Meet Irene Cara
Actress, singer, songwriter, and producer Irene Cara was destined for a life of accomplishments that millions strive for but very few actually attain. From being able to play the piano by ear at age five to earning an Oscar, multiple Grammys, a Golden Globe, and a People’s Choice Award, Irene’s rise to stardom was paved with experiences of a lifetime.
Beginning shortly after realizing their daughter’s natural talent, Irene was quickly enrolled in music, acting, and dance classes. Shortly before that, her mother entered her into multiple competitions and at the age of three, Irene was a finalist in the “Little Miss America” pageant.
Her professional career began on Spanish-language television singing and dancing before performing on shows including The Original Amateur Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Her talent was also showcased On and Off Broadway in various productions including Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Obie Award-winning musical The Me Nobody Knows, Maggie Flynn starring Shirley Jones and Tony Award-nominated actor Jack Cassidy, and Via Galactica opposite Raul Julia.
Having performed on the stage, the next natural progression seemed to be series television. She would find a home on the daytime drama Love of Life and the educational series The Electric Company where she participated as a member of the group ‘The Short Circus’, teaching children about grammar through music. The Electric Company’s cast was made up of veteran actors Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno, and Morgan Freeman.
Continuing the pursuit of excellence, Irene recorded her first Spanish-language album at the age of eight and released an English-speaking holiday album shortly thereafter. Her career already blossoming, she would receive the honor of becoming the youngest member to perform in an all-star concert tribute for the legendary Duke Ellington. Held at Madison Square Garden, Irene performed along with music greats Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack.
With Broadway, television, and recording firmly tucked under her belt, Irene’s next stop was the big screen. Before she entered her teenage years, she had won the title role in the film Aaron Loves Angela. Her performance in the movie was so outstanding that she was cast as the lead in the now cult classic musical drama Sparkle. Proving that she was a tremendously versatile actress, Irene received international acclaim for her roles in Roots: The Next Generation starring alongside James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll among others, and The Guyanna Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story where she would again work with James Earl Jones as well as LeVar Burton. As much as she had already accomplished, nothing could have prepared her for the super-stardom that would come with her next role.
In 1980, Irene would portray the character Coco Hernandez in a movie-musical titled Fame, a story about a group of students auditioning for acceptance into New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. The film follows the students from their first to final days at the school and served to shine a light on the film’s inspiration, LaGuardia High, and its counterpart Julliard. Irene’s massive solo vocal talent was showcased through the title song Fame as well as Out Here on My Own. They and Irene would make Academy Awards history as it marked the first time two songs from the same film were nominated in the same category, and both performed by Irene. The title track won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The impact of Fame would catapult Irene Cara into a household name and earn her two Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Artist, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical. Billboard Magazine named her the Top New Single Artist and Cashbox Magazine awarded her with the Most Promising Female Vocalist and Top Female Vocalist honors.
In 1982, Irene was awarded the NAACP Image Award for Best Actress for the NBC movie-of-the-week Maya Angelou’s Sister, Sister also starring Diahann Carroll and Rosalind Cash. She would garner another NAACP Image Award nomination for the title role in the PBS film For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story. When it seemed her professional life couldn’t get any better, Irene set the world on fire again.
Composer Giorgio Moroder approached Irene in 1983 to collaborate on the theme to a film he was attached to titled Flashdance. Irene agreed and actually wrote the lyrics to the title song Flashdance…What a Feeling in a car with producer Keith Forsey while on the way to the studio to record it. Those lyrics would reinforce Irene’s already solid place in Hollywood history. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards with Irene taking home the coveted Oscar for Best Original Song. She would also add a Golden Globe to her already impressive collection of honors for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture in addition to two Grammys, a People’s Choice Award, and an American Music Award. On a personal level, as a woman of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, her Academy Award win is even more special as she was the first bi-racial woman to ever win in any category other than acting and only the second to be nominated outside of an acting category.
In 1984/85, Irene was back on the big screen in the film City Heat opposite Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. She co-wrote the theme as well as performed the classic standards Embraceable You and Get Happy. Irene also starred opposite Tatum O’Neal in the film Certain Fury, voiced Snow White in the animated film Happily Ever After, and toured as Mary Magdalene in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production Jesus Christ Superstar.
Not having sat on her laurels, in between winning Oscars, Grammys, and touring, she released the albums Anyone Can See and What a Feeling in 1982 and 1983 respectively which spawned the additional hits Breakdance, The Dream, You Were Made for Me, and Why Me, and in 1985 collaborated and sang with Placido Domingo. Breakdance and Why Me would both become Top 10 hits. In 1987, the release of the album Carasmatic was shelved in the United States because of legal issues with the label, but it was issued in limited quantities in the United Kingdom, immediately making the album a collector’s piece for anyone lucky enough to have gotten a copy.
Still feeling the love of audiences everywhere, the 90s were spent living out of a suitcase on multiple European concert tours. After finally getting a little breathing space, Irene formed the group Hot Caramel in 1999 and returned to performing to the delight of eager audiences clamoring to hear her unmistakable voice.
In 2004, Irene was awarded the Prestige Award for Lifetime Achievement. She was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fort Lauderdale Film Institute in 2005, and in 2006, was awarded the Honorary Lifetime Achievement for outstanding contribution in the African-American community by the Columbus Times of Georgia, the country’s oldest black newspaper. In 2007, the Reel Sisters of the Disapora Film Festival presented her with the Trailblazer Award, and the Council of the City of New York honored her for her outstanding contributions as a performer. Perhaps one her most pleasurable moments was the 2011 unveiling of her name on a street sign in the Grand Concourse of the Bronx Walk of Fame. That same year, she released a new album titled Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel. Now semi-retired from the industry that filled every corner of her life for decades, Irene is now enjoying entertaining audiences via her podcast The Backstory with Irene Cara, where she shares videos and talks about the acting and music industry’s backstory.
While the outpouring of love from fans still makes her happy, Irene continues to be touched by the knowledge that she and her roles have inspired others within the acting/music industry as well.
Mariah Carey: “Around the same time, my mother entered me in a talent competition in the city, and I sang one of my favorite songs, Out Here on My Own, by Irene Cara. I felt Out Here on My Own described my entire life, and I loved singing that way — singing to reveal a piece of my soul. And I won doing it. At that age. I lived for the movie Fame, and Irene Cara was everything to me.”
Celine Dion: “Whether it’s Titanic and the unsinkable My Heart Will Go On, Michael’s Song and Listen to the Magic Man (in English and French) for The Peanut Butter Solution, or Deadpool 2’s unexpected Ashes, she presides over movie theme songs as if taking up the baton from Irene Cara herself.”
Whitney Houston: “Sparkle was especially important to because she’d been trying to get the film made for 15 years, having fallen in love with the 1976 original (starring Irene Cara, who went on to appear in Fame) as a teenager, seeing it every Saturday for three months straight.”
The two most memorable lines from the title song Fame are “I’m gonna live forever,” and “Baby, remember my name”. From “Little Miss America” to Carson, The Electric Company, Flashdance and beyond, Irene Cara’s legacy is guaranteed. Everyone will remember her name.