Cara died Friday at her home in Florida, her publicist Judith A. Moore announced on Twitter. Her cause of death is “currently unknown and will be released when information is available.”
“It is with profound sadness that on behalf of her family I announce the passing of Irene Cara. The Academy Award winning actress, singer, songwriter and producer passed away in her Florida home,” Moore tweeted. “She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.”
The Bronx-born Cara was a child actor who appeared on shows like The Electric Factory before starring in Broadway musicals like Via Galactica, The Wiz and the Supremes-inspired Sparkle, the latter of which was adapted for the big screen in 1976 with Cara in the lead role.
Cara’s breakout came with the 1980 hit film Fame, which featured the actress playing Coco Hernandez, a part rewritten specifically for her. In addition to her role in that film — about talented students at a New York City performing arts high school — Cara also sang the soundtrack’s title track “Fame” and “Out Here on My Own,” both of which were nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. As Fame became the first movie ever to register double nominations in that category, Cara — per Oscars tradition — performed both songs at the ceremony. “Fame” ultimately took home the Academy Award.
The success of Fame also splintered off into the music industry as Cara — despite never releasing her own album — was nominated for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards. Cara’s debut LP, Anyone Can See, arrived in 1982.
The following year, Cara scored her biggest hit with “Flashdance… What a Feeling,” the theme from the smash 1983 film Flashdance. The track — co-written by Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey — spent six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983, helping the soundtrack also propel to Number One. The single also earned Cara her second Best Original Song Academy Award win, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Cara reunited with Moroder and Forsey for her 1983 LP What a Feelin’, which featured her Flashdance hit as well as the singles “Breakdance,” “Why Me,” and “The Dream (Hold On to Your Dream),” the latter of which was included on the soundtrack for DC Cab, a film where Cara appeared as herself in a small role.
However, despite the chart-topping success, Cara’s music career was stunted due to what turned out to be a decade-long legal battle with her label Network Records, which she sued after claiming they had withheld royalties from her hit singles.
“After that album, I sued my label. First of all, my label had fallen apart by itself…it lost its distribution. And I was stuck with a label president who continued to [not pay me], and continued to use me for distribution for his little small label,” Cara told Songwriter Universe in 2018. “So I sued him, and it took eight years and it cost me my future as a recording artist, because no other label would sign me. RSO was sending out threatening letters to the other labels. And the one label that did sign me, they said they would stand by me through the lawsuit. But once I finished my album (1987’s Carasmatic), they shelved it and didn’t promote it.” A jury ultimately sided with Cara in 1993, awarding her the royalties from her hits.
However, over the next decade, Cara continued to act both on the screen and on stage, appearing in the films City Heat with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, Certain Fury, and Caged in Paradiso, as well as a 1993 revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. She also served as a backup singer for artists like Lou Reed, Oleta Adams and Evelyn “Champagne” King.
By the 2000s, Cara went into “semi-retirement,” making appearances on reality singing competitions and sporadic live appearances. “I have a beautiful home by the beach and life is good,” she told Songwriter Universe. “[These days] I live off my royalties and I work when I want to, and I consider myself semi-retired. I don’t need to work… I make more money not working than I do by working.”