R.I.P. Irene Cara, the musical voice of Fame and Flashdance

Irene Cara in 1980
Irene Cara in 1980

Irene Cara has died. A Grammy and Oscar-winning singer, songwriter, and actor, Cara achieved international acclaim as one of the stars, and chief musical voices, of the 1980 film Fame. Cara’s career blossomed in the 1980s, reaching a peak in 1983, when she wrote and recorded “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” the theme song to the Jennifer Beals hit Flashdance. Although her career slowed down in subsequent years, Cara continued to perform throughout the rest of her life. She died this week, with no cause of death disclosed. Cara was 63.

Born in New York, Cara came up in off-Broadway productions before transitioning to TV and film; early credits include a stint in the house band for The Electric Company, a starring role (as the title character) in Sam O’Steen’s 1976 music drama Sparkle, and a major part in sprawling TV miniseries Roots: The Next Generations.

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Fame • Theme Song • Irene Cara

Already successful, Cara’s career skyrocketed in 1980 when she was cast as Coco Hernandez in Alan Parker’s Fame, bringing her talents to bear as the only multi-hyphenate in the Drama, Music, and Dance programs at New York’s High School Of The Performing Arts. Her presence in both the film, and on its soundtrack, helped launch Cara’s musical career; she’d later produce four studio albums, including one in 2011 with her band Hot Caramel.

After performing twice at that year’s Oscars (on “Fame,” and then the movie’s other big single, “Out Here On My Own”)—and after declining to return as Coco for the Fame TV show—Cara continued to pursue both her acting and music careers. Although she appeared in a number of films throughout the period, her greatest success came off-camera in 1983, when she co-wrote and performed “Flashdance…What A Feeling.” A year later, she’d have both an Oscar and a Grammy on her mantle, honoring the song’s infectious melodic synths, and Cara’s sweeping vocal talents.

Irene Cara - Flashdance What A Feeling (Official Music Video)

“Flashdance” was the high-water mark of Cara’s career, but she continued to work steadily for the next several years, spending much of the ’90s touring Europe with a series of modestly successful dance hits. In the 21st century, she occasionally popped up on the more music-focused areas of the reality TV scene, appearing on NBC’s Hit Me, Baby One More Time and in a few episodes of CMT’s Gone Country.

Cara’s publicist issued a statement yesterday announcing her death, writing, “Irene’s family has requested privacy as they process their grief. She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films. Funeral services are pending and a memorial for fans will be planned at a future date.” Numerous fans, admirers, and colleagues—including Beals, who wrote that “It took a beautiful dreamer to write and perform the soundtracks for those who dare to dream”—have paid tribute to Cara since her death was announced.

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