The sad final days of “Fame” star-turned-“hermit” Irene Cara

‘Fame’ star Irene Cara may have sung about getting people to remember her name — but she’s turned her back on fame in her final days.

Cara’s neighbors in Largo, Fla. – where the successful ’80s singer-songwriter-actress died on October 25 at the age of 63 – said they had been living like a recluse in recent years, obsessively protecting their privacy.

“She was a recluse. She hasn’t spoken to anyone,” Roseann Nolan, who lived across the street from Cara, told the Post. “Until a few years ago, I didn’t even know she lived there. It was the best kept secret of all time.”

Maria Contreras, 59, who lived next door to Cara for years, said she tried to befriend her before she knew who she was. But Contreras said she could never persuade Cara, who once lit the stage with her electrifying live performances, to take her for a walk to the nearby beach or socialize.

Irene Cara won two Grammys including for "Flashdance (What a feeling)."
Irene Cara won two Grammys, including for “Flashdance (What a Feeling)”.
Bettmann Archive

“I texted her or called her to take her for a walk, but I haven’t heard anything for days,” Contreras told the Post. “And she would never call back on her cell phone. She was calling from her computer because she was concerned about her privacy. She didn’t look well and said she had health problems.”

Contreras said she never saw anyone come into the house except for a man mowing the lawn.

“But nobody, including him, ever went into her house,” Contreras said. “She greeted you outside at the garage. She got very angry with me when I tore down a fence between our houses to put up a new one. She sent me such crazy messages that I saved them on my phone. She was worried she wouldn’t be safe with the fence even for a day.”

Neighbors said Cara lives like a recluse in this home in Largo, Florida.
Neighbors said Cara lives like a recluse in this home in Largo, Florida.
Google Maps

Cara’s rep Judith Moose and her nearly two-decade LA-based manager Betty McCormick have been painting a different picture of Cara in recent years. They told the Post that she has left Hollywood and the music industry mostly on her own terms and has been trying to revive her career in recent months.

McCormick insisted that drugs and alcohol had no role in Cara’s death, nor was it a suicide, she told the Post. She disagreed with neighbors’ assessment of Cara’s final years, but said the pandemic has been very tough on the singer.

One of Cara's last public appearances was at the "sparkle" – a remake of her 1976 film – premiered in at the "sparkle" Premiere 2012.
One of Cara’s last public appearances was at the 2012 premiere of Sparkle, a remake of her 1976 film.
Eric Charbonneau/Shutterstock

“She was very scared of getting that [COVID] Virus,” McCormick said. “She really struggled during that time.”

The early sizzling of Cara’s once spectacular career has many wondering why she has all but disappeared from public life after making a splash at a young age.

Cara’s top hits were 1980’s “Fame” and 1983’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” She won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance for “Flashdance.”

Cara rose to fame after starring in a hit film in 1980 "Fame" – and sing the soundtrack hit of the same name.
Cara rose to fame when she starred in the hit 1980 film Fame — and sang on the hit soundtrack of the same name.
Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Born Irene Escalera in the South Bronx, she once claimed that her father, a factory worker, Gaspar Escalera, originally from Puerto Rico, brought merengue to the United States. Her mother, Louise Escalera, was a cashier of Cuban descent.

She was Irene off the block 10 years before Jennifer Lopez was born in the Bronx and paved the way for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Your song from the movie "Flashdance" went to the top of the charts.
Her song from the movie “Flashdance” went to the top of the charts.

Carey posted a screenshot of Fame along with Cara’s hit single after her death.

“I put the original on Fame in honor of the late, great Irene Cara”, she wrote on Twitter. “Such an inspiration to so many, especially me. Her beauty and talent are impressive in this film. Rest in peace dear angel.”

Cara began her career at the Little Miss America Pageant, followed by a smashing performance as an 8-year-old on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour. She continued her studies in piano and dance and appeared regularly as a singer and dancer in Spanish language TV variety shows.

She was married to stuntman Conrad E. Palmisano from 1986 to 1991.
She was married to stuntman Conrad E. Palmisano from 1986 to 1991.
Penske Media via Getty Images

“I don’t mean to sound immodest — but I never had any doubts that I would be successful, nor was I afraid of success,” Cara told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1985. “I was raised as a little goddess who was told she was a star.”

From 1971-1972, she appeared on PBS’ legendary children’s show, The Electric Company. Her many early stage appearances included roles in Broadway’s Maggie Flynn (1968) with Shirley Jones, the Obie Award-winning musical The Me Nobody Knows (1970), Via Galactica (1972) with Raul Julia, and The Original 1978 cabaret show from “Ain’t Misbehavin” starring Nell Carter and “Hadestown” Tony winner André DeShields.

One of her last film roles was in "city ​​heat" 1984
One of her last film roles was in 1984’s City Heat.
© Warner Bros./Courtesy of Everett

One of her most memorable roles was as the spirited star wannabe Coco Hernandez in the 1980 megahit Fame – chronicling the lives and times of the students at what was then the High School of the Performing Arts, now called the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Cara herself attended Professional Children’s School, a school satirized in “Fame”.

In the film, her character was being hunted by a predatory director. This conspiracy eerily foreshadowed Cara’s decision in 1985 to sue label boss Al Coury, who signed her to his Network Records, in a $10 million lawsuit for breach of contract for allegedly stealing her royalties had cheated. She eventually received $1.5 million, but the label went bankrupt and never paid her. Coury died in 2013, and Cara said she believes he fooled her in the industry.

"Fame" was inspired by what is now Manhattan's Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
Fame was inspired by what is now Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
JC Reis

“I knew Al Coury,” veteran music producer Ed Steinberg told The Post. “Let’s just say the record company business model has always involved petty theft. Being a Latina from the Bronx at the time made her even more vulnerable. She was a great singer, but she had no connections and no big crew behind her.”

“I’ve been working on myself, on my spirituality,” Cara told People in 2001 of the years following the lawsuit and shortly after her split from her husband of five years, stuntman Conrad Palmisano. “I went through my bitter, angry periods because these people took so much from me.”

Cara was "Very proud of her Cuban and Puerto Rican and African ancestry," said a source.
Cara was “very proud of her Cuban, Puerto Rican and African ancestry,” a source said.
Getty Images

Betty McCormick said the lawsuit was difficult for Cara, but the singer ultimately doesn’t see herself as a victim.

“Everything we hear now is about racism and the oppression of people,” McCormick told The Post. “Irene wasn’t like that. She was very proud of her Cuban, Puerto Rican and African ancestry. She wasn’t a victim crying racism. I don’t think she was actually blacklisted either.”

McCormick and Moose both said that Cara “walked out” of the business because she didn’t like the LA entertainment industry.

The singer sued record label boss Al Coury for $10 million for breach of contract — and later believed he blacked her out in the industry.
The singer sued record label boss Al Coury for $10 million for breach of contract — and later believed he blacked her out in the industry.

“We’ve had wonderful conversations over the past year,” Moose told the Post. “I think she was content with her life in a way. She tried to stay in the game but she was really under attack by the corporate forces.”

Cara continued to perform occasionally after 2005, and in 2010 she recruited a group of female musicians for a girl group she called Hot Caramel. According to two Hot Caramel members, singer Audrey Martells and guitarist Sheryl Bailey, who is also vice chair of the guitar department at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, Cara produced and arranged all of the songs.

Cara's manager said the singer later re-recorded "Fame" and "Flashdance (What a feeling)" so she could possess the masters.
Cara’s manager said the singer later re-recorded “Fame” and “Flashdance (What a Feeling)” so she could own the masters.
Getty Images

“Women in music can be a lot more than just the belly, the belly button, the bleached hair, the lip sync,” Cara said in a television interview just before launching Hot Caramel. “I wanted to make a statement that women in music can be sexy and seductive and fabulous and bouncy and cool and that it’s about music, just about the music.”

“I learned so much from her,” Bailey told the Post. “I thought I knew a lot about organizing and tracking, but she knew more.”

She starred as Coco Hernandez in the film version of "Fame."
She starred as Coco Hernandez in the film version of Fame.
Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Bailey said the group recorded about five or six songs but was puzzled as to why they never seemed to have been officially released by any label.

“I think she wanted a project where she had full control,” Bailey said. “She had been screwed by the industry. I think the fact that she was a child star hurt her too. I think when you start that early you sometimes have trouble coping when you become a older adult.”

McCormick said Cara re-recorded two of her hits, “Fame” and “Flashdance,” so she’d own the masters a la Taylor Swift.

Although her Florida neighbor said Cara drove an old car and had a flat-tired van that sat in her yard for months, there’s no indication the singer was broke when she died.

“What I liked about Irene was that she never changed for the room,” said Audrey Martells. “You think everyone wants the spotlight, but I don’t think she cared that much. She took care of the music. She stood in her own truth. I think she was fine, living off her royalties and licensing her music and doing things her way. The sad final days of “Fame” star-turned-“hermit” Irene Cara

Emma Bowman

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