a few days, i asked a co-worker, “do you know who irene cara is?” he replied, “no. who is she?” after almost fainting, i said, “this why i the world is burning.” sadly, many folks do not know who irene cara is and those who do remember her, often ask, “whatever happened to her?” lawd knows, i have asked myself that very question for years.
in 1983, irene cara had what we would now call a “cardi b.” year. she was her peak after winning a golden globe, two grammys and an academy award! but just one year later she would literally be erased for the entertainment world. how did this happen? well keep reading. first, ima tell you about afro-latinx goddess that is miss irene cara.
irene cara escalera was born on march 18, 1959 in the bronx, new york to an afro-boricua father and cuban mother. a music lover since birth, irene learned to play the piano by ear. with support of her parents, she recorded her first album “esta es irene” in 1968. she also performed on the popular national TV show, “the original amateur hour with ted mack.”
after starring in a few on and off broadway plays and the PBS children’s show “the electric company” (which also starred rita moreno and morgan freeman), irene made splash as the title character in the cult-classic motion picture, “sparkle” in 1976. success and acclaim continued in 1979, when she starred as bertha palmer haley, mother of alex haley in the mini-series “roots: the next generation.”
as the 1980’s rolled around, irene was making major moves. in 1980, she starred in the classic musical film, “fame.” she also sang both the theme song and the soaring ballad, “out here on my own.” in addition to being major pop hits (“fame” #4 and “out here on my own” #19) and both songs were nominated for best original song at the 1981 academy awards with the title song taking home the prize. irene was awarded best new singles artist by billboard.
two years after scoring hits from the “fame” soundtrack and after a failed sitcom “irene” (the pilot pulled in decent ratings when it aired but ABC choice not to pick it up.) irene finally released her debut album. boasting a solid collection of R&B tunes and production, the album failed to garner further commercial success. the album’s highest charting song was the soaring and under-rated ballad “anyone can see” which reached #42 on the pop chart.
irene did continue to find success in acting career when she won an NAACP image award in 1982 for her role in NBC movie of the week, “maya angelou’s sister, sister.” she was also nominated for an NAACP award for her role as myrlie evers in the 1983 pbs movie,“for us the living: the medgar evers story.”
in early 1983, irene was asked to sing the theme song to the motion picture “flashdance.” the turnover was pretty as the film was already being edited when they decided to that the movie needed a theme song. irene wrote the song while riding in a cab on her way to record the song. produced by giorgio moroder (of donna summer fame), “flashdance…what a feeling” became the third biggest hit in the US when it reached the top of the billboard hot 10o for six weeks in the summer of 1983. the song would go on to win a golden globe for best original song, an academy award for best original song, grammy award for best female pop vocal performance, american music award for best pop song and best R&B female artist. irene was one of the biggest pop stars in the world during this time. sadly, this success would not last.
irene’s sophomore album “what a feeling” was released in november of 1983, more than 8 months after the title track was released. although the album included three top 40 hits, “why me?” #19, “the dream (hold on to your dream)” #37 and “breakdance” #8, the album struggled as a project. irene was now seen as a “singles” artist and this impact album sales. in addition, while she had more success on the pop charts, her music videos were seldom in rotation at MTV which during this time only played music videos by white artists. it was during this time that irene began to demand royalties from her label. “flashdance…what a feeling” was a global hit and she was still broke. the label retaliated by barring her to record any of her material and even began a smear campaign that impacted her career.
with her recording career at a stand still, irene returned to acting. unfortunately her films all flopped at the box office. my favorite of these films were “certain fury.” lawd, i remember begging my mother to take me to see this. she told me, “that movie looks terrible.” of course, as a kid, i didn’t understand how anything associated with irene cara could be terrible. i’ve watched this movie a few years ago and turns out that my mother was right.
in 1987, irene signed with a new label and was just about to release her third album “carasmatic.” unfortunately, with her legal battles with her former far from over, they threatened legal action if the album was released in the US. this forced her new label to cancel the release of the album. irene’s would later be dropped by her new label and she was forced to only perform outside of the US.
in 1999, after years of court battles with her former label, irene was awarded 1.5 million in damages. the label was found guilt of implementing illegal tactics and smear campaigns to stalled her career. by this time, more than a decade had past since irene had released any material. this erased her from the landscape of pop music.
irene is now living her best life in florida and tours the country with her band hot caramel. she also has done several interviews telling her story of surviving the music industry and advocating for musicians.
i spent many days in the room i shared with my brothers, singing and lip-syncing to irene cara songs. i not only adored her but i legit wanted to be her! i could go on and on about my memories of loving irene cara but i will spare you the stories of how i would stay glued to the tv every saturday night hoping she’d perform on solid gold. i won’t tell you about all of the songs i wrote a kid that started out as a ballad and then sped up. i will spare you.
irene cara is black latinx history. she is an unsung legend. irene cara deserved better. we hope that this post helps to keep her name alive while she is alive. i love you, irene!