Irene Cara, the singer and actress, who has died of unknown causes aged 63, burst on to the scene as rising star Coco Hernandez in Alan Parker’s 1980 hit movie Fame, topping the charts with the title track, which won Michael Gore a best original song Oscar.
Three years later, Irene Cara won an Oscar in her own right as singer and co-writer of Flashdance (What A Feeling) the title song to Adrian Lyne’s kitschy leotard-and-legwarmers blockbuster, Flashdance, becoming the first black woman to receive an Oscar in a non-acting category and the youngest recipient of a songwriting Oscar.
In Fame, a slice of life at Manhattan’s High School of the Performing Arts, Irene Cara was one of several gifted hopefuls under the aegis of the stick-wielding teacher Lydia Grant (Debbie Allen) and stroppy Professor Shorofsky (Albert Hague), but it was her voice, belting out the narcissistic aspirational lyrics “I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name” that made the title song the disco anthem of the 1980s and a staple of TV talent shows.
She sang it at the 1981 Academy Awards ceremony along with another single from the film soundtrack, Out Here on My Own, also nominated for an award.
Flashdance (What A Feeling) topped charts around the world, while the film (in which she did not appear) helped to propel a global craze for legwarmers. In the 1990s Irene Cara recorded a new version with Germany’s star rapper, DJ BoBo for The Full Monty (1997).
On the back of her success, Irene Cara recorded a couple of albums and she continued to appear in films and record, but she paid a high price for fame, losing her husband, battling drink and drugs and becoming embroiled in an eight-year court battle with her record company over unpaid royalties.
“I wouldn’t wish fame on anyone, ” she said in 2009. “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 on March 18 1959 in the Bronx, New York, the youngest of five children of Louise, a Cuban-American cinema usher, and Gaspar Escalera, a Puerto Rican factory worker and saxophonist.
As a child she studied piano, dance and acting, making her Broadway debut, aged nine, in the musical Maggie Flynn. By her early teens she was a regular on television and in 1975 she made her film debut as Angela in Aaron Loves Angela, a “Romeo and Juliet” comedy drama set in Harlem. The following year she played the title role of Sparkle Williams in the Sparkle (1976), a rags to riches musical loosely based on the story of the Supremes.
Although Fame was her big breakthrough, Irene Cara was proudest of landing a role in the 1979 television mini-series Roots: The Next Generations, in which she was cast as Alex Haley’s mother from adolescence to the age of 30. “Roots was the biggest thing in American TV history and it put my career and my mind on the right path,” she recalled.
Following up her hit singles Fame and Out Here on My Own, her debut album, Anyone Can See (1982) was only moderately successful – as was her second album, What A Feelin’ (1983), even though it included the Flashdance song, as well as the hit singles Why Me? and Breakdance.
From 1985 she became embroiled in a protracted legal tussle with her record label, Network which ended in 1993 with a ruling in her favour but with an award of only $1.5 million in unpaid royalties out of the $12 million she had claimed.
Her other film credits include Joel Schumacher’s film comedy DC Cab (1983), from which her song The Dream (Hold on to Your Dream) reached the US Top 40. She co-starred in For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story (also 1983), and in City Heat (1984, with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds), she sang Embraceable You and Get Happy.
She continued to land parts in films, though later on these mainly involved voice work. In the 2000s she formed her own production company, overseeing the all-female group Hot Caramel.
In 1986 she married Conrad Palmisano, a stuntman she had met while working on the 1985 film A Certain Fury, but the marriage was dissolved in 1991.
Irene Cara, born March 18 1959, died November 25 2022