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Raquel Welch: The Goddess Factor

From Cocktail Hostess to international icon, the actress-entertainer considers life beyond her sex symbol image.
David Giammarco
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

"I think I was always more intimidated by my image than anyone else," Raquel Welch admits with a wry laugh. "I mean, there's a tremendous loss of self, because you really are in a job where this image has been created. You get tired, you wake up ugly, you don't have anything new to say to people and you feel like a lemon that's had all the juice squeezed out of it.

"And especially in the beginning," she continues, "you feel like you are going to be discovered as a fake. Like everyone is going to think, 'Well, why did we think she was so great?' It's human nature to pick people apart, and you just can't stand that you're under all this scrutiny. And yet at the same time, you're saying, 'I'm the luckiest person in the world because I've got this chance that everybody dreams of having.' It's really bittersweet."

It was 1966 when Racquel Welch first aroused a worldwide stir, bursting on the scene in a now-infamous fur bikini in One Million Years B.C. Thirty-five years later, Welch proves she still knows how to own the room. Sitting for an interview at her palatial Mediterranean-style home nestled in the Hollywood Hills, Welch is dressed in snakeskin-tight leather pants and a white stretch T-shirt. She radiates an energy so palpable, you could probably wipe out California's electricity crisis by simply hooking her up to the West Coast power grid. Sporting a healthy golden-brown tan, tousled auburn hair and a dazzlingly white smile, there's simply no mistaking that the bombshell gods broke the mold after they created Raquel Welch.

Her living room walls are adorned with numerous paintings and photographs. Framed snapshots of her two children -- Tahnee, 39, an actress (1985's Cocoon, for example), and Damon, 41, a computer consultant and actor -- line the fireplace mantle, as do pictures of Welch in loving embraces with husband Richard Palmer, whom she married in 1999. An autographed photo of Welch with Burt Reynolds is perched near the sofa. It reads: "I've loved you for over 20 years -- no reason to stop! Love always, Burt."

Reynolds' sentiment is unquestionably one still shared around the world. A recent British survey listed Welch as one of the Top 10 sexiest stars in film history, while Playboy magazine's list of the 100 sexiest stars of the twentieth century placed Welch third -- right behind Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

"She was the single woman that I most wanted to have in the magazine," admits Hugh Hefner, who finally got his wish when Welch consented to a rather risqué Playboy shoot back in 1979. "She seems to be ageless. Good genes, health food -- I'm not sure what it is, but it's magic."

With one look at Welch, you quickly realize that not much has changed since she first broke the stereotype of the vulnerable sex goddess. Except that now, at 60 years old, she is finally at peace with her legacy.

"I think whether you're Gwyneth Paltrow or Raquel Welch or Jennifer Lopez, there's a certain thing about that white-hot moment of first fame that is just pure pain," she says. "It's just not comfortable. I felt like I was supposed to be perfect. And because everybody was looking at me so hard, I felt there was so much to prove. It was an enormous burden. But I do think that part of that was my fault, because I couldn't adjust. I think I could've been just a little more patient with myself and not taken some of that early criticism so seriously."

Welch says she understands the obsession with physical beauty. "I like beautiful people, I like beautiful things, I like beautiful poems, beautiful literature, beautiful paintings. I love beautiful nature. But the thing that was so piercing for me was that things aren't beautiful without substance. It's like a plastic flower; it looks so attractive and you want to take in the fragrance, but then you go to inhale and you suddenly realize there's nothing there. And I felt like I was getting into that, that I was sort of in danger of having that happen to me. Because I think I soaked in too much the way that people were objectifying me, and the more that they did, the more I did."

Welch pauses, gazing out the window at the darkening woods near her home, recalling that pivotal, and overwhelming, period of her life. She continues, but her voice has now lowered to a soft whisper. "I really think that sexuality -- if you are a person than can elicit that kind of response -- gives you a lot of power in a way. But it's a very specific thing. It doesn't really open the door to other things, because sexuality is traditionally something that's behind closed doors. So really then, you're only a fantasy figure. And if you're a fantasy figure, nobody wants to wake up from the dream. Nobody wants you to be in real situations.

"It's just not very fulfilling to be a 'thing' day after day."

Proving that she had much more to offer than mere beauty would become Welch's unrelenting ambition. "For anybody who is ever called a sex symbol, there's always a massive misconception," she points out. "It isn't that they've gotten it so much wrong; it's just that they know only a sliver of who you are."

Welch was born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago on September 5, 1940, to Armand Carlos Tejada, a Bolivian immigrant of Castilian Spanish extraction, and his American wife, Josephine Sarah Hall, who could trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower. "My mother came from a very well-educated family; she was very straitlaced," recalls Welch. "My father had a strong Latin influence, which was very passionate, very temperamental, very highly emotional."

By 1942, Armand, who worked as an aerospace engineer at Consolidated Aircraft Corp., was transferred to General Dynamics in San Diego. The family settled in a small stucco house in La Jolla, two blocks from the beach. Within two years, young Raquel had been joined by a brother, James, and a sister, Gale. Welch remembers that growing up in her household was tension-filled due to the volatile nature of her father. She would find escape by immersing herself in ballet classes and spending all of her free time engrossed in the flickering images of the silver screen. Going to her local movie house, she recalls, "was like a transcendental experience. You could go into another world and invent another reality."

At La Jolla High School, the extroverted Raquel became not only a star cheerleader, but also a straight-A student who was vice president of her senior class. She continued her dance lessons throughout high school, as well as performing in productions of the school's drama club. But while the other kids were spending their free time at the beach, Welch was already dedicating herself to a career goal.

"It was always the same: volleyball, surfing, beer bus parties; it was a yawn," Welch says with a laugh. "I just wasn't into any of that. I was going to my dance classes and rehearsing for plays and had homework -- I just thought it was a colossal waste of time to sit on the beach all day." While still in high school, Welch had received her first taste of fame -- and the entertainment world -- by winning a number of beauty contests, including "Miss Photogenic." She would later add "Miss La Jolla," "Miss San Diego," "Miss Contour" and "Maid Of California" to the list.

In 1958, she entered San Diego State College on a theater arts scholarship, and the following year she married her high school sweetheart, James Welch. Within a year, they became the parents of son Damon. Welch continued her show-business aspirations and soon became the weather girl at a San Diego TV station. But the demands of her studies, family life and television duties eventually took their toll, and Welch decided to drop out of college. By the time she gave birth to daughter Tahnee in December 1961, her marriage had begun to fall apart, and she and her husband divorced soon after.

With children in tow, Welch moved to Dallas, where she modeled for Neiman-Marcus and worked as a cocktail hostess. She was hoping to begin a stage career in New York and was working her way east. But with only $200 to her name, Welch decided that she couldn't afford the cross-country trek and took her children back to California. She moved to Hollywood, where she began making the rounds of studios and talent agencies by bus and on foot. She eventually landed a couple of bit parts, including one in the 1964 Elvis Presley musical Roustabout.

"It was the first Hollywood movie I had ever had a day job in -- I had maybe one line," says Welch. "I was just a girl in this sort of roadhouse sequence, where we all gathered around, and Elvis did a musical number. But I was just so excited. I was going to see Elvis up close; I couldn't believe it." It was her first brush with her childhood idol.

Welch had resolved to not be relegated as simple eye candy in bit parts. A chance meeting in a Sunset Boulevard coffee shop with a young Hollywood publicist named Patrick Curtis helped facilitate her ambition. Curtis offered to manage her career, and helped her land a modest role in a 1965 teenage beach movie called A Swingin' Summer, which prompted a Variety film critic to remark: "It's hard to look away when she's in view."

Burt Reynolds echoes that when he describes the first time he laid eyes on Welch. It was in 1964, and she had just won the job of "Billboard Girl" on an ABC weekly variety show.

"I remember Raquel's effect on the American psyche when she walked across the stage on 'The Hollywood Palace' with a card in her hands," says Reynolds. "It was staggering. When she came on stage, I mean, you didn't look at anybody else."

Welch's voluptuous beauty was soon causing a sensation in Hollywood. Before long, she was invited to screen test at 20th Century Fox for the James Coburn film Our Man Flint. Then, word came that Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, producer of the James Bond series, wanted Welch as his next Bond Girl. When Fox studio head Richard Zanuck got wind of the 007 offer, he swiftly signed Welch to an exclusive contract.

Her first featured role turned out to be of microscopic proportions when Fox cast her in the 1966 sci-fi film classic Fantastic Voyage, where she played one of the doctors miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a dying scientist in order to save his life. By the time Fantastic Voyage became a box office hit, Welch was already in England on loan to British horror studio Hammer for what would become her film breakthrough: One Million Years B.C.

As a cave girl named Loana, Welch uttered only three words in the entire film. But it was a single production still (turned poster) of Welch, clad in little more than strategically placed strips of fur, that spoke volumes; it became one of the iconic images of its day. (The poster even plays a small but key role in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption.) The 5-foot-6 beauty was suddenly an international sex symbol.

"I do think that there are certain images, both in film and stills, that have that kind of magic impact on us," explains Hefner. "It freezes a particular moment -- a magic moment -- that becomes part of our pop culture history and has a tremendous impact on us. It runs the gamut from Betty Grable's pinup to Raquel Welch's Million Years B.C. poster."

Welch quickly learned, however, that being a sex symbol wasn't what she had expected. "They really didn't want any other input from me. I had all these ideas and ambitions percolating inside, but nobody wanted to hear them. I remember trying to talk with directors and they would say, 'Could you just not think and not have any ideas, please!' It kind of felt like doors were being closed to my soul."

But the actress is quick to qualify that by saying she was partly to blame. "I hate carrying on about how the image victimized me, because I don't really think it's true," she admits. "I think that I played along with that in order to get a break. I tried a lot of different ways, and that was the way the break came. I had tried a much more serious approach and was getting absolutely nowhere. And as soon as I said, 'OK, well then, I'll do the Hollywood thing -- I'll wear the tight dresses and go to the auditions all sparkling like I see everybody else doing it, because I clearly [had not been] playing that game.' And then it ended up working only too well. I trapped myself."

But Welch was bent on proving otherwise. In 1967, she and her children moved to Europe with Patrick Curtis, where she got film roles around the continent. She starred alongside Edward G. Robinson and Vittorio De Sica in The Biggest Bundle of Them All, Marcello Mastroianni in Shoot Loud, Louder...I Don't Understand and Monica Vitti and Claudia Cardinale in Le Fate. While in Paris, Welch and Curtis married -- which caused a media sensation as hordes of paparazzi tried to storm the city hall where the ceremony took place.

After stealing the show from the other six deadly sins as lust incarnate in the 1967 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook Faustian comedy Bedazzled, Welch returned to the United States, where Fox quickly paired her opposite some of Hollywood's leading men, including James Stewart and Dean Martin in the bloody Western Bandolero! and Frank Sinatra in his Tony Rome detective mystery Lady In Cement. In 1969, she teamed with football-star-turned-actor Jim Brown in the controversial Western 100 Rifles, which featured the first interracial love scene in a major motion picture. But then in 1970, Welch's risky decision to portray a transsexual out to conquer Hollywood in Myra Breckinridge proved to be a box office and critical disaster. Eager to try a new direction, Welch and her husband decided to produce her next film, Hannie Caulder, but the box office reaction was less than stellar.

Welch and Curtis divorced in 1972, and having grown increasingly frustrated by the confines of her career, Welch took it upon herself to produce her next film, Kansas City Bomber. For Welch, the drama about women's professional roller derby offered her a role where her sexuality would not compromise the integrity of her character. "I thought it would be a way of shaking up my image," she says. "I was playing a mother for the first time, and I was playing somebody who had struggled against a lot of adversity. It was a bit of a breakthrough for me, because people suddenly realized there was another dimension to me."

After starring opposite Richard Burton in Bluebeard that same year, Welch launched a one-woman show in Las Vegas, where she displayed her singing and dancing skills as well as spoofed her career as a sex symbol. It was an instant success. Soon the King himself came to pay his respects. Welch was thrilled to be meeting Elvis again -- she had been singing some of his songs in her act -- but was quickly shattered by how fame had taken its toll on her childhood idol.

"He came to my dressing room and it was a little surreal," she recalls. "His face was all man-tanned and he was wearing this powder-blue jumpsuit with this giant belt buckle. He used to be so cool and now he was like a complete dweeb. I'm probably going to be a real heretic to all who love him, but I was just thinking, 'How could this have happened to him?' He had the big muttonchop sideburns, dyed black hair, and was so…plasticized. He didn't look happy at all, and had put on quite a bit of weight. And he was wearing rings on every finger and kept insisting on showing them all to me. He kept saying, 'See my ring?' and kept looking at himself in the mirror as he held out his hands. I was really crushed."

Welch sighs as she considers how the pop icon's life had deteriorated. "The whole thing was a real tragedy," she says. "He was in a state of arrested development and never got to graduate. Colonel Parker always referred to him as 'The Boy' and kept him on a leash. They never allowed him to grow. If only he had been allowed to expand; who knows what kind of man he would have grown into?

"They always talk about the myth of Elvis, but they never do the real behind-the-scenes story," she adds. "And maybe they shouldn't, because he's an icon to so many people and it's important for them to keep him that way."

Word of Welch's comedic flair on the Vegas stage spread, and soon director Richard Lester came calling, casting her as the klutzy Constance in the comedy The Three Musketeers opposite Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway and Michael York. The film was a hit, and Welch's whimsical performance earned her a Best Actress Golden Globe Award and the validation she had been seeking.

"The Three Musketeers turned out to be a real eye-opener for me, because I had no idea that I was good at comedy," Welch says with a laugh. "I had no clue I was being funny while I was making it. But Dick [Lester] really opened up a whole other side of me." Welch followed up with two more comedies, The Four Musketeers and Mother, Jugs & Speed.

Welch met French screenwriter Andre Weinfeld in 1977 and, after a three-year relationship, they wed. Meanwhile, she began headlining her own nightclub act, playing to sold-out crowds from Vegas to Atlantic City, and in concert halls from London and Paris to Rio de Janeiro and Toronto. She also continued making films in Europe, including 1977's The Prince and the Pauper and L'Animal, costarring Jean-Paul Belmondo.

In December 1980, Welch was tapped to star in the much- anticipated feature film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. She relished the chance to take her career to a new level, but after four weeks of filming, she was abruptly fired by MGM. The studio claimed she was not living up to her contract, by refusing early-morning rehearsals and insisting on doing her own hair and makeup. Welch filed suit against MGM for damages and was eventually awarded $11.8 million in 1986. But the fallout from rattling the Hollywood cage proved devastating for the actress, as she was quickly blackballed by the industry. "It basically brought my film career to a screeching halt," she says of the infamous lawsuit. "It was numbing."

Shunned by Hollywood, in 1982 Welch accepted the lead role in the Broadway musical Woman of the Year, replacing Lauren Bacall. Welch was critically praised and ticket sales boomed. "After so many years, it finally gave me the legitimacy that I had been searching for," she notes. "I was able to knock everybody's socks off because they didn't know that I had all these cards up my sleeve."

Welch would spend the rest of the decade away from feature films, instead focusing primarily on television dramas such as The Legend of Walks Far Woman and 1987's Right to Die, in which she earned a Golden Globe nomination for her moving portrayal of a woman dying from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Welch's business savvy also came into play in the '80s when she wrote the best-selling book, Raquel: The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program, and produced a series of yoga fitness videos that established her as a leading figure in the field. "I had discovered yoga when I was about 35 years old and it was like a panacea for me," she explains. "It got me through a lot of highs and lows in this business. In yoga, they say that real strength is in your flexibility. If you take an oak tree and you hit it with lightning, it's going to crack and break. But the reed, it flows back and forth in the wind and keeps coming back up. And that is the thing about me -- I always come back up."

But in 1990, Welch suffered another setback when her marriage to Weinfeld ended in divorce. She would devote most of the 1990s focusing on her career, mostly in comedic vehicles. She returned to the big screen after an absence of more than a decade for a cameo in the comedy Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult and guest-starred in numerous TV shows, from "Lois and Clark" and "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch" to a recurring role on "Spin City." She also did a hilariously memorable turn on "Seinfeld," in which Kramer (Michael Richards) faced the wrath of her amped-up diva behavior. "I was completely over the top with it," Welch says with a laugh. "And then when I saw it, I thought, 'I bet you people will actually believe that I'm really like that.' It was supposed to be a spoof of a diva, but maybe I did it too well!"

Soon after, Welch was back on Broadway, replacing an ailing Julie Andrews in the gender-bending musical Victor/Victoria. The problem-plagued production closed after six weeks, and Welch soon returned to television for the lead in the nighttime soap "Central Park West."

All the while, Welch had resolved to go it alone. "Since the time I was 15, I'd had one relationship right after the other," she says. "I thought maybe I was defining myself by the man in my life. I was thinking to myself, 'Don't look for love -- it's better just to live your life.' "

Welch's solo plan worked for a while, but then she met Richard Palmer, a Bronx-born actor turned businessman, now 45, who owns a successful chain of pizzeria restaurants in Southern California.

"It's funny, but when you're not paying attention and not looking for love is when it happens," Welch says with a distinct twinkle in her eyes. The couple wed in 1999, and Welch insists that the fourth time is the charm. "I hate to say it, but this time I'm taking it seriously," she says, smiling. "I think it's the first time I've been an adult in all my long life. I feel like I'd been playing adolescent; now I'm finally understanding. I mean, you can't always do the self-serving, fun thing or make the decisions that you would like to make all the time.

"After the '60s happened -- as great as it was to throw the whole culture on its ear and shake things up -- things became so hedonistic in the '70s and '80s, where everybody was just into pleasing themselves, to such a point that there was just no room for any relationship. Because that would mean you would have to really consider -- and not just be considerate -- all the time, 24 hours a day, someone else and their way of being. That's the totally unselfish thing. And you can't do that when you're walking around with adolescent behavior. I mean, it was fun, but I made so many mistakes that way."

It also helps, adds Welch, that Palmer isn't in show business. "I felt like I needed somebody really solid, somebody that I could rely on that isn't going all into trippy things in their head," she says, "and that they aren't also fighting with me over mirror time. Richie is a real man. I think we really make a great couple because there is something kind of strange about us. We're very different, from totally different worlds. But at the same time, we're very alike. So in a funny kind of way, that makes up for all the differences and helps us understand each other."

Welch has two feature films due for release this year. In the comedy Legally Blonde (costarring Reese Witherspoon), Welch plays the bitchy ex-wife of a murdered tycoon. "It's a hysterically funny movie," she enthuses. The other film, Tortilla Soup, is an independent production that carries great significance for Welch. She describes it as a Latin version of the 1994 Ang Lee film Eat Drink Man Woman -- with Hector Elizondo heading a Latin cast.

Welch admits it was freeing to finally acknowledge her heritage. "A lot of people don't even know that I'm half Spanish," she says. "I never embraced it, didn't advertise it; it was kind of an empty area for me." She says her father wanted to fully assimilate the family into American culture and consequently never spoke Spanish around them or celebrated the culture. "I was never ashamed of my heritage, but I think he was; there was always this gap.

"I'm at an age now where I'm looking back and examining my life. I think it's great to [emigrate] here because of the American Dream and to be part of the American culture, but not to cut off the roots of what is real and what is your heritage. Tortilla Soup was a big awakening for me. All of a sudden, I felt this synergy; my real self really came out."

A smile spreads across her face. "I guess I was always a confused personality, really," she says. "There was that Anglo side, but then there was that much more emotional and expressive side to me. The way I use my hands -- my Latin thing was there all along, and that's probably partly why people didn't know what to do with me. With my kind of temperament and personality, I wasn't exactly the girl next door. So now, I've realized that I was always making adjustments for that. Thank God I'm finally getting to play my own nature."

Welch is savoring this next chapter of her life with a renewed vigor. She's writing and developing several projects, including a television show, "Raquel's Eye on Style," a feature-length comedy called Hoodwinked and a television sitcom pilot, "One of the Boys."

"I really enjoy creating things on my own," she says. "I'm going into a whole new direction, which I've been wanting to do for so long. I want to be more true to my own voice now."

She lets out a laugh. "I mean, I've fulfilled almost everybody else's fantasy all these years, so now it's time for my own."

David Giammarco is based in Toronto and Los Angeles.

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