Raquel Welch: The Goddess Factor
From Cocktail Hostess to international icon, the actress-entertainer considers life beyond her sex symbol image.
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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.