Irene Cara, actress and singer, is dead at the age of 63. Best known for her work on theme songs for Fame and Flashdance, the news was shared by Cara’s publicist, Judith Moose, on Twitter.
“The Academy Award winning actress, singer, songwriter, and producer passed away in her Florida home. Her cause of death is currently unknown and will be released when information is available,” explained the statement.
“She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.”
Born on March 18th, 1962, Cara got her start in the entertainment industry as a child. According to her official biography, she began singing and displaying musical talents at age five. In her youth, Cara served as the youngest member of a tribute to Duke Ellington at Madison Square Garden, which also featured Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack.
“My parents wanted to inspire me to continue in the arts, so I began with lessons very early on. And I started working—singing and dancing with my father’s band in nightclubs by the time I was seven years old. I even did my first few albums as a child. By the time I was nine, I had an album out in Spanish and another one with the Harlem Children’s Choir where we sang Christmas carols,” Cara shared in a 2018 interview with Songwriter Universe.
She also appeared on stage in shows both On and Off-Broadway, including the Obie Award-winning musical The Me Nobody Knows and Maggie Flynn. Cara was also part of the original cast of the PBS children’s show “The Electric Company.”
Cara starred in her first major motion picture, Aaron Loves Angela, as a preteen before landing the leading role as the youngest sister in Sparkle (1976). She also had roles in Roots: The Next Generation, The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones and the film Sister, Sister with Diahann Carroll. She also sang background for Vicki Sue Robinson, Lou Reed, and Evelyn “Champagne” King.
Although Cara had showcased her skills for some time, her mainstream breakthrough did not occur until 1980 with Fame. The New York native starred as Coco Hernandez, and sang both the title song “Fame” and the film’s second hit single “Out There On My Own.”
With Fame, Cara made history. At the 1981 Academy Awards, both songs were nominated for Best Original Song, the first time two songs from one film were nominated in the same category. With “Fame” taking the trophy, Cara is also the only performer to sing two Academy Award-nominated songs in one night.
“Irene Cara, you inspired me more than you could ever know. Your songwriting and vocals created pure energy that will never cease,” wrote Lenny Kravitz on Instagram after learning of her death.
“You also defined an era that is so close to my heart. Your portrayal of ‘Coco’ in Alan Parker’s ‘Fame’ is immortal and know that I was madly in love with her. Thank you Irene. You’re gonna live forever.”
Cara earned Grammy Award nominations in 1980 for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical.
Another monumental career moment came in 1983 with Flashdance where Cara sang “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” from the film’s soundtrack. The song earned the performer two Grammy awards, including Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or A Television Special, which she shared with other writers, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
“Thank you brilliant Irene for your open heart and your fearless triple threat talent. It took a beautiful dreamer to write and perform the soundtracks for those who dare to dream,” wrote Jennifer Beal, the star of Flashdance, on Instagram in a tribute post to Cara.
For “What A Feeling,” Cara also won the 1984 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, and American Music Awards for Best R&B Female Artist and Best Pop Single of the Year. She also scored the 1983 Academy Award for Best Song, making her the first Black woman to win the golden statuette since Hattie McDaniel in 1939, the first Hispanic woman to win since Rita Moreno in 1961, and the first Black woman to ever win a non-acting category.
Cara’s career was hindered when in 1985, she took legal action against record company executive Al Coury. She filed a $10 million lawsuit claiming he “exploited her trust in him by inducing her to sign contracts,” UPI reported at the time.
According to the report, Coury got Cara to agree to contracts with record companies such as Elektra, Geffen and Warner Bros, and Universal Pictures that cost her more than $2 million in profits. The lawsuit claimed that in May 1980 when Cara was 21, she signed a deal to record exclusively for six years for RSO Records Inc., of which Coury was then president.
In 1981, Coury left to form his own company, Network Records Inc., and convinced Cara to give him exclusive control over her career.
According to the Washington Post, in 1993, a Los Angeles jury awarded her $1.5 million in her suit against Coury.
“I, not having good management or a good lawyer, I thought I was obligated to this record president who signed me from a movie (Fame). And I’d had enough. I had two of the biggest hits of the decade and I was not seeing a dime. So I sued him, and it took eight years and it cost me my future as a recording artist, because no other label would sign me. RSO was sending out threatening letters to the other labels. And the one label that did sign me, they said they would stand by me through the lawsuit,” she remembered to Songwriters Universe.
“It took me eight years to get through the whole good ol’ boy network in the music industry, because it seemed that I sued one man and it just kind of spiraled into the entire industry turning against me because of it. So it turned me off to the music business entirely.”
Still, through the lawsuit and beyond, Cara persisted. She recorded albums, landed key roles in films and television shows, and was widely acknowledged for her work and talent.
In 2004, Cara was honored with the Prestige Award. One year later, she received the Honorary Acknowledgment for Excellence in the Arts by the Ft. Lauderdale Film Institute, and an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award by the Columbus Times of Georgia. She also received the Trailblazer Award by the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora.
In May 2011, she was inducted into the “Bronx Walk of Fame.”
Cara married Conrad Palmisano in 1986, the pair splitting five years later. The couple did not have children.
VIBE sends our condolences to Irene Cara’s family, friends, and fans at this time. Rest in peace.