Obituary: Irene Cara, Oscar-winning singer and actor who sang Fame and Flashdance

Irene Cara, singer and actress. Born: 18 March, 1959 in the Bronx, New York City. Died: 25 November, 2022 in Largo, Florida, aged 63.

Irene Cara, the singer best known for her Oscar-winning film themes Fame and Flashdance…What A Feeling, has died of unknown causes aged 63. Already known in her native New York as a child star, Cara burst on to the international stage in 1980 singing “baby remember my name” and her abilities as a singer, dancer and actor embodied the can-do positivity of Fame and Flashdance. Both were iconic films of the Eighties, combining harsh realities with escapist spirit, not to mention athletic dance routines which led sales of legwarmers for years to come.

Cara also starred in the former as Coco Hernandez. Originally cast as a dancer, she was given a featured role when the producers heard her sing and went on to perform the storming ballad Out Here On My Own as well as fronting the uplifting theme tune. Long before Oasis tapped into the same invincible sentiment for Live Forever, Cara was proclaiming “I’m gonna live forever” as the kids from New York’s High School of Performing Arts spilled out on to the street and stopped midtown traffic with their dance frenzy. This signature scene was much parodied at the time yet was a cool, even exotic shop window on Manhattan, coming hot on the heels of Saturday Night Fever’s blend of Brooklyn grit and glamour.

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Cara’s presence, meanwhile, was an inspiration to her Latino peers. Actor John Leguizamo paid tribute, saying “she made me believe that if you were Latin you could make it! She fuelled my community.”

Irene Cara as Coco Hernandez performing at a graduation ceremony in a scene from Fame (Picture: United Artists/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A number of Fame cast members reprised their roles in the more sanitised family-friendly spin-off television series but Cara bowed out to concentrate on her music career and Erica Gimpel was cast instead, becoming Coco for a new generation of legwarmer fans. Looking back in 2009, Cara wasn’t so sure about the celebratory sentiment of those theme song lyrics. “I wouldn’t wish fame on anyone, ” she said. “If I could go back, I’d be a lot less trusting of the people who were handling my career. I didn’t know the nature of the beast.”

Irene Cara Escalera was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican factory worker (and saxophonist) Gaspar and Cuban cinema usher Louise. The youngest of their five children, she seemed destined for the stage – she was a Little Miss America finalist aged three, took dance lessons at the age of five, and learned to play piano by ear. She attended the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, combining academic subjects with performance study, while garnering roles on TV and on and off Broadway. She made her Broadway debut aged nine in the musical Maggie Flynn and was a TV regular in the soap opera Love of Life and on educational kids show The Electric Company, playing keyboards in house band the Short Circus.

As a teenager, she made her feature film debut in Aaron Loves Angela, directed by Super Fly director Gordon Parks Jr, and starred as the title character in the 1976 film musical Sparkle, inspired by the story of The Supremes, with a score by Curtis Mayfield. But she was most proud of her role as Bertha Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, the sequel to the hugely influential TV mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s epic saga of his own family’s slave roots.

Around the same time, she filmed the TV movie Sister, Sister, written by Maya Angelou, which took three years to come to screen but won her an award from NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and starred in For Us The Living: The Medgar Evers story, a television biopic of the assassinated civil rights leader.

Fame was an entirely different proposition but one in which Cara would shine. Originally titled Hot Lunch (another of Cara’s songs on the soundtrack), it was swiftly retitled when it emerged there was a porn film of the same name. Both the theme song and Out Here On My Own were Oscar-nominated as Best Song. Cara performed both at the ceremony and the former took the gong. Composer Michael Gore also picked up Best Score, and Grammy and Golden Globe nominations ensued.

Three years later, Cara was back on the Academy Awards stage for Flashdance…What A Feeling, but this time she was picking up the Oscar herself, having co-written the anthem with legendary music producer Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey, later to hit paydirt by penning Don’t You (Forget About Me) for Simple Minds. Flashdance also netted her a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

This was to be the commercial pinnacle of Cara’s career. She failed to find equivalent success with any of her three albums, Anyone Can See, What a Feelin’ and Carasmatic. In the mid-Eighties, she sued her label for withheld royalties from Flashdance and her first two albums, and secured a reduced settlement eight years later.

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Cara continued to act and sing in films, including voice roles as Snow White in Happily Ever After and Beauty in Beauty & the Beast. She met her husband, stuntman Conrad Palmisano, on the set of Certain Fury. The couple married in 1986, and divorced in 1991.

By then, the Billboard chart appearances had dried up. She scored a few hits in the European dance charts but had semi-retired to her homes in Florida and New Mexico by the time she pitched up on reality TV show Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, where past pop stars revisited their big hits. Cara won her heat singing Flashdance; the fame might not have lived forever, but the viewers remembered her name.

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