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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Disappearing years

According to the birth date listed by actress Irene Cara, she would be 26 in this photo from July 2, 1990. The Associated Press places her age at the time as 31.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Colleen Long Associated Press

Twenty-four years ago, starring in the movie “Fame,” Irene Cara promised us that she would live forever.

Now she may be trying to fulfill that dream. A recent dispute over the correct birth date for the 40- to 45-year-old Cara is just the latest example of an age-old debate in the parallel universe called celebrity.

It seems the famous are as scared as always of getting old. And publicists, eager to please their clients, are still fibbing to keep their starlets young.

Cara, whose real name is Irene Escalera, says she was born March 18, 1964. But several media outlets, including The Associated Press, have her birth date as March 18, 1959.

Cara’s publicist, Bernie Roswig, recently called The AP requesting a correction on the year to 1964. But voter registration records from Florida, where she lives, have her birth year as 1959.

“There is no one more sensitive about their age than Irene,” said Roswig. “But she is adamant she was born in 1964. I can’t explain the voting record, and there’s no way she wants to talk about it.”

Cara indeed refused to comment when contacted.

Dale Olson, a veteran publicist who has worked with stars such as Rock Hudson and Laurence Olivier, admits that he has lied about clients’ ages.

“I didn’t feel bad doing it. I was protecting my clients’ wishes,” he said. “I think it’s a touchier subject now more than ever.

“There is such a concentration on youth now. Our society is focused on it.”

Olson said he is often asked to remove clients’ birthdays from lists, especially the birthday segment on the “Entertainment Tonight” television show.

“A lot of this depends on the security of the individual,” he said. “This is a business that causes insecurity. There is so much competition to be young and beautiful.”

Especially when older actresses can lose roles to younger women.

Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones recently fumed about rumors that she has shaved a few years off her age.

“If I look older, I’m so sorry,” she told W magazine. “I’m not a klutzy, stupid woman, and you know, that comes with maturity. Ask any smart woman out there. If people think I look old, there’s nothing I can do about it. I turn 35 this year.”

Nancy Alspaugh and Marilyn Kentz are writing a book called “Fearless Women: Portraits and Stories,” which profiles women of all ages and professions, including film and music stars. But they’ve had trouble finding celebrities willing to reveal their ages.

One star, whom they would not name, agreed to do the book and then had second thoughts when she discovered her age was going to be included.

“Age is a big no-no in L.A.,” Alspaugh said. “You can’t get old. And there’s a whole bunch of people hiding from it.”

During the studio system heyday in the 1950s, executives would dictate stars’ ages. In some cases, a press release would say the leading lady was 16 when really she was in her mid- or late 20s.

“And that’s not even old,” said publicist Harlan Boll. “There was not as much pressure on men like Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra. Even today this is true.

“If they keep their hair, they pretty much have it made.”

“The American public doesn’t really forgive people for getting older,” he said.

Esther Williams, the long-legged swimmer who made most of her movies in the water, said age was always kept quiet. She was never asked to lie about her age but says she knew many actors, such as Elizabeth Taylor (who is billed as being 72), who did.

“You can’t stop the clock,” said Williams, 82. “They wanted Judy Garland to look like a child, but she was turning into a beautiful woman.”

Williams said her age was always documented because she was a champion swimmer while young. But she still didn’t publicize her birthday, mostly because it wasn’t common practice to do so.

“Looking at it now, I think we ought to just count our blessings,” she said. “You get old. It happens, but oh, what life we had when we were young.”

Often, a star’s true age isn’t revealed until after he or she dies. Actress Mercedes McCambridge, who died March 2, gave her birthday as March 17, 1918, because she wanted to be two years younger. Her obituary revealed her true age of 87.

Actress Claudette Colbert, who died in 1996 at age 92, was born in Paris on Sept. 13, 1903. Three years later her father brought the family to New York City. Her passport listed her year of birth as 1905, a mistake she did not bother to correct until she was 75.

Still, there are publicists who encourage their clients to come clean about their age, and there are stars who don’t care if the world knows they aren’t as young as they used to be.

“I’ve never lied about my age,” said supermodel Naomi Campbell, 34. “My grandmother has no wrinkles, my mother has no wrinkles, so I’m not bothered. I think if you worry about it, then you end up with trouble.”