That attitude better becomes a prima donna than a Donna Summer. But no one denies that, at just 21, Irene Cara is hot stuff. She was a regular on PBS' The Electric Company at 13. She starred in her first movie, Sparkle, at 16. She has acted in Tony-winning plays like The Me Nobody Knows and in the original off-Broadway cast of Ain't Misbehavin'. In 1979 she portrayed Alex Haley's young mother in Roots: The Next Generations. More recently, she played opposite Powers Boothe as a mistress of the Rev. Jim Jones in the Emmy-winning Guyana Tragedy.
So, for Cara, Fame is the inevitable name of her game. "After all these years, it just makes sense," she says. "I've been working longer and harder than most adults." It doesn't bother her that some see her role as Fame's overly ambitious student singer-actress, Coco, as typecasting. "In talent and ability, Coco was obviously modeled on me," she airily concludes. "I'm very well known in New York with all the casting people. I got the role in Fame even before they heard me sing."
The movie is set in a school modeled after New York's High School of Performing Arts (which refused official cooperation). Though some of her co-stars are actually older than she, Irene blesses them all as "unaffected kids; they were great—they didn't need me for nothing."
Since its release, Cara's Fame hit has propelled the sound track LP to sales of more than 500,000, and now Out Here on My Own, her powerful ballad follow-up from the film, is also heading toward the top. Her musical training is solid—she once sang backup for Evelyn "Champagne" King and Lou Reed—and, post-Fame this summer, she was chosen to open Ray Charles' 50th birthday concert in L.A. (The critics were lukewarm, however, and one Hollywood exec in the audience groaned, "She should go back to doing background vocals—she's not a solo artist.")
Few can dispute her performing credits, however, which began at an early age. Raised the youngest of five in the now squalid South Bronx, she had "performing in the blood from the beginning. There's no childhood for a lot of kids in the Bronx—only survival and killing. But my career gave me a childhood." Her Puerto Rican father, Gaspar Escalera, a retired professional saxophone player, and her Cuban-American mother recognized Irene's talents early on and arranged for her training, which started with dancing lessons at 5. She attended private schools, among them the posh Lincoln Square Academy. "I had the most expensive education," Cara brags. "And my mom was the greatest stage mother. The money I made acting as a child went toward my schooling, but still my parents had to work all the time to pay for my education." (Her father worked in a steel factory; her mother as a movie theater usher.) Co-incidentally, Irene was accepted at the High School of Performing Arts (where Liza Minnelli and Al Pacino were once students), but did not attend because it would have meant giving up her paid work with The Electric Company.
Cara, who now lives temporarily in her mother's Manhattan apartment, can be feisty and at times abrasive. Eating in an L.A. restaurant, she became belligerent when a waiter took her still burning cigarette away and clamorously berated him to the maître d'. She remains hush-hush about the men in her life, but says she prefers to spend her time among close women friends. "Men have put me through so many changes," she complains. "They can't deal with me as just a person, as pretty and as talented as them. They get very 'Where's my Barbie Doll?' 'Where's my groupie?' " Though she doesn't frequent discos, she likes to go "partying until you see daylight and people start falling out."
Now Irene has been cast by ABC as an anorexia nervosa victim who befriends Jodie Foster in a forthcoming made-for-TV movie, The Best Little Girl in the World. Though she has her astrological chart read regularly, Cara isn't sure whether a Fame sequel is in the cards: "Yeah, maybe," she shrugs coolly, "called Failure."
She vows, "I'm gonna live forever," in her rousing hit from the movie Fame, but the real Irene Cara isn't about to wait that long. What's she done so far to get her name in lights? "You're obviously not from New York," Cara sniffs to an interrogator. "Everyone in New York knows what I've done."