An Award-Winning Performer Reflects on Her Climb to the Top and the Price She's Paid for Fame

updated 07/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ask anyone—anyone who isn't—to imagine what it's like to be famous. Invariably, visions of stretch limos, vast wardrobes, glitzy parties and adoring fans spring to mind. But those who have won their spot on center stage know that fame has its less savory side—the captious reviews and snide rejections, the loss of anonymity and its freedom, and friends and lovers who turn out to be interested only in hitching a ride to the top. For someone who starts out in the business as a youngster, as Irene Cara did, the star trip can sometimes seem like steerage.

At 25, Cara is an accomplished singer, actress and composer, and an 18-year showbiz veteran. The youngest of five children of a black Puerto Rican father who is a retired musician and a mother of Cuban-French descent, Cara grew up in the Bronx. She started performing at age 7 on Spanish-language television, moved on to Broadway a year later, then to film and TV roles. Her performance as the intensely ambitious Coco Hernandez in the 1980 movie Fame, plus her recording of the title song, put her firmly over the top. This year, her best to date, she has already copped three major awards: a Golden Globe, an Oscar and a Grammy, for her hit song, Flash-dance...What a Feeling. Her new single Breakdance is in the Top 10.

Cara's success carried a hefty premium, however. It has lost her friendships, earned her a reputation for arrogance and forced her to face her emotional growing pains in public. She took time out from filming City Heat with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in Los Angeles to talk with correspondent Lois Armstrong about the price she's paid for fame.

Ever since I was 5 years old my parents kept telling me that I was a star. Even my friends were fascinated by my musical abilities and thought that I was special because of them. That confused me as a child. I was happy that people loved me, but early on I began to ask myself, "Do I have to be special to be loved? Doesn't anybody care about the Irene who is just Irene?" As I grew up I came to the realization that I had to tap into what I thought was special about me and stop trying to be what everybody else felt I should be.

My dad was in the Latin end of show business. He knew all the Hispanic Johnny Carsons and Merv Griffins, and I would perform on their TV shows. Like any parents, mine pushed me, and I worked very hard. My mother would take me on auditions. In fact, my first 10 years in show business were mainly auditions. I didn't complain because I was with a lot of other kids doing the same thing. There were times, though, when the whole thing was just too nerve-racking. Sometimes I would cry if I didn't get a part or if a friend got it instead. But usually I got everything, and that was even harder to deal with. If I got a part and my friend didn't, there was a lot more guilt involved.

When I was 8, I was in my first Broadway show. It was my first experience with a stage manager, set designers, costume people all running around, and it was scary. You had to be here at a certain time and there at a certain time, and if you were late, they'd yell at you and your mother. I was enrolled at Lincoln Square Academy near Lincoln Center so I could tour with the show. It was geared for actors, not like the school in Fame that trains you to dance and sing. This was just academic. If you were on the road, they had correspondence courses, and you had longer to complete tests. Robby Benson was there. He was this little bookworm. Pia Zadora went too. She was a sweet little girl. I had a crush on Scott Jacoby. Everybody did. He was the most popular kid in the school.

In my mid-teens I went through a two-or three-year period when I didn't work as an actress. I put all my energies into music, doing record work as a background vocalist and learning studio technique. At the time I thought, "Oh, my God, I'm unemployed." But looking back on it, it was a blessing, because by the time Fame came around, I was ready.

When I was 17 years old, I left home to live with drummer Leo Adamian. It was like leaving one parent for another. The fact is, I was never really single until I turned 21, right about the time of Fame when Leo and I broke up. I was devastated, frightened and alone. I was no longer sheltered by boyfriends or parents. It was just me. The first two years were rough. I would be rejected by men for what I was instead of who I was, and it made me angry and bitter. If I had been introduced to guys as a sweet, pretty girl who worked in an Automat, I would have been married 10 times over. But because I'm a famous, successful woman, I can't even get a phone call on a Saturday night. I find that men pursue me and then flee. Maybe it's a conquest thing, a feather in their cap, like "Irene Cara's in love with me." There are times when I've felt like a freak.

People, especially the press, think performers dream only of becoming famous, that we're out here just for attention or glory that we don't deserve. It's a very unfair stigma. A lot of people sing and dance and act not because they want to be looked upon as God's gift to the earth, but because that's what they do. It's a profession, a craft, and we should be given the same respect as doctors and lawyers, but we're not. It's something I've had to deal with, and I admit I haven't always dealt with it well. I've been too honest and said things that were then taken out of context and used against me. Some interviews have made me out to be cocky, and it hurts.

It was particularly bad during the Fame period, when I became famous to everyone. The press only wanted to talk to Coco, not Irene. I was accused of being arrogant because that's what Coco was. I'd agree to do interviews and then I'd say, "What did I do to make people write this?" I realize that I'm very schizophrenic in that sometimes I'm introverted and insecure and other times strong and confident. That can be misunderstood by people who don't know me, but I have better judgment than to be rude or insulting. It made me feel awful. I was talking as Irene, and nobody was interested. I finally got very closemouthed and defensive with journalists. I've learned what people to avoid, and I don't give interviews when I'm feeling bitchy. I'd rather be left alone than have a blurb appear that is not true.

It's not that I've gotten more flak than anyone else. This happens to every artist when they first get on the scene. Nevertheless, around the time we did Fame, I didn't trust anybody. I had three or four friends I thought really loved me but who ended up being the worst enemies anyone could want. One befriended me during a show and became my closest buddy. She ended up having an affair with my boyfriend behind my back and trying to get into my circle of friends so she could work. She succeeded. She's a brilliant singer, but she's no longer with my ex. Another friend, someone I wrote some of my best songs with, ended up saying horrible things about me to other people. I've learned from my naïveté. I just don't assume anymore that everyone is nice and friendly. I forgive these women and feel sorry for them, but they're certainly out of my life.

My friends are in my hometown, New York. There I can go out to a club and be myself. I can have a few drinks if I want and get a little bombed. No one is looking at me under a microscope. I love working in Hollywood and even dealing with the Hollywood community as an artist, but when I go home, I can go out in curlers and get the groceries like everyone else, and I don't get flak for it. In L.A. I would.

I can't say that my life has been a continuous series of problems. Maybe I did lose something in my childhood and maybe I didn't. But there were times when, instead of being appreciated for being the new thing on the scene, I was attacked for it. Just last year I auditioned for a movie and was turned down for really dumb reasons, like for being too young, which I knew wasn't true. It was like they called me in just to put me down. Why would people go to such lengths to hurt someone they didn't know? Because I was Irene Cara. I'm sure they got off on it, but the pain is there, and it computes in your psyche and in your brain.

But there is also the appreciation, when people come up to you and say, "I exercise to your record every morning," or "I loved you in that movie." That means you're worth something. Winning the Grammy and the Oscar were rewards for all the work. I went prepared to lose. Let's face it, some of the greatest recording stars have never won Grammys. Also, I was a little miffed that I had to perform instead of sitting down in my pretty dress like everybody else. I was shocked when they said my name. I thought maybe there was a mistake. Before, I was just honored to lose to Olivia Newton-John or Donna Summer.

I'm going through what most people my age in any profession go through—evaluating who they are, what they want to be. I haven't always handled things right, and I'm still messing up. The key is never to dwell on the things that didn't work out. Those opportunities for failure are always going to be there. It's how you assess them and motivate yourself to overcome them that will make you happy.

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