Dwan Smith, left, Irene Cara and Lonette McKee in the original film of "Sparkle"… (Warner Bros., Warner Bros. )
Irene Cara was only 13 when she was cast as the title role in the original"Sparkle,"the musical-drama about three African American sisters who form a singing group in the late 1950s. Sparkle, the youngest of the group, ends up becoming a star.
There's been renewed interest in the influential 1976 film, which featured a classic R&B score by Curtis Mayfield, since the high-profile remake — starring "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks in the role Cara made famous and the late Whitney Houston, in her final film as Sparkle's mother — opened Friday.
Now 50, Cara remembers being embarrassed having to do love scenes with a grown man, a pre-"Miami Vice" Philip Michael Thomas, "in front of my mother. Oh, God! I think that was the worst of it."
Besides Cara, the musical also featured Lonette McKee, Dorian Harewood and Mary Alice. She recalls that the cast was "very respectful of me being a minor. I had worked as a child for many years, and there were situations where adults around me were not so considerate of my age and would behave in raunchy ways."
"Sparkle" launched Cara's career, which kicked into high gear four years later when she earned rave reviews as Coco Hernandez, the ambitious, multi-talented New York High School of Performing Arts student in Alan Parker's boisterous musical "Fame." She earned a Golden Globe nomination and two Grammy nominations for her recordings of the Oscar-winning title tune and the Oscar-nominated "Out Here On My Own."
She garnered even more recording success with "Flashdance..... What a Feeling" from the 1983 blockbuster "Flashdance." Cara, who co-wrote the song with Keith Forsey and composer Giorgio Morodor, won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and two Grammys.
"If you look at that period, Irene Cara captured the zeitgeist of that early 1980s," said music film historian Jon Burlingame. "I think she was so much a part of the pop music and culture of the time."
Cara continued acting, composing and recording and performing in concerts, especially in Europe. But for the past decade, Cara has all but disappeared from view. She may have been out of sight, but she continued making music. Cara has a two-volume album out, "Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel," and is planning a 20-city tour for next year, including a stop in Los Angeles.
"For the last 10 years I have been developing a band," she said by phone from her home in the Tampa Bay area, one of several places where she says she lives.
"I really wanted to put all of my energies into my project," she said. "I wanted to present a super group of extraordinarily talented women musicians and singers and songwriters. I started searching for really prominent women artists who were the whole package in my mind."
"Hot Caramel" is a "record for adults, it is not for kids or teens," said Cara. "There are several tunes that we wrote together and tracks we wrote separately. The second CD is a lot of jazz and even some live performances in the studio with the girls just jamming."
The Bronx-born Cara started in show business as a 3-year-old when she was a finalist in the "Little Miss America" pageant. Cara, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage, sang on Spanish-language TV as well as appearing on "The Original Amateur Hour," "The Tonight Show" and "The Electric Company" with Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman. After doing off-Broadway, she made her Broadway debut in 1968 with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy in the musical "Maggie Flynn."
Not only was "Fame" a watershed moment in her career, it also marked a personal independence. Cara admitted that most child actors like herself feel that they lost out on a childhood. So when she began making "Fame" she felt like rebelling against her parents.
"I left home," she said. "I got an apartment near where we were filming. I wanted to be my own woman and all of this. I started hanging out in nightclubs, and I was sowing my oats."
Cara said she wasn't asked to appear in the new "Sparkle" but was invited to the premiere, which she was unable to attend because of recent foot surgery.
She had met Houston a few times over the years. "I remember seeing her mother, Cissy, when I was little," Cara recalled. "I remember seeing her sing in New York. They were doing a tribute to Burt Bacharach. When Whitney came on to the scene, every time I saw her I saw a little bit of her mother in her."
Houston's death in February "is terribly tragic," she said. "I just hope ['Sparkle'] being her last project that people will see is an asset to her legacy."