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COCO'S MESSAGE IN FAME IS "BELIEVE IN YOURSELF" - IT'S ERICA'S MOTTO, TOO!
BY KAY ANDERSON

People think I'm mysterious?" Erica exclaimed in astonished tones. "Why?"

We were sitting in the audience seats of the school theatre set on Stage 28, one of Fame's two permanently assigned sound stages at MGM.  It was late in the day and Erica's scenes were all finished, but she had stayed late specially to talk to the Official Fame Magazine.  We had to keep our voices down because shooting was still in progress on a set on the other side of the huge sound stage building.

"Because no-one knows much about you," I replied"and they're all curious about you."

In the sheaf of information on Fame that is supplied by the studio publicity office, Erica's biography is the shortest of all, less than one page.  She very rarely gives interviews, and at press conferences for the show or the tour she gives intelligent, clear, thoughtful answers to questions but seldom just makes comments or volunteers information.

She shook her head, puzzled.  "But that's not being mysterious," she protested.  "Everything important is in there." She tapped the biography sheet I was holding.  "What else does anyone want to know?"

It turns out that Erica is one of the least big-headed show-business people you could hope to meet.  She cannot understand why anyone should admire her so much that they should want to find out all about her, to try and identify with her.  She's obviously given the subject a great deal of thought, and she revealed her conclusions by harking back to something that happened earlier this year.

"I was thinking of this same thing when we were in England on the tour.  In the show I sang a song called 'Be Your Own Hero', and I was looking at the audience and thinking that it was kind of ironic, I could see that some of the people in the audience were really admiring us and thinking 'Oh, I wish I could be like them,' or maybe even, 'I'd like to be like Erica Gimpel,' yet the song is about looking within yourself and finding your own dream and not putting your hopes and ideals into someone else.  Here I was, singing to people who maybe look up to me and what I was saying was 'No, no , it's not us it's you, it's in YOU. You have just as much light and excitement and spirit within yourselves as you see in us!' "

As we talked, Erica leaned towards me with the same sort of quiet intensity that we see on the screen in the character she plays, Coco Hernandez.  Erica is calmer, more poised and contained than Coco, though.  Coco dashes about, full of excess energy, and is often frustrated through trying to do too many things all at once!  Erica, though, has her energy under control, and while she always seems to skip and glide, ever in motion, she never appears to be in a big hurry.

She has an interesting quality of stillness sometimes, an ability to focus herself on one thing and not let herself be distracted.  When she is playing the piano in the rehearsal hall, for instance, she often just won't hear someone who's speaking to her.  She simply tunes them out!

That ability to concentrate has served Erica well.  She is the youngest of the Kids, having just turned nineteen this past summer on June 25th.

While the first series of Fame, was being filmed, she was still in high school.  She kept up with her studies by working with a tutor on the MGM lot for several hours every day, but she had to be written out of some of the episodes so that she could return to New York to take some courses she needed in order to pass her final exams.

In 1982, she finally graduated from New York's High School For The Performing Arts, the real-life model for the School of the Arts in Fame. She had been a student at PA, as the school is called, when auditions for Fame were held there, and her outstanding talent for acting, dancing and music couldn't fail to impress the MGM executives. Though she was only seventeen, she already had ten years of stage experience behind her as she had toured the United States and Europe with her mother, singer Shirley Bash, in the play "Porgy and Bess", and had also been a member of a New York theatre company.

Almost all the Fame kids talk about how different Los Angeles is from New York in nearly every way, and how it took them a while to adapt.  For Erica, it must have been an even bigger change.  She grew up in an apartment in mid-town Manhattan, which is the cultural and artistic heart of New York City where the museums, theatres, art galleries and concert halls are located.

"It's all very artistic and exciting there, and I miss the energy of New York," she said a little wistfully.  "California is nice and I like the countryside and the beach, but everything is so spread out that it's hard to get around."

Fortunately for her, she's just passed her driving test and now happily zips around in her modest rented car, a blue Dodge Colt.  Before, she did her commuting from her apartment to the nearby studio lot on a bicycle, carrying her books, clothes, scripts and shopping in a blue back-pack.

For quite a while after she moved to Los Angeles to work on Fame, her mother Shirley and her father, short story writer Joseph Gimpel, took turns living with Erica, as they were worried about her being so far away from home on her own.  She says she doesn't have any boyfriends but sometimes goes places with the other Kids. The person she was closest to was Lori, and Erica misses her very much now that she has left the show. She's a very sporty, active person and loves cycling, and roller-skating on the boardwalk at Venice Beach.  She also enjoys swimming.  Music, of course, is another great love of hers.  As well as playing the piano extremely well, she also plays the guitar and is taking lessons from Paul Simon's brother, who is a fantastic guitarist. Many of the Fame stars play instruments that we never see them play in the show. Valerie plays the guitar and the viola, Morgan Stevens plays the guitar, the other new student in the third series, Billy Hufsey, plays five or six instruments ranging from the piano to the saxophone, and Michael De-Lorenzo also plays several. Wouldn't it be fun to see a jam session with everyone demonstrating his or her 'secret' musical talent?

Erica spends a lot of her free time taking classes in acting, singing and music. "It's a continuing thing," she commented.  "You don't just become an actor by getting some roles, and that's that.  You keep working on it.  You can only get better."

She worries that the computer age is going to have a bad effect on acting and imagination.  "I see all the young kids playing video games instead of let's pretend," she said regretfully.  "I think computer games are taking people away from human contact and imagination because everything is visualised for them by the machine. I just hope kids continue to play and make things up."

Erica has a soft, gentle voice, and unlike Coco's words, which come tumbling out of her in a lilting cadence, she speaks fairly slowly, without any ums or ahs while she's searching for the right phrase to express herself. "Coco's accent is Spanglish," Erica explained, "as in Spanish-English.  It's a Puerto Rican accent, since Coco is supposed to come from Spanish Harlem."

Spanish Harlem is a tough, poor district north of Manhattan and south of the Bronx, where immigrants from Puerto Rico and the West Indies gather in neighbourhoods that are not known for making dreams come true, especially dreams of fame in the performing arts.  Coco needs her fierce determination and ambition just to keep herself going, but Erica thinks that her screen character is becoming gentler and more peaceful as she grows up.  "I admire Coco," Erica admitted.  "She has a hard life, but she's very idealistic and dedicated."

"If Coco were a real person and you could sit down and talk to her, what would you tell her?" I asked Erica.

"I would tell her that I hope she keeps on believing in herself as strongly as she does," she replied thoughtfully.  "I think that people are going to try to persuade her to do other things or to go a different route, and they'll tell her that she is too idealistic. I would tell her to try to play characters who are individuals, not just ethnic characters who are pigeon-holed by what they look like.

"And, most of all, I would tell her to keep on believing and striving, because whatever you want and strive for can be yours if you work hard enough ."
 
 

This interview was provided to me by Stuart Farrell.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

Copyright © 1997-16, Pamela Rosensteel | Return to top