Irene Cara, the singer and actress known for co-writing Flashdance’s title track and for starring in the 1980 film, Fame has died. She was 63.
Cara’s publicist, Judith A. Moose, confirmed her passing in a public statement, writing, “It is with profound sadness that on behalf of her family, I announce the passing of Irene Cara. 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.”
Cara (full name Irene Cara Escalara) was born in the Bronx, New York in 1959. In an interview with Mickey Burns for the Profiles series, she referred to herself as a “working child actress,” as she spent her youth performing in plays and singing on the soundtracks for Christmas productions.
At 16, she got her start starring as the lead character in 1976’s Sparkle. Inspired by the Supremes, the film tracked the life of a New York girl group and culminated with the industry ascension of the film’s namesake. Three years later, she also had a leading role in Roots: The Next Generations, as Bertha George, the mother of Roots author Alex Haley.
Cara catapulted to fame in 1980 for her portrayal of Coco Hernandez in Fame. In the role, she sang and co-wrote the award-winning title cut, promptly becoming a renowned talent. She took home the 1980 Oscar for Best Original Song award, beating out Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Cara’s own “Out Here on My Own,” also from Fame.
The song “Fame” went down in Academy Award history: it marked the first time two songs from a single film were nominated in the Best Original Song category.
“I was lucky I got to sing both,” Cara said in the aforementioned interview with Mickey Burns. When he asked if she had an inkling the songs would become blowout successes, Cara said, “You always have a good feeling..You have a sense of the energy at the time that you’re working, but you never know what it’s gonna mean, 10, 20 years down the line.”
Cara took her acclaim even further with 1983’s pop smash “Flashdance…What A Feeling” from the movie Flashdance. She sang and co-wrote the single, which went on to gain numerous accolades, including an Academy Award (Best Original Song), two Grammys (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female and Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special), and a Golden Globe (Best Original Song). It also topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks.
At the 1984 Academy Awards, Cara made history once more, becoming the first Black woman to win an Oscar for a non-acting role.
The song became bittersweet, going on to echo the experiences of multiple Black women in music who became unable to truly capitalize on their accomplishments. In 1985, Cara sued Al Courey, the founder of Network Records, for $10 million. She claimed she had lost out on millions of dollars in due to imbalanced contracts. She also said she had been paid very little as far as royalties were concerned.
Cara had originally signed a six-year recording contract with RSO Records, where Courey was president, in 1980. The record executive left RSO a year later, launching his own Network Records and convincing Cara to follow him. “Flashdance… What a Feeling” was released through Network.
She was awarded $1.5M in 1993, but her name was tarnished throughout the legal proceedings.
In a 2018 interview Cara said, “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.” She then went on to claim that RSO was intimidating other labels so they would not court her.
“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. But once I finished my album (Carasmatic, in 1987), they shelved it and didn’t promote it.” She alluded to racism in the conversation as well, saying, “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.”
In 1986, Cara married director Conrad Palmisano, with whom she had worked with on Certain Fury. They divorced in 1991.
Cara had no children.
Prior to and the midst of the lawsuit, the singer and actress continued to work, co-starring in and co-writing the main song for City Heat in 1984. The same year, she achieved moderate success with “Breakdance,” an up tempo, disco-adjacent synth single inspired by her experiences of growing up in the Bronx. It was co-written with Giorgio Moroder, a collaborator of Donna Summer‘s. The song was Cara’s last Top 10 single.
In the late 1990s, Cara developed the women-fronted band Hot Caramel. They released ‘Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel,’ a two-disc, 24-track total R&B album in 2011.
Her podcast, The Backstory with Irene Cara, launched in 2020 and gave a behind the scenes look at Carismatic, her final solo album.
Moose’s statement about Cara’s death confirmed that a memorial service for fans will be announced.
“She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films,” she also wrote.