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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

(continued from page 1)

"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."

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