Home Interviews Exclusive Interview with the Oscar and Grammy Winning Afro-Latina Entertainer Irene Cara
Exclusive Interview with the Oscar and Grammy Winning Afro-Latina Entertainer Irene Cara PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier LL.M and LL.D Candidate in 2016   
Friday, 30 March 2018 00:00

 

Albeit Irene Cara does not need any introduction, permit us to refresh your memory by presenting a summary of her professional accomplishments. Irene T. Escalera was born and raised in New York, more specifically in the South Bronx to a family of five children (two brothers and two sisters). Mrs. Cara is the youngest of the siblings. She was nicknamed ‘Carrot’ because she came to this earth with red hair. Her mother, Louise Cara, is Cuban-American and her late father, Gaspar Cara (who died in 1994), was Puerto-Rican. He was part of a big merengue band in the 50s. According to Mrs. Cara, he brought merengue to the U.S. The band had the first hit on the top 40 Latin chart at the time. Cara’s mother is a retired cashier and her deceased father was a professional saxophone player.

At the age of 3, Irene Cara became one of five finalists for the "Little Miss America" pageant. She learned to play the piano at age 4 by ear and later she was able to use the keyboard. Since the age of 5, she performed on stage. In addition, she collaborated with her father and his band as a singer and dancer. Growing up, she also had other interests such as horseback riding, sketching and skating. During her childhood, she appeared in the ABC musical documentary entitled “Over 7”. Cara started singing and dancing on local Spanish TV at age 7. Later, she sang while giving tribute to Duke Ellington at the Madison Square Garden with Roberta Flack and Sammy Davis Jr. At 12, she commenced writing songs. In this regard, during this time, celebrities such as Sammy Davis Jr., Ed Sullivan and Louis Armstrong noticed her talent. 

At age 8, the artist recorded her first album (Esta es Irene) as a solo artist. It was in Spanish from a prominent Latin label. At age 10, she was part of an off-Broadway production (of the Jack Cassidy Shirley Jones musical) entitled “Maggie Flynn”. Cara interpreted the role of one of six African-American Civil War orphans raised by Jones. Another one of the orphans who started her Broadway debut was Stephanie Mills. The latter eventually ended up in the original Broadway production "The Wiz" and later won Grammys. In the summer of 1980, Cara portrayed the role of Dorothy in “The Wiz” on tour. 

Speaking of her education, Irene Cara went to private schools like the Lincoln Square Academy. She is very proud of that and said to the media that the money she made since her childhood was invested in her education. After this, she attended the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan and graduated there. She was also accepted to the High School of Performing Arts where well-known people like Liza Minnelli and Al Pacino went to. However, she did not go there because she made the choice to pursue her professional work with “The Electric Company” (an educational program of PBS) in the early seventies. Her career was going well; she featured as a guest on Johnny Carson's famous program, “The Tonight Show” for example. At age 18, the internationally well-known paparazzo Francesco Scavullo photographed her and made her part of his book The Most Beautiful Women in the World.

Aaron Loves Angela was her movie debut in 1975. The legendary director Gordon Parks Sr. hired Mrs. Cara to appear in this Black movie version of "Romeo and Juliette". Later, she appeared in Sounder with Cicely Tyson, the Oscar nominee actress. She starred in 1976 in her first Hollywood film Sparkle with Philip Michael Thomas. The latter became part later of the hit TV show, “Miami Vice”, a cult program of the 80s. Sparkle was so well received that decades later a remake was made with well-known people such as the multiple Grammy winner Whitney Houston and Jordan Sparks. The soundtrack of Sparkle (1976) was penned and produced by Curtis Mayfield. Afterwards, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin released after a record for the movie. In the film, viewers can listen to the beautiful voices of Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas among others. 

In 1978, Irene Cara was part of the original cast of the Broadway musical “Ain't Misbehavin” with Armelia McQueen and the Tony Award winner Nell Carter. Cara appeared in the sitcom “What’s Happening” and later she participated in the sequel of “Roots” (the top TV-rated production at the time) called “Roots the Next Generations” where she provided an awesome performance in 1979. She played (in the miniseries) the mother of the great author and journalist Alex Haley.

Fame was released in 1980 and the artist’s eponymous single was on the market at the same time. Both became international hits. The song was a top 10 hit for ten consecutive weeks. The entertainer appeared in several cover magazines. During this period, “Saturday Night Live” even parodied her. Fame, a cultural phenomenon of the 80s, won a Golden Globe Awards (Irene Cara also received nominations at the Golden Globe) and many other awards. The song “Out Here on My Own” from Fame has beautiful lyrics and it is poetic. It was very well-received internationally and achieved an Oscar nomination in 1981 for the Best Original Song category. Mrs. Cara interpreted this song at the 1981 Academy Awards. The 1980 hit film Fame, directed by Alan Parker, propelled Irene Cara to stardom. In the movie, she played the role of Coco Hernandez. The entertainer sang the theme song “Fame” and “Out Here on My Own” at the Oscars. The soundtrack reached multi-platinum status. The success of Fame led to a TV series of the same name with six seasons starring Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, Nia Peeples and so on. Irene Cara was offered the main role for this series but declined because she wanted to avoid typecasting and was offered more lucrative offers elsewhere. In 2009, the movie Fame was remade and became a box office hit. 

Moroder Giorgio, Irene Cara and Keith Forsey won an Oscar in 1984 for the song “What a Feeling”of Flashdance in the Best Original Song Category. It is important to note that Mrs. Cara became the youngest artist who received an Academy Award as a songwriter. “What a feeling” symbolized an anthem for young artists who wanted to accomplish their dreams. It perfectly captured the central theme of the movie Flashdance. In the early 80s, Irene Cara made history by becoming the first Afro-Latina to win at the Grammys and Oscars. The record of Flashdance sold worldwide more than 20 million units, likewise for Fame. Flashdance (starring Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri) was one of the top movies of the 80s and generated a revenue of over $200 million. In 1984, Cara won an American Music Awards for Best R&B Female Artist and Best Pop Single of the Year regarding “What a Feeling”. In 1995, the entertainer recorded this song again for the original soundtrack for the movie The Full Monty

In 1980, Cara portrayed a role opposite Powers Boothe as a mistress of the Reverend Jim Jones in the Emmy-winning Guyana Tragedy. Her hot song “Breakdance” launched in 1984 was part of the Breakin’ soundtrack. After Fame, Irene Cara toured for the Tony Awards musical “Ain’t Misbehavin” (the original off-Broadway) with the great actress and singer Neil Carter. She also acted in another Tony-winning play such as “The Me Nobody Knows”. In 1982, Cara participated in the movie called Killing 'em Softly. The producers shot the film in New York as well as my hometown of Montreal. In 1984, she acted in the comedic thriller City Heat, co-starring opposite Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. In the film, she sang “Embraceable You” and “Get Happy”. She also co-wrote the theme song entitled “City Heat”. 

During the same decade, Irene Cara won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for Sister, Sister (1982) penned by the Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Maya Angelou. Sister, Sister also starred Diahann Carroll and Rosalind Cash. The film won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special. In 1989 Cara sang a duet with the great singer Freddie Jackson entitled “Love Survives” for the film All Dogs go to Heaven.

Cara received an NAACP Image Award Best Actress nomination for the movie For Us the Living The Medgar Evers Story. In this film, Irene Cara acts and narrates the story. Laurence Fishburn is in it among other great actors like Howard E. Rollins Jr. who plays the iconic Medgar Evers—the following interview with Irene Cara occurred on Dr. Martin Luther King Day. The movie ends with a powerful eulogy that concerns Medgar Evers and conjures the work of all the martyrs (of the Civil Rights Movement) who did not and cannot die in vain: The encomium reminds people that Evers had the wish and dream (pursued by Dr. King) to be part of one of the most successful movements known by his country and the world. His torch has to go on to continue the fight for humanity. Myrlie Evers was a consultant of the movie based on her book with the same name.

In the $10 million breach-of-contract lawsuit she filed in 1985, Cara’s litigation concerned her management team Al Coury Inc. and Network Records for holding back her royalties from the Flashdance soundtrack in addition to her solo records, 1982’s Anyone Can See and l983’s What a Feeling. These companies wanted to sabotage her career by preventing her for instance from performing her old early music anywhere in her nation and by stopping distribution of her newest album at the time Carasmatic which received the contributions of eminent people like Grammy winners Carole King and Luther Vandross, among others. The late singer/songwriter Luther Vandross was a dear friend to Mrs. Cara and he arranged the vocals on one of her songs.

At the end of her legal wrangle, in 1993, the singer was awarded $1.5 million and she owns her masters. It was a very difficult and long battle that lasted more than a decade, thirteen years to be precise. Briefly, in the early 80s, she took cocaine during her undue hardship. She did not allow herself to be saddled. Fortunately, thanks to her resilience, stamina, determination and spirituality, she managed to continue her fight and to overcome healthily her struggles while reaping the benefits of her efforts and work. In other words, she rose above these excruciating times. This legal ordeal showed a lot of courage, strength and fortitude from her part because she was alone at the top. Her case is now part of the American jurisprudence and will help in the future other artists to get their due.

Cara toured mostly in Europe and Asia throughout the 1990s and some of her singles were part of European charts. She released a compilation of Eurodance singles during this decade, it was entitled Precarious 90s. In 1993, Cara was the voice of Snow White in the animated movie Happily Ever After.  In 2001, Cara did a new version of “What a Feeling” with DJ Bobo and it became a number 1 hit in 17 European countries. There was a hip hop flavor incorporated into it. At the 2006 AFL Grand Final in Melbourne, Irene Cara sang “What a Feeling” as an opener to the pre-match entertainment.

The group Hot Caramel was founded by Cara at the dawn of the 21st century. It is defined as a mixture of Hip-Hop, R&B, Rock, Jazz, Latin, Dance and Soul. Irene Cara is the lead singer of this female group which is composed of musicians, songwriters, producers and singers. They toured mainly in the U.S. and Europe. Hot Caramel’s album named Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel was released in 2011. 

It is worth browsing the official website of Irene Cara because her fans will find many memorable pictures from Sparkle, the Emmy Award winning television series “Roots the Next Generations” with well-known people such as Ray Charles, Michael Jackson and Henry Fonda, etc. On a more personal level, in 1986, Cara married the stuntman Conrad Palmisano (who was the president of the Stuntmen's Association) and the couple divorced in 1991. Since 2016, Mrs. Cara lives in Florida and New Mexico. Now, she stays in Georgia. 

Overall, Cara presents at least a triple threat: she acts, sings and writes music. So, the entertainer cannot be put in a box, she wears many hats such as being a producer among other occupations: Mrs. Cara is a veteran connoisseur and started to work in entertainment since more than half of century. In this regard, as of the age of five, she started performing with her father’s band. In addition, she is a musician; for instance, she plays piano. Her talents are miscellaneous. She represents an example of spectacular social climbing thanks to her musical family and her hard work. Her performing career commenced on Spanish-language television, professionally singing and dancing. She did early TV appearances on the “Original Amateur Hour” (chanting in Spanish). Since her childhood, she took dance and vocal classes. She entered talent and beauty contests in NY City. At age 8, she already began to appear on American television as an entertainer.

In 1971–72, aged 13, she was a regular on PBS's educational program “The Electric Company”, as a member of the show's band called The Short Circus. She also appeared in a major concert tribute to Duke Ellington that featured Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack. As mentioned, her late father was a saxophonist and her great-aunt from Puerto Rico played five instruments. Cara’s musical genre is eclectic. It has been defined as a combination of R&B, pop and disco. Her main inspirations are Carol King, Gladys Knight and Valerie Simpson. She has been active in the entertainment industry as a professional since 1968. Irene Cara is a two times Grammy winner and received an Oscar as a songwriter, the youngest in the history of the Oscars at the time. She also got a Golden Globe in 1984 for “What a Feeling” as a Best Original Song for the movie Flashdance, one of the most popular movies of the 80s. “What a Feeling” also won Cara a People’s Choice Award. Throughout her career, she did several children’s albums, was a background singer during her teens and she made Christmas albums. She acted in plays like “The Wiz” (in 1980), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (in 1993) and “What a Feeling!” and “The Rock & Pop Musicals in Concert” (in 1996).

Irene Cara gave love and joy to many people around the world through her music and continues to do so. She inspired many artists such as the Grammy nominated and Juno winner Deborah Cox. Cara remains a trailblazer among Latino solo artists who crossed over in the entertainment industry. She has been featured in Ebony, Jet, etc. “What a feeling” represented the theme song of Flashdance which became one of the top movies of the 80s and grossed over $200 million. “Fame” exemplified also the theme song of the eponymous movie which grew into a classic movie of the same era. The American media had named Irene Cara the Pop Princess during the early 80s. Her main studio albums of this decade were Anyone Can See (1982), What a Feeling (1983) and Carasmatic (1987). Her songs “Why Me” and “Break Dance became other hits in the 80s. In the early 80s, Cara opened for the 50th birthday concert of the legendary Ray Charles in L.A. She also opened for him at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in NY. In the 80s, Cara had at least five number 1 hits. 

In 1980, Cara broke a glass ceiling. She became the only performer in the history to date who sang two Oscar nominated songs in one evening for the same movie (Fame) in the same category: “Out Here on My Own” and “Fame”. Moreover, Cara is the only Black woman who has an Oscar and Grammys. Furthermore, she became the first African-American performer to earn an Oscar in a non-acting role. She earned two Grammys and a Golden Globe (in the best actress category) amid other awards. Irene Cara’s journey has been rich since her childhood. It would be very interesting if in the future she writes an inspirational memoir and if she included in it several of her beautiful pictures from her personal collection entailed in her official website. A movie about her life should also be made.

Now, Mrs. Cara is an independent artist and she founded a couple of years ago her music production company. Lately, she did a duo with Brent Carter which is part of the album The Campaign of Love released on Serious Records Inc. and distributed by Sony Orchard. The song is called “Kiss & Walk Away”1. The Radio personality Skip Reeves oversaw the project of this album. Mega Diversities had the honor to receive Mrs. Cara’s duet which is awesome. This song with Brent Carter is a very nice ballad and contains an original theme that readers will discover in the following interview (the first Canadian web conversation) which happened on January 15th. In this regard, in the ensuing discussion, she talked about her recent duet and about her professional journey among other subjects. 

P.T. Happy Dr. King’s Day!

I.C. Likewise and happy new year!

P.T. Thank you and same wishes to you! Given that our webmag is a lot about diversity, how has your multi-cultural background influenced your artistry and how has the musical heritage of your father shaped your career?

I.C. My father was a saxophonist in a mambo (a musical genre and dance style originally created in Cuba) band from Porto Rico. My father was born in this archipelago. He came to America with the group in the early fifties. They ended up having here a number 1 hit on the Latin chart. My father was definitely a trailblazer who brought the Latino influence in the American musical-dance scene and in North America. Now, it is everywhere with “Dancing with the Stars”, etc. Merengue, mambo and salsa are universal but during my father’s time it was new in the States. Obviously, he had a great influence on me. I started to play piano at the age of 4. My parents began at that time to give me lessons in music, dance and voice (at the age of 8 for the latter). 

P.T. Did your mother play an instrument?

I.C. No, actually she was a dancer. By the way, my mother is American and French.

P.T. Thanks for reminding me and how interesting! I found that information and wrote about this in your French bio in 2013.

I.C. The maiden name of my mom is Betancourt. My maternal grandfather, born in Florida, used to speak the three languages: French, Spanish and English. 

P.T. When I was about 15 I could write perfectly without being pretentious in English, French and Spanish. Now, I am relearning Spanish. I loooove languages.

I.C. Interesting and lucky you! For my Spanish, I unfortunately lost it. However, I am pretty sure that I could sing it perfectly. One of the nicest compliments that I ever read (I do not know if it is true) is that Céline Dion used to often sing along to my song “What a Feeling” from Flashdance while she was learning English in Canada.

P.T. Oh, nice!

I.C. I hope this is true [chuckles]. In all, my Latin background has been very educational and instrumental for me. It allowed me to fuse different musical elements in my artistry.

P.T. Who were your early musical influences in the Latin American and Anglo-Saxon worlds and why?

I.C. I used to do a lot of vocal contests during my childhood. My mom often drove me to see Carmen Miranda, an artist (a famous MGM Hollywood singer/dancer) from Brazil. I used to imitate her between the age of 4 and 6. My mother made similar costumes for me to what this artist used to wear like her trademark, the baiana with large skirts and turbans. She embodied definitely one of my first influences because she was a pioneer for the Brazilians in Hollywood and brought the samba to a worldwide audience. I also loved Celia Cruz, the Beatles, the Motown sound especially Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5. In addition, I enjoyed great songwriters such as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. In my opinion, most of these artists contributed tremendously particularly in the history of pop and R&B music. Celia Cruz and Carmen Miranda appeared on a collection of commemorative U.S. Postal Service Latin Music Legends stamps, portrayed by Rafael Lopez, in 2011. This symbolizes how their legacy is recognized by my country,

P.T. You worked as a child actress. Did this desire come from you or your parents and what was your first role? What assessment can you make about your experience when you were a child actress? What advice would you give to kids who take the same path? 

I.C. My mother always wanted to be in show business but her parents did not allow her. My parents definitely encouraged me in this field. I have a very beautiful and talented mom. So, she put her own dream in the background and boosted me to embrace the entertainment domain. She detected very early in my life that I could play instruments by ear without taking lessons at the time. Actually, both of my parents noticed my musical and acting abilities. They nourished it and I espoused this road with alacrity. I consider that it was a positive experience for me to be in the entertainment industry during my childhood. For some kids, it can be a burden or even an ordeal (especially when the motivation comes solely from the parents) but fortunately it was not the case for me. I do not feel that I missed out on anything. It was a natural progression for me to be part of show business and I enjoyed it. I really was enthused. I appreciated it as much as my parents did. In fact, I started very young like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the industry. I began winning local talent contests. At the age of 3, a Little Miss America Pageant selected me as a finalist. My mother used to take me to the pageant in New Jersey where I performed. So, since childhood I started to entertain and I liked it. In 1968, I recorded a Spanish album entitled Esta es Irene which means “This is Irene” in Spanish for a very prominent record label (GEMA) at the time. In short, I never felt my parents forced me to be in show business and I never had the desire to do something else.

I advise youngsters who want to pursue the entertainment field to always make sure to continue with your education. It is very important. Nobody can take away what you learn. Success can be very ephemeral. Now more than ever the industry is very fickle. Many people are ‘in’ today and ‘has-beens’ tomorrow. You need to possess something to fall back on. Before producers, moguls and so on really took the time to support an artist for the long term. The situation has changed since then. Having knowledge will help you to make good decisions and choices that will have long time effect.

P.T. These days, I am reading the autobiography of Jon Secada and I thought it was very interesting to discover in it that before he became successful in the entertainment industry he earned a master’s degree in the musical field. It reflects exactly what you said regarding the importance of education.

I.C. Interesting and good for him!

P.T. As you mentioned, you started a singing career very early. You recorded your first album at the age of 8. So, I have the same questions: What assessment can you make about your experience as a child singer? What advice would you give to kids who take the same road? 

I.C. To me, both fields emanate the same energy I do not really make a difference between acting and singing. The great examples that come to mind are people like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. They acted superbly and sang beautifully, likewise for Barbra Streisand. The best actors have rhythm at a certain pace to the way they portray a role like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and all the great celebrities who were really stars. They had musical rhythm to their performance. Again to me, singing is a different expression with the same energy. I felt very comfortable with any artistic projects I embraced during my childhood. So singing was also a positive experience for me and I enjoyed making an album at the age of 8. It represented a very formative process for me among others. I advise artists to get different skills in the entertainment industry. In other words, do not confine yourself in one category. Be open to becoming a songwriter, musician, actor, etc. Multi-talented people have an advantage, and ideally this must start early in life.

P.T. Since when you did you know wanted to become an entertainer and what was your early training? 

I.C. It started pretty early in my life with my training and the talent contests I related. I did school plays also. There was not really a specific age when I realized: “this is what I really wanted to do with my life”. It came totally natural for me to be immersed in the entertainment industry. My first role as an actress was Mickey Mouse [chuckles]. 

PT. [Laughs]

I.C. I enjoyed being in front of the audience and its positive reaction represented a confirmation to me. It denoted a reinforcement that I was on the right path. At around 9, I did Broadway and off-Broadway shows. By the age of 11, I had made two albums. One was in Spanish, as mentioned, and the second was entitled Anyone Can See. Moreover, I was part of a chorale called the Harlem’s children choir. At that time, I was involved also in a major television series, a spin-off of “Sesame Street” named “The Electric Company” starring the original cast with Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman when he was very young and skinny [chuckles]. So, I evolved as a singer and an actress during this period. By 11, I had a pretty solid career. It became clear to me by that time what I would embrace professionally. Again, there was not a precise age where I made the decision to be part of the entertainment industry given that it was ingrained in my life since the age of 5.

P.T. Talk to us about your background as an actress that helped you land great roles such as Bertha Haley in “Roots the Next Generations”. 

I.C. I started training formally with an acting teacher in NY throughout my teens. These private lessons prepared me thoroughly for what would come ahead such as the pioneering role of Alex Haley’s mother. 

In “Roots”, I played an African-American female who was more privileged than most of the other characters part of the storyline, including the white people.

The parents of Alex Haley were educated. For instance, his father was a professor of agriculture at Alabama A&M University. This paved the way for Alex Haley to follow the footsteps of his father. My part in the series had a wide range age, the role started at the age of 16 until 36. I was 16 at the time. Bertha Haley was a southern belle of the first Haleys.

P.T. I loved your performance in this series because you brought a lot of depth and emotions into the role.

I.C. Thank you! The acting classes I took in NY definitely prepared me. If you can believe me, my first introduction to Shakespeare occurred in NY City in a park. Georgio Pass was a very prominent off-Broadway producer. He used to showcase these Shakespearian plays like “Hamlet” in parks for free. So, it was accessible to the population. People came and watch. In this regard, it was my first introduction to these plays besides of course “Romeo and Juliet”. The cast was diverse with Blacks and Latinos. Pass was definitely ahead of his time in the seventies.

During that time, we had the Black version of “The Wiz”, etc. These plays were very seminal to me. In this era, many eminent actors such as James Earl Jones participated in these Shakespearian plays. I strongly believe that “Roots” became a pioneer of the genre to showcase in a miniseries format a colored cast people. Additionally, in 2016 a new generation discovered it with the remake entitled “Roots: the Saga of an American Family”. This signifies the importance of this trend that remains current. 

P.T. What has been your most challenging role as an actress and why?

I.C. I would say my role in Sparkle, my first Hollywood movie. When I portrayed the role of Sparkle Williams, I was very young and the character had aspects with the same similarities than mine at the time (but not issues with the two sisters). I was only 14 or 15 and I had one of the major parts of the movie. I felt a heightened sense of responsibility on my shoulders given that I played the title role. I deemed that I had to carry the film. It was the first time I was in this position in my life. It even frightened to me.

P.T. I loved your performance in the movie and you did not seem that young in the role. I don’t mean you looked old but you brought sophistication into your character which made you look much more mature. Your insecurities did not show at all in your acting.

I.C. Thank you!

P.T. When I researched you to prepare for this interview, I did not realize that Sparkle was about the story of The Supremes because it concerned three sisters of the fifties, the Williams.

I.C. This is what they say also about Dreamgirls.

P.T. True! In the 80s, “Fame” was a TV series for six seasons. Do you think there is a place on American TV for a show entitled “Fame: the New Generation”?

I.C. Yes, in my opinion it is called “Glee”, the high school musical. They could have called it “Fame”. This show was a drama of six seasons and a remake was not really done. I think “Glee” did not have the emotional impact of “Fame”. Honestly, I think remakes should not replace the originals. There is only one original. Many times, these remakes take the place of the original movie so it is like camouflaged because you do not see the real McCoys anymore. For example, regarding The Great Gatsby the one that matters to me is the one of my generation that I watched a million times [chuckles]. For me, The Great Gatsby will always be the one with Robert Redford in the seventies. 

P.T. I never saw it.

I.C. Actually, it was not the original. The first one was made in the twenties. At the time, it was a silent movie drama film. The second one with sound was done in 1949.  The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford kept the main elements of the one of the forties. It was not turned into something else.

Another example that I am able to give is the movie A Star is Born. The original was done in the thirties. Judy Garland was in the second version in the fifties. Then, another one was achieved in the seventies with Barbra Streisand. I liked the fact that they made it current for this decade. It was not a caricature of the previous ones. This year, a new one will be completed with Lady Gaga and it will be interesting to see how it will be presented. 

It is flattering to see remakes of my movies like Sparkle with Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks but I think the originals cannot be replaced. So, to summarize I think remakes need to become relevant to their era and not try to create a replica of the originals.

P.T. I think you are right when you say we have the tendency to like the film of our generation. For me, regarding The Great Gatsby, it was the one with Dicaprio that I enjoyed. But I have to see the previous ones to make a fair analytical comparison.

P.T. Fame concerned a school performing arts. In your opinion, what American school of performing arts is among the best in your country to prepare the next generation of great entertainers?

I.C. There are so many now. I am honored that Fame propelled this trend. I am really glad that I am part of this. The film inspired several performing schools to open not just in my country but worldwide especially since the 80s. Paul McCartney opened a performing arts school in his hometown of Liverpool. All over Latin America, we observe these types of schools. They exist everywhere: France, Germany, Scotland, Ireland and so on. In my nation, I can name the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music Art and Performing Arts in NY. It is a high school performing arts and when I did the film it was called the School of the Performing Arts. Actually, Paul McCartney who was inspired by the movie Fame, opened the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts in England with the collaboration of the principal of LaGuardia.

Another top institution in the U.S. is Juilliard School in NY City, a performing arts conservatory specialized in dance, drama and music through its prestigious curricula. I could name a third institution: Berklee College of Music in Boston. It is the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world. It offers an extensive range of styles in their studies: jazz, hip hop, reggae, rock, flamenco, etc. Lastly, there exists one in San Francisco which produced great artists such as composers who worked in movies afterwards. 

P.T. Why, before the lawsuit with your former label, were you not able to benefit from your royalties, and so on, in other words, what kind of contract did you get? In addition, what lessons did you learn from this ordeal and more specifically what steps should an artist take to protect and leverage his body of work? Overall, what advice do you have for artists about the actions to take to control as much as possible of their careers such as owning their masters?

I.C. [Pause] This is a very big struggle even today. You need to be really diligent by finding the right team, comprising an experienced and reputable entertainment lawyer who will support you. Ideally, the lawyer should possess excellent negotiation abilities. He could propose clauses (beneficial to the artist) in the contract such as a severance agreement with the label. The attorney should not be on the side of the record company because that would become a conflict of interest. You need to tread carefully because there are lawyers who pretend to support the artist but they are actually in the pockets of the label. Unfortunately, this happens quite often in the entertainment industry. There is a lot of pretense. You must be careful that you don’t get rigged. Make sure that you are surrounded by competent and professional people who take your best interests to heart by asking for solid references before hiring them because anybody can claim to be a manager, an agent and so on. Your attorney needs to know the law in the U.S. and elsewhere ideally. For instance, in Europe the copyrights rules are different from here. After circa 25 years, your work becomes part of the public domain in several nations there. Keep your eyes open, read everything before you sign anything. There was nothing wrong with my contract, Patricia [Turnier].

P.T. Really?

L.C. My former label with its executives just decided not to honor it.

P.T. Wow!

I.C. [Silence] They just chose not to respect the agreed terms of the contract. I decided to fight back and they made sure I would be railroaded out of the industry. I made peace with this. I am very proud of my accomplishments and of my rich background. I keep my head high. My contribution added prestige and clout to their label. My advice is to not let anybody define who you are. I know I did nothing wrong, I worked very hard since childhood and I earned my life honestly without ripping anybody off. I was adamant that I would not walk away penniless regardless of the consequences. Now, I can retire. I work when I want or I have the luxury to take a hiatus. It took me 13 years of battles to get to that point. 

P.T. You were really brave!

I.C. I believe it was unfortunate that I was deprived of the support given by labels to their artists. When N Sync was getting robbed by their record company, they received a lot of support when they decided to sue. Nobody came to my rescue. Now, fortunately I am enjoying my middle age and I am fine financially. I live near the beach on the East Coast in the most beautiful state in the country, Georgia. I am proud of my family. I have a grand-nephew in medical school.

P.T. Wow!

I.C. I have several beautiful successful nephews and nieces who own businesses. I am definitely proud of our accomplishments. I won every award that an artist could dream for. I have a street named after myself in the Bronx.

P.T. Cool!

I.C. This is more important to me than any prizes because my life started in the South Bronx where I was born. So, this has great significance for me. I am grateful and feel very blessed.

P.T. What lessons did you learn from your lawsuit?

I.C. Unfortunately, based on my experience, most entertainment lawyers cannot be trusted. Many are not on the artist’s side. They are there to control the artist and make sure that the labels get what they want. Thank God now for the indie venues, the social media and so on. This new structure eliminates many middlemen. It allows the artists to have a more direct contact with their fans. They also end up with a better control of their careers. The entertainers have now the possibility to put their music out there without having to go through the label system that can be corrupted and complex. 

P.T. You said that you felt alone among your professional peers during your battle with your former label. I guess the people who supported you were your family.

I.C. My family did not really know about my fight. I wanted them to not worry especially my parents. In addition, my closest friends were not part of the entertainment business so they were not in a position to give me professional advice. Even if they were part of the industry, it would have been difficult for them to provide me guidance because you can do little when you have to fight a powerful label. I learned also during this long ordeal who were my real friends; most were the ones from NY with whom I grew up. Some individuals were fake and were not present when things went sour in my life during that time. They deserted me. It allowed me to discover the true meaning of friendships. I had to learn to stand on my own feet! I was determined to win and be respected. I am a very proud woman. I succeeded with my own money in this long battle! 

P.T. Regarding the entertainment industry, what do that you know now that you wished you were aware of at the age of 18? Moreover, what is the best advice you received which made a big difference in your career?

I.C. [Long silence] Always value yourself as a human being. Your worth is not linked to prestige, money and/or status. It is dangerous to think that your value is solely attached to your art because if someone mistreats, exploits, abuses, or does not appreciate you or your work, you will feel empty. Success can be very ephemeral. In fact, everything is seasonal. In other words, nothing is permanent. What will you become if your triumph is not there anymore? Furthermore, if your fire or passion as an artist burns out, you are left with nothing if you put all your emphasis on this. You should value yourself first as a human being and maintain a strong identity while never compromising your ideals, ethics or principles. Your soul and spirit need to transcend your art. This is the best advice that I can pass on. I had to rely on myself most of the time during my professional journey so I did not receive from a mentor for instance any specific advice that helped me in my career.

P.T. In the media, you said in the past that an actress is more protected via organizations such as SAG and so on contrary to the music business where there are no unions. What is your assessment for these two domains in our era?

I.C. In my opinion, nothing has changed. The status quo remains. Songwriters have unions that support them. I am with ASCAP which protects the musical copyrights of its members like songwriters, composers and music publishers. It takes care of the licensing fees, distributes the appropriate royalties, etc. There are other institutions for composers and so on such as BMI, SESAC, etc. These organizations have several members and they work to support us. Most professional actors are with SAG-AFTRA among several other professions (journalists, radio personalities, dancers, announcers, stunt performers, etc.). However, there are still no unions which protect solely singers. This means they are more vulnerable and are less likely to have access to a collective bargaining agreement that would protect their rights.

P.T. What happened since the 80s? I mean, why don’t we see any more female bands who are musicians in pop music? I know it is one of your preoccupations and this is one of the reasons that made you create Hot Caramel. Please, share your thoughts with us about this issue.

I.C. I think it is changing more and more. I worked with the girls from Hot Caramel between 2000 and 2010. I observed that now these young women are flying on their own and they created female bands

There were great female groups like En Vogue mostly in the 90s. I hope we will see more of that, likewise for female bands where women play music and create their own compositions. I have the feeling we will view more of that in the future. For instance, we observe women playing on “The Tonight Show” or “Saturday Night Live”. This represents a good sign in my opinion. I remain positive in this regard.

I would like to add that even in the seventies, there were female bands such as The Wilson Sisters. They were singers, songwriters and musicians. Joni Mitchell was and is a great musician (a great guitarist and pianist). Many people do not know that Aretha Franklin is an astonishing gospel pianist. She did not display this often so we tend to forget it or not notice it. Now, we have Taylor Swift She creates compositions and plays the guitar. I believe it is more accepted now. I guess it fluctuates throughout the times to see female musicians in commercial music.

P.T. Often we see Beyoncé on stage with female musicians. This is another interesting way to showcase them. Maybe she is starting a trend that other well-known artists will follow.

P.T. It can be very difficult in the music industry for women. It is a conundrum and an intrication. The group TLC is the only female group in the history of the entertainment industry that achieved a diamond album and they are the female group who sold the most albums of all time. What are the structural obstacles and what advice do you have for aspiring female groups to reach this level of success? 

I.C. To see diversity in women at that level, it requires variety among female executives, in other words in the higher ranks of the music industry. Unfortunately, it is still way too male dominated and oriented likewise in the film industry. When a change happens in these structural systems, things should become different with more balance between genders. We will see more artists where the industry allows them to become what they truly want instead of being groomed to what they are expected to befall. More specifically, you must find a way to reach a large appeal by being unique outstandingly and ideally timeless while exposing your own sound and style for reaching the highest levels of success.

A great promotion with a distribution deal, an excellent publicity company for getting a big marketing campaign with a thorough plan, an excellent radio promoter, obtaining a superb development deal with your record producer and impresario, are amazing tools to achieve a higher success. A great record company needs to have a first-rate sales department, a marketing crew, an artist development team, an international department, a business/legal staff, etc. All these services play a key role in the success of any artist who wants to reach a worldwide audience. It is also crucial to make great deals that allow artists to receive royalties from many countries. To finish, focus on quality instead of quantity and make sure that you are not in a vulnerable position where for example, you need to pay back your label before you receive your first royalty check. To do this, you must educate yourself about all aspects of the entertainment industry to avoid being tied for years by a contractual bondage. It is prerequisite to learn how to gain the rights to license your own body of work by getting knowledge about publishing rights, etc. 

In sum, you must not have an obtuse or tunnel vision when it comes to show business. Find out about the informal of the milieu with its subtleties, in other words the unofficial culture or unwritten rules. Learn to read between the lines. Speak to experienced people who have been there via networking, etc. If you want longevity, self-education will be a lifelong process while obtaining the information regarding the major guidelines of the music industry.

P.T. Earlier, you said you started working in the industry at a very young age. This is a testament that there is no such thing most of the time of instant success. To get there and especially at a high ranking of success, it takes years of hard work regardless of the gender. Most of us know this old saying: “Rome was not built in a day”.

I.C. Absolutely!

P.T. Also, female artists need and deserve a lot of support. They contribute tremendously in the industry. For instance, very few people know that the first music video ever made was with Martha Reeves & the Vandellas via the single “Nowhere to Run” (from Motown) in the 60s. Dr. Reeves even fought for singers’ royalties in the American Congress.

P.T. Would you be interested in the future to release one of your most successful songs such as “What a feeling” in Spanish like Gloria Gaynor did for “I Will Survive”? In addition, tell us about the writing process (the time it took, etc.) of this great song, a classic of the 80s and how the inspiration came to you.

I.C. Actually, my focus is on new music. I am not the same musician now that I was in my twenties. I produce things as a grown woman and not do things based on what I did when I was young. I do not want to rehash anything I did during my youth. About the writing process, sometimes the lyrics come first or other times it is the melody that arises first. So, it varies. It also depends on the mood I am in at the time. I let things flow. If I come up with an idea, I meditate on it for a while and I take the time to think about what I want to say in the song. If the lyrics emanate first, I will contemplate the melody that I will use to enhance what I wish to communicate musically.

About “What a feeling”, it took me a day to write it.

P.T. Unbelievable!

I.C. The director at the time showed me and Keith Forsey, my cowriter the last clip of the movie Flashdance. This inspired us to produce something that would fit the end of the film. We needed to do something that would create an emotional connection between the theme and the characters of the movie in that particular segment. In the portion that was shown to us, there were no lyrics, just the music. We went to the studio of the composer of that song, Giorgio Moroder. He composed several other songs of the soundtrack. It was in his studio that we completed the song in one day.

P.T. What is your favorite song of yours and why?

I.C. I do not have a favorite song [chuckles]. I love all of them. I know that many people relate to “Out Here on My Own” (from Fame) which I did not write. I sang this single in the scene of Fame where, as Coco, I play the piano near the personage of Bruno Martelli (interpreted by Lee Curreri). The single was written by Michael Gore and by his sister, the late Lesley Gore. It was a great moment for me in the movie. I believe it is the ballad that most people identify me with. So, I could definitely choose this song among my favorites. 

P.T. Finally, the album "The Campaign of Love" was recently released and you sing one song in it. Share with us the message of this CD and talk to us about your song, a duet with Brent Carter.

I.C. This song is about a couple that truly loves each other but is having trouble with the relationship. It is a back and forth dialogue between the man and the woman who are trying to figure out if they should remain in the relationship or not. It is a struggle and they are not sure if they should pursue their relationship or go their separate way. I love romantic ballads; I enjoy writing them and performing them. The woman in the duet “Kiss & Walk Away” is communicating: “I love you but we need to say goodbye”. The male wants to make it up to her and wishes her to stay. So, the song talks about the uncertainties of a relationship which is on the rocks. They are trying to weigh up the positives and the negatives.

The producer of the album annually puts out a theme, some years it is jazz oriented, other times it is funk, etc. This campaign concerns love and the CD contains solely romantic songs. It has more than 20 tracks. So, I was approached to be part of it. I am happy that I collaborated with Brent Carter who is a brilliant vocalist in my opinion. The CD is a compilation of songs from more than twenty-five artists. 

P.T. Thank you for the interview on Dr. King’s Day. Your fans around the world will be really happy to hear from you!

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Selected Discography

1968 Esta Es Irene
1982 Anyone Can See
1983 What a Feeling
1987 Carasmatic
2011 Irene Cara presents: Hot Caramel
2017 The Campaign of Love in this compilation, there is the duet between Irene Cara and Brent Carter entitled "Kiss & Walk Away"

Soundtracks:

1980 "Fame Soundtrack"
1983 "Flashdance Soundtrack"
1983 "D.C. Cab Soundtrack"
1984 "City Heat Soundtrack"
1989 "All Dogs Go to Heaven Soundtrack"
1991 "China Cry Soundtrack"
2007 "Downtown: A Street Tale Soundtrack"

Selected Filmography:

Aaron Loves Angela (1975)
Sparkle (1976)
Roots: The Next Generations (1979)
Fame (1980)
Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)
Killing 'em Softly (1982)
Sister, Sister (1982)
For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story (1983)
City Heat (1984)
Happily Ever After (1990)
Beauty and the Beast (1992)
Beyond Awareness to Action: Ending Abuse of Women - A Short Documentary (1995)
Downtown: A Street Tale (2004)

Official website:

www.irenecara.com 

The Campaign of Love album is available here https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-campaign-of-love/1328595699 and viia iTunes

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1 Listeners can hear partially in this link http://irenecara.com/jukebox.html the beautiful song of Dorothy Moore entitled Misty Blue performed by Cara among others including her latest duo with Brent Carter, “Kiss & Walk Away”.