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Irene Cara was an ’80s icon, but to artists of color, she was the future

Irene Cara, seen here in 1983, died Nov. 26 at age 63. (Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
4 min

In 1967, a young Irene Cara appeared on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour,” where she sang a song titled “Ola! Ola! Ola!” Ola is the Spanish word for wave, she explained to the affable host, who asked whether that was what the song was about.

“Well, after waves I really don’t know,” Cara said, drawing laughs from the audience. “But it’s a nice song.”

Given the cue to perform, the Bronx native turned on the charm, offering a glimpse of the energy and vocal flair she would later bring to two of the 1980s’ most iconic songs: “Fame” and “Flashdance … What A Feeling.” Even at 8 years old, Cara — born Irene Escalera to a Cuban mother and Afro-Puerto Rican father — brought her full self to the stage, setting the tone for a career that would proudly embrace her multicultural background and inspire other people of color to pursue their dreams in the entertainment industry.

Cara died Nov. 26 at age 63, prompting a slew of obituaries that recalled the singer-actress at the height of her celebrity, in between her star turn as aspiring singer Coco Hernandez in the 1980 musical “Fame” — for which Cara sang two songs that received Academy Award nominations — and her 1984 Oscar win for co-writing the chart-topping title track for “Flashdance.” By the end of the decade, Cara’s fame waned as the result of a years-long legal battle with a record executive she accused of withholding royalties from her first two albums and for her work on the “Flashdance” theme. In 1993, eight years after Cara first filed a $10 million suit against Al Coury and his company, Network Records, a California jury awarded her $1.5 million.

But the tributes from fans and industry colleagues that flooded the internet following news of Cara’s death highlighted more enduring aspects of her legacy. Mariah Carey called Cara “such an inspiration to so many, especially to me.” The singer’s 2020 memoir recalls the moment a teenage Carey won a talent competition singing Cara’s “Out Here On My Own,” which she later covered for an album. Carey said she felt “Out Here On My Own,” a song that grappled with identity and feeling out of place, “described my entire life, and I loved singing that way — singing to reveal a piece of my soul.”

For the multiracial Carey, seeing Cara rise to fame made her dreams of becoming a famous singer more tangible. “I related to her multicultural look (Puerto Rican and Cuban), her multitextured hair and, most importantly, her ambition and accomplishments,” Carey writes in “The Meaning of Mariah Carey.”

Irene Cara, singer who hit stardom with ‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance,’ dies at 63

“Your voice/words were the opening notes of the performer I’ve become,” actress-singer Anika Noni Rose tweeted, thanking Cara “for paving the way for me, inspiring me to believe I could b[e], in this space, with this face, as me.”

John Leguizamo also cited Cara’s background as an inspiration for his acting career. “She was one of the reasons I am here today,” he wrote in a tweet over the weekend. “She made me believe if you were Latin you could make it! She fueled my community.”

Cara was proud of her multicultural background, which was evoked in a number of the roles she took, including “Roots: The Next Generations” and “For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story.” Before “Fame,” she played the rising starlet at the center of “Sparkle,” which became a Black cult classic, and starred in “Aaron Loves Angela,” Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1975 film about a Puerto Rican girl who falls in love with an African American basketball player. Following Cara’s death, actress Kim Fields cited the film as the first time she saw “people of color in a love story.”

When Jet magazine asked Cara in 1981 whether she related more to her Black or Latino ancestry, she offered a fresh, beyond-her-years perspective. “We have a tendency in this country that when we say Black it automatically means Black Americans. But that’s a big mistake, and that keeps us divided,” she said. “There are Blacks all over this entire world.”

“I happen to be a Black Hispanic person who was born in this country,” she added. “So whatever you call it … I like to think of myself as an actress.”