Irene Cara: The Pop Princess Who Left Us With “Oh, What a Feeling!”

Irene Cara: The Pop Princess Who Left Us With “Oh, What a Feeling!”

It was the year of “She Works Hard for The Money”, the hit by ‘Disco Queen’ Donna Summer that celebrated working women the world over. But it was pop princess Irene Cara who ultimately grabbed 1984’s Oscar and Grammy for “Flashdance … What A Feeling!” — the theme from the movie about a female steel industry worker who welds by the day and dances by the night and which produced a dance track that remains one of the most inspirational songs for young women wishing to achieve something.

As the world remembers Cara after her demise at the age of 63 on November 25, 2022, fascinating insights have emerged about Flashdance, the movie; her role in co-writing and performing the theme from the film and how two uplifting songs about women that emerged the same year (the other by Summer) were in competition as chart busters; one becoming an outright bestseller in album sales and the other raking in awards as well.

And both Cara and Summer (who passed away a decade earlier, in 2012) owed their rise to the same man — Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, the Italian-born composer, songwriter and record producer dubbed the “Father of Disco”.

Cara’s involvement with Flashdance began when she was approached by Paramount Pictures in 1982 to provide lyrics for a song in a movie about a young dancer aiming to become a professional ballerina.

Already famous for another fast-paced title track of a 1980s movie — itself called “Fame” — Cara ended up being introduced to Moroder, who had been signed on to produce the music for Flashdance by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose credits include “American Gigolo” (the film that launched the career of Richard Gere and which was also scored by Moroder). 

Moroder asked his session drummer, Keith Forsey, to co-write the lyrics for the Flashdance theme with Cara. The young singer was reluctant at first to work on the project because of Moroder’s association with the biggest female name in disco then: Donna Summer. Cara’s concern was simple: In the event Flashdance bombed, she did not want to get branded as the star who “did not make it under Moroder” — unlike the global sensation that Summer already had become.

But once Cara connected with Forsey, she found him to be “very personable”, “very funny” and a “sweetheart”. She began to feel the tinglings of something promising.

Still, she had no idea what the movie was about. “It did seem to me to have a similar look in regards to Fame, so I figured, well, this is another performing arts film,” she said in a story retold by 

Cara told Forsey that the lyrics should describe the feeling of dance, and he came up with the line that inspired the working title for the song, ‘Dancing for Your Life’.

She said the song became “a metaphor about a dancer, how she’s in control of her body when she dances and how she can be in control of her life”.

Moroder also felt that the lyric “what a feeling” was right for the film’s story, but tried to persuade them to use the title of the film in the lyrics. However, it was only after the song was completed with the title ‘What a Feeling’, that ‘Flashdance…’ was added.

The rest, as the saying goes, was history.

Flashdance: What A Movie!

The 1983 romantic drama became a surprising box office success. With other major hits that included “Maniac” by Michael Sembello, “Lady, Lady, Lady”, by Joe Esposito, “Gloria” and “Imagination” by Laura Branigan, and “I’ll Be Here Where the Heart Is” by Kim Carnes, the Flashdance soundtrack album sold 700,000 copies during its first two weeks and went on to sell over six million copies in the U.S. alone. 

Irene Cara and Keith Forsey with their joint Oscar for “Flashdance … What a Feeling”

The “What a Feeling” song spent six weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and topped the charts around the world (it reached number two in the UK).

It also took the Oscar and Grammy in 1984 for best original song/score (Cara won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and  Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance). Moroder later said Cara “did absolutely fantastic work” for Flashdance. “When you first heard it, you said, ‘It’s a hit’,” he added.

How It All Began For Irene Cara

Irene Cara was born Irene Cara Escalera on March 18, 1959 in The Bronx as one of five children. She was three years old when she was one of five finalists for the Little Miss America Pageant. She began performing on TV on Spanish language programs then moved to performing on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show”. That got her a role as a band member of “The Electric Company”.

She began recording in Spanish and English, even releasing an English lyric Christmas album. Irene continued to perform live and then the theater bug bit her and she did many on-and-off Broadway shows with the likes of Shirley Jones and Raul Julia. She also participated in Roots:The Next Generation.

She hit the mainstream with her star turn acting and ended up performing two songs for 1980’s Fame with the title song “Fame” and “Out Here On My Own”. She is the only female star to have two songs up for the same Grammy, with “Fame” winning the award. That song was a #1 disco hit for one week. 

Cara also received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Coco Hernandez in Fame. The movie’s popularity spawned a TV show of the same name, which debuted on NBC in early 1982.

In 1982, her career went into overdrive and she appeared in “DC Cab” and sang a few songs there and eventually played Dorothy in “The Wiz”. Then came Flashdance.

Even after Flashdance, Cara continued to collaborate with Moroder from time to time and recorded and appeared in movies till 2004.

Adapted from tributes run by, NBC and ABC .


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