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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

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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."

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