Erica Gimpel Irish Independent Interview 2010

Coco takes young Fame-seekers under her wing

Star of the original Fame television series, Erica Gimbel talks to Andrea Byrne about Ireland's strength.

I was told by countless people before I meet American actress and musician Erica Gimpel how virtually unchanged she is from her days as the all-singing and all-dancing teenager Coco Hernandez in the original Fame TV series. Even a photographer, who by profession is among the harshest of critics, extols her youthful virtues.

At 45, she remains wrinkle-free. Her body is like a gymnast's, all muscle, not a scratch of fat. She's model tall too.

You can see all this for yourself, as she's currently one of three judges on RTE's Fame the Musical -- a televised talent show which seeks to find the next best thing in musical theatre. "I have really become aware of how I eat," Erica says by way of explanation for her enviably trim physique. "I eat mainly chicken, fish and vegetables. I started yoga. It's also part of my spiritual practice."

Despite a Christian upbringing, Erica has been a strict Buddhist for 25 years. She chants twice daily and has even inspired her parents to follow suit. "It has really helped my whole outlook on life and the beauty of life, and how no matter what happens to you in the course of your life, the challenges, you use them as a source of growth. You use them as an impetus to transform your life. I think that outlook on life has really helped me to develop an appreciation.

"Of course, I have down moments like anyone else, but it's how you get up from them, how you view it. My Buddhist practice has really allowed me to take the gem of each experience and use it to go forward ... I felt that this really melded with what I was trying to understand about life."

Speaking about how she ended up transporting her life from Los Angeles to Ireland, albeit temporarily, Erica says, "So many of my friends were saying 'when are you going to get on Facebook?', but I wasn't too keen, then I just decided, right I'll just do it. Then I got contacted by Larry who is the producer of this show. He said, 'I'd be interested, if you'd be interested.'

"He and my manager spoke, and it sounded like a really interesting project and I liked the idea, specifically because it is giving young artists an opportunity to do something in theatre, which is an opportunity for them to really create a career. It's not just a one-shot deal."

With no obvious history of musical theatre in Ireland, was she surprised by the talent of the contestants? "I was," she says firmly before hesitating slightly, "I don't want to say I was pleasantly surprised... I always felt, even from the movies that I loved from Ireland, that there is this cry of the spirit, there is this strength, this power that exists here. I am seeing that in the talent, especially in their commitment to wanting to shine. I'm inspired."

Warm and friendly, Erica's toothy smile rarely disappears. She puts her sunny disposition

down to her Buddhist faith. Originally from New York, now living in Los Angeles, Erica is not married and has no children. She admits that there is "someone special" in her life, but is loath to elaborate.

As a junior in a prestigious performing arts school, Erica was plucked from relative obscurity (she had done some modelling) to star in Fame, which was to quickly become an international phenomenon. For Erica, it was a whirlwind, and at times, hard.

"We were all pretty new to it. Everyone deals with it differently. It brings out different things in you. You can either enjoy it or not. It made me question what it was that is important. It's so funny that the show is called Fame, because what I think I have learned over the years in the course of the journey of my career is that the notoriety comes and goes but what sustains you is the love of the work, or the love of your craft. The other stuff doesn't."

Erica has just released her debut album, entitled, Spread My Wings and Fly. All the songs on the album are self-penned. "I didn't have to let someone give me permission to do it. I am creating it. There is a great sense of freedom and empowerment".

With her finger in so many pies -- music, acting and TV -- Erica's career trajectory since Fame has stayed at a constant, healthy level. Appearances in ER, Veronica Mars and Grey's Anatomy are among her TV credits. And she hopes for a lot more. "The joke is, when you're not working that's the work, when you're working that's the vacation, because you're doing what you love."

Fame The Musical is broadcast every Sunday at 6.30pm on RTE 1

- Andrea Byrne

Sunday Independent

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