She was born Irene Cara Escalera on 18 March 1959 in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. Her Puerto Rican father was a factory worker and her Cuban mother was a movie theatre usher. The youngest of five children, Cara had two sisters and two brothers.
In addition to inheriting the best physical qualities of both parents, Cara was a musical prodigy who learned to play the piano by ear at a young age. By the age of five, she was studying music, acting and dance seriously. She attended the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan.
Cara started her career as a child actor and singer, appearing regularly on Spanish-language television shows. She also appeared on the highly influential Johnny Carson Show in the mid-'70s and in a tribute concert to jazz great Duke Ellington. In addition, she appeared as a teenager in the 1976 musical drama, Sparkle. At the tender age of three, she was one of five finalists in the Junior Miss America beauty pageant.
Cara achieved international success and recognition when she appeared as the main character Coco Hernandez in Fame, which was released in 1980. Originally cast as a dancer, Cara impressed the makers of Fame so much that they created a role just for her.
In the film, which follows the fortunes of students at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, Cara is shown singing the theme song while walking through New York’s urban streets. At one point, she is depicted sitting on top of one of the city’s famous yellow taxis.
Fame was a gritty, realistic film about the pressures of stardom and the difficulties in “making it”.
“Irene had already been a child star. She was singing her brains out. She was a triple threat — could dance, could act, could play music. And she would let you know.”
Another song that Cara recorded for Fame was ‘Out Here on My Own’ and her contributions helped make the soundtrack album a smash success, achieving multi-platinum status.
Cara is one of the very few singers to perform more than one song at an Oscars ceremony and was the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar in a category other than acting. Cara is believed to have inspired fellow singers Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, who went on to achieve massive chart success.
Initially, Cara was reluctant to work with Moroder because she didn’t want to encourage comparisons to disco queen Donna Summer, another highly successful woman of colour who Moroder mentored and propelled to the top of the charts.
However, the collaboration struck gold. A top ten hit in both the U.S. and the UK, ‘Flashdance... What a Feeling’ earned Cara an Oscar for Best Original Song and two Grammy awards for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
The highly successful song was reused in TV, film and advertising campaigns and re-recorded for use in the delightful 1997 film, The Full Monty.
In addition to her music career, Cara was an actress of some repute. Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Fame, Cara also won an award from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) for her part in the 1982 film, Sister, Sister.
After her career peaked in the '80s, Cara kept a relatively low profile. She appeared in several films including Busted Up (1986) Caged In Paradiso (1989). Cara also provided her voice to the animated features Happily Ever After (1989) and The Magic Voyage (1992).
In 2006, Cara travelled to Melbourne and provided pre-match entertainment at the AFL Grand Final between the Sydney Swans and the West Coast Eagles.
A very private person, Cara kept her personal life to herself and not much is known about it except she married a stuntman called Conrad Palmisano in 1986 and divorced him in 1991.
Her publicist, Judith Moose, broke the news of Cara’s death on Twitter, saying that the artist had died at her home in Florida:
This is the absolute worst part of being a publicist. I can’t believe I’ve had to write this, let alone release the news.
She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.
Musician Lenny Kravitz tweeted:
‘Irene Cara, you inspired me more than you could ever know. Your songwriting and vocals created pure energy that will never cease.’
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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