Irene Cara Escalera (1959-2022)

Black and white photo of Irene Cara
Irene Cara, ca. 1981
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons under fair use

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Irene Cara Escalera was a singer, actress and songwriter, who was most famous for recording the title song to the movie “Fame.” Cara was born on March 18, 1959 in the Bronx section of New York City, New York. Her mother, Louise Escalera, was of Cuban descent, and worked as a movie theater usher, while her father, Gaspar Cara, who was Puerto Rican with Afro-Caribbean descent, played saxophone in a mambo band and worked in a steel factory.

By the time Cara was two years old, she began to display natural musical abilities. She was a contestant in multiple competitions from singing to beauty, and was a finalist for the ‘Little Miss America’ pageant at the age of three. By age five she began playing the piano by ear, singing with her fathers band, and studied acting, dancing, and music at a private school.

Cara recorded an album in Spanish, entitled E’sta es Iene, and a Christmas album in English when she was just eight. In 1970, she was a had a recurring role in the daytime serial Love of Life, a had a title role in the movie Aaron Loves Angela. She was twelve when she appeared in the 1971 Duke Ellington tribute concert held at Madison Square Garden.  While she attended the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, Cara became a regular on the PBS program The Electric Company, and made multiple appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and the original Amateur Hour, often singing in Spanish. She then hit the theater stage with roles in the original “Ain’t Misbehavin,” and had major roles in numerous movies, including Sparkle, and Roots:The Next Generations. Cara was originally cast as a dancer for the movie Fame, but after hearing her sing, the role of Coco Hernandez was re-written for her to sing and play the part. Cara made history at the Academy Awards in 1980, performing two nominated songs, “Fame” and “Out Here On My Own.”

During the 1980’s, Cara dominated the music scene through theme songs in hit movies such as Flashdance, and City Heat, and released three albums through the decade; Anyone Can See (1982), What A Feelin’ (1983), and Carasmatic (1987). Cara sang background vocals for multiple artists throughout her career including George Duke, Oleta Adams, and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. She toured through Europe and Asia through the 1990’s, and loaned her voice to numerous animated movies, playing the role of Snow White in Happily Ever After (1989), and Melody in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

Throughout her career, Cara won numerous awards including an NAACP Image Award (1982), Academy Award (1983), Golden Globe (1983), two Grammy Awards (1984), She released almost 20 studio albums, and has received numerous Gold certifications for her singles “Fame”, and 2x platinum certification for “Flashdance…What A Feeling.”

In 1999, Cara revived her career with her all-female band Hot Caramel, releasing her final album in 2011 with the band. Cara married stuntman and film director Conrad Palmisano in 1986 but the couple divorced in 1991. Cara had no children, and lived in Largo, Florida, at the time of her death at the age of 63, on November 25, 2022. Her cause of death has not been reported.

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