Karen Sheperd
Karen Sheperd
Imagine it's 1992. Operation Desert Storm has annihilated the Iraqis, anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is high, you’re an American filming an action movie near the border between Syria and Jordan — and you’re required to have double guards around you. Add in that you’re a female dressed in body-hugging tights with her face in full view and you must fight a devout Muslim stuntman.

Karen Sheperd didn't have to imagine it. She lived it on the set of Operation Golden Phoenix, and the stuntman refused to fight her not only because her arms and face (with makeup) were showing but also because she was kicking his butt.

This wasn’t the first time in Sheperd's film career that she was exposed to male chauvinism. It happened on film sets in Japan, Hong Kong and Hollywood. She wasn’t the first female martial arts star to undergo such inappropriate treatment, and she won’t be the last.

However, unlike many women in martial arts and martial arts cinema who withstand this degradation and indignation from the men who run these industries, Sheperd became a martial arts Gloria Steinem, a woman who has made changes behind the scenes, a martial arts role model that young girls can look up to — because speaking out means speaking up.

Though Sheperd’s career is well documented, over the past few years she’s been off the radar. Yet now she finds herself speaking out about something more personal, secrets she’s kept hidden for most of her life. She figured that now it’s time to speak up and share what she’s going through.

Sheperd opened by quoting T.S. Elliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

“My personal and martial arts lives have been on the backburner for a while — out of sight, out of mind — and I see this Black Belt interview as my debut back into my real life and martial arts life, and to share what inspired me to do so,” she said.

“I have a calling to serve a much larger, higher purpose, and it’s about how one reinvents oneself to survive. I’ve always been one to take risks because I’ve always felt that I have nothing to lose, and I have done some bizarre things to survive. Yet I had a hard time when I was younger and facing what many young people are facing today on a really sad and frightening scale.”

With measured breath, she continued: “I had a sister who committed suicide when she was 18. I have an upcoming secret project that discusses my experience of being a survivor and my childhood experiences dealing with abuse and depression, and how I reinvented myself and found the strength to do it. There’s something about being a survivor of suicide, being defeated and coming out of it that reflects Elliot’s quote. You don’t know your limits.

“Like Yoda says, ‘Do or do not, there is no try.’ If you have faith in everything you’re called to do, you’ll find your answer. It has taken me a whole life of experience to get there.”

During her time away, she also unearthed another important aspect of self-discovery, a root in her past that possibly reflects her willingness to take risks and develop martial arts-related virtues. Science has revealed that what you inherit goes beyond physical traits. You also inherit emotions, attitudes, skills and livelihoods from your ancestors.

Sheperd learned she is related to King Richard III. One of his major contributions to British society was establishing the Court of Requests, in which people who couldn’t afford legal representation could apply to have their grievances heard. He was trying to give the voiceless a chance to speak up about legal issues, people who traditionally had to blindly obey their situation and accept being trashed by powerful men.

As Sheperd described how she singlehandedly pioneered the recognition of female martial arts forms competitors, it sounded like a Court of Requests moment. “I worked hard, scrimped, scraped and got myself into tournaments,” she said. “I won everything. In 1979-80, there were no divisions for women. I had to compete with men and was the only woman rated among men in America.

“Women came to me asking, ‘What can we do? We don’t want to compete against men. How do you have the courage to do that?’ I got sick and tired of hearing this, and so I had to do something about it. It goes back to Elliot.”

With guts and gall, she spoke with Karate Illustrated’s Renardo Barden (editor of the only magazine with a rating system) and petitioned for women to be rated. “He said if you convince tournament promoters to have female divisions, we’ll have ratings,” Sheperd recalled.

It was challenging because the promotors said they didn’t have enough women to justify a division. She kept at it, and after convincing Joe Corley to sign on, she went back to the other promoters who then agreed. “It was a rough road,” she said. “I was willing to take it.”

Comparatively, for the regal Sheperd to be successful, it took the clout of Corley to push it through, and for King Richard’s Court of Requests, it took the clout of King Henry VIII to pass it into law. Yet perhaps this King Richard inheritance doesn’t end here because — let’s face it — if it’s in you, it’s in you for life.

Years before Bruce Lee influenced Sheperd, for P.E. class in school, she had the choice of doing usual activities or taking karate. She had done activities like gymnastics, but her heart was never in it. Though her athletic dad encouraged her to do anything she wanted, nothing gelled.

However, after one shotokan class, she knew martial arts was what she wanted to do. “The movements came natural to me,” she noted. “It shocked the instructor. He’d show movements, I’d do them and he had me in front of class as an example on how to do the kata. It was meant to be.”

On her path to film/TV stardom — from the hard-boiled Red Sonja role doing 3,200-plus live stage shows at Universal Studios to the injuries and unwanted sexism and misogyny she encountered — Sheperd kept fighting, giving it her all and never backing down. She cemented herself into the annals of martial arts history and became one the greatest female forms and weapons competitors, which included defeating men, and she was the first woman to become the No. 1 black-belt forms champion.

Analogously, yet fortunately not as violent for Sheperd, during the Battle of Bosworth (1485), when her distant relative King Richard’s men lost their nerve, he led a suicide cavalry charge deep into the enemy’s ranks. History noted that the gallant king had significant kills. Suffering 11 wounds, eight of them to the head, the death blow occurred when a heavy weapon hacked away the back of his skull. He never gave up and fought to the end with dignity and bravery to become the last warrior king of England.

We’re told that history repeats itself. Whether you’re a martial artist, chef, orator, king, writer or anything else, ultimately the attributes and emotions that run through you are the results of your lineage as the traits are passed along from generation to generation like life motives and motifs in a composition.

Which brings me to my final question for Sheperd: What do the martial arts represent to you?

“It’s my whole life, with a lifetime answer.”

Sounds like a Queen Elizabeth to me.

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