couldn’t live publicly as a woman in the music industry. When she performed in 1969, Carlos had to give herself a more masculine appearance to hide the fact that she was living as a woman.

In the 1979 interview, she also said that “transgender is a better description,” for herself than the word “transexual,” which was used at the time.

She also told Playboy: “Now that I’ve solved my gender crisis, I’ve still got to come to grips with the other parts of my life that go into making a happy individual: living a productive existence; having time for other human beings; having time for passion and compassion; having the time to create and shape the multifaceted diamond that a fine life can be.”

Composing for film

Carlos has composed music for major films, including two collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, working on A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980).

More recently, she worked on Ready Player One (2018) and a short film called Tulpa (2020).

Carlos also composed music for the 2003 video game Tron 2.0, as well as the 1982 film Tron.

She has released more than 10 albums, but much of her music is difficult to find online today, as she owns the catalogue and has not made it available to stream.

However, her compositions for The Shining and Tron are available on Spotify.