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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.

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