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365 Days of Oscar: Irene Cara Makes History

We lost Irene Cara in late 2022, and I still miss her.

The Bronx-born Cara rose to stardom after her breakout role as Coco Hernandez in Fame, the 1980 hit film directed by Alan Parker. She originally was cast as a dancer, but when producers David Da Silva and Alan Marshall and screenwriter Christopher Gore heard her voice, they re-wrote the role of Coco Hernandez for her.

In this part, she sang both the title song “Fame” and the single “Out Here on My Own”, which were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. These songs helped make the film’s soundtrack a chart-topping, multi-platinum album, and it was the first time that two songs from the same film and sung by the same artist were nominated in the same category. Cara had the opportunity to be one of the few singers to perform more than one song at the Oscar ceremony; “Fame,” written by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, won the award for best original song that year, and the film won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Cara earned Grammy Award nominations in 1980 for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical. Billboard named her Top New Single Artist, and Cashbox magazine awarded her both Most Promising Female Vocalist and Top Female Vocalist.

Asked by Fame TV series producers to reprise her role as Coco Hernandez, she declined, wanting to focus her attention on her recording career; Erica Gimpel assumed the role. In 1983, though, she had a major hit with the theme song from Flashdance, “Flashdance… What a Feeling,” which she co-wrote with Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey. Cara wrote the lyrics to the song with Forsey while riding in a car in New York heading to the studio to record it; Moroder composed the music. (Cara admitted later that she was initially reluctant to work with Giorgio Moroder because she had no wish to invite comparisons with Donna Summer, another artist who worked with Moroder.)

She shared the 1983 Academy Award for Best Original Song with Moroder and Forsey, becoming the first black woman to win an Oscar in a non-acting category and the youngest to receive an Oscar for songwriting. She won the 1984 Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, the1984 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, and American Music Awards for Best R&B Female Artist and Best Pop Single of the Year.

This article is part of a special year-long series of anecdotes, reflections and thoughts about the Academy Awards.