When Irene Cara died in late November, the tributes came pouring in for the late Academy Award-winning actress, singer, songwriter, and producer. Anika Noni Rose tweeted, “Your voice/words were the opening notes of the performer I’ve become.” She added that Cara paved the way for her and inspired her to believe that she could actually have a career in theater and film. John Leguizamo and Mariah Carey also cited Cara as influences, and Kim Fields tweeted that her 1975 film, Aaron Loves Angela, was the first time she saw people of color in a love story.
Cara, a New York giant, may not have been in the spotlight much in the years before she died, but she was an icon and responsible for inspiring multiple generations of performing arts kids, including myself. As a millennial and former “fame school” kid, I can’t overstate her impact enough. Cara, a Black Latina from the Bronx, looked like a lot of the people I knew, and made the idea that I could go to school for performing real.
My performing arts school journey started when I was in the sixth grade. It was time for me to figure out where I wanted to go for middle school. The concept of a magnet school only seemed real if it was for math and science. However, my mother, knowing that I was interested in theater, introduced me to a school that was geared toward performing arts. It wasn’t “the fame school,” LaGuardia High School, as I was too young then, but it was a school inspired by LaGuardia’s existence. One of my favorite past times, even as a 90s kid, was watching my mother’s vhs tapes of classic movies. By that point, I had seen Irene Cara in Sparkle, but knowing that I was prepping for an audition for my middle school, my mother introduced me to the movie Fame. Cara played Coco Hernandez, a girl from the Bronx trying to make a name for herself. Hernandez encountered a motley crew of kids from all over New York City, trying to figure out what life entangled with arts and education could be.
Watching Fame, and hearing Cara belt out some of the movie’s hits like its eponymous theme song, was inspiring. I watched the movie and ran the soundtrack into the ground, preparing for my entry into performing arts education. I got into the middle school that I wanted, and viewed my time there as preparing for the big leagues, which was auditioning for LaGuardia High School when it was time. Eventually, I got into the fame school, and the experience was surreal. It was a place where kids, like-minded in nature, would abruptly break out into song and dance, and where teachers, even those who taught traditional academics, understood how to reach us with their lessons. It always tied back to Fame.
Those whirlwind few years didn’t fully set in until I was at my senior prom and the DJ called the graduates to the floor for the last song of the night. He played the song we had been hearing since our induction into the school -Fame- but at that time it had even more meaning. We didn’t know what lives we were embarking on after high school. Some of us went on to become household names, or work in the arts in a behind-the-scenes capacity, and some of us faded into obscurity, but one thing about that experience is that whether we became famous or not, the pursuit of the arts kept a lot of us sane, out of trouble, interested in school, and alive — literally and figuratively. And for many of us millennials of color at that time, it still goes back to the inspiration we drew from a movie that may seem arbitrary to most, but carried so much meaning to those of us who know, and the representation that mattered.
Irene Cara had some bumps in her career along the way, some of which unfortunately affected her career, but I hope she knows that she was loved and responsible for inspiring generations of hopeful artists to think and dream big.