If there’s one poster that boys of a certain age had on their bedroom walls its was Raquel Welch in her ‘One Million Years BC’ fur bikini but the actress was far more than that and fought most of her career to escape that persona.
Born Jo-Raquel Tejada on 5th September 1940 in Chicago. She was half Bolivian – half American and aged only two years old her family soon moved to San Diego where her parents divorced when she was a teenager. A bright student she entered and won beauty pageants including Maid of California in 1958.
At 17 she had wanted to be a ballet dancer but soon realized that she didn’t have the figure for it but by 18 years of age, having dropped out of university, she had married the first of what would be four husbands in her life. She had two children one of which Tahnee would go on to be an actress herself. Raquel began taking acting lessons funded by her job as a weather girl for a local TV station. Her first marriage lasted five years before she divorced. Now living in Dallas she made ends meet by working as a model and waitress before moving to Hollywood as a single mother auditioning for minor roles.
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By 1965 she appeared in Life magazine and the exposure got her a 5 year contract with 20th Century Fox where she landed her first significant role in the fantastic, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966) but it was her next film that would make her a superstar overnight. The film was ‘One Million Years BC’ where she appeared as a cavewoman in a fur bikini and it was the poster that would make her a sex symbol icon and her on screen sexuality burnt up the screen something that she embraced in a bid to defy her strict father. Her status as sex symbol was assured and yet despite pressure from studios and producers she never shot a nude scene in any of her films. That same year she married her second husband Patrick Curtis and interest was immense with the public and paparazzi at the ceremony was delayed to allow police to clear the area.
The films that followed included Bedazzled with Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, Bandolero with James Stewart and 100 Rifles that featured the first interracial love scene opposite Jim Brown in a major studio film. As a sex symbol Raquel Welch saw feminists dismiss which she felt was unfair because as a single mother she had raised her children alongside a successful career and began to take far more serious roles sometimes in films ahead of their times notably as the lead role in ‘Myra Breckinridge’ (1970). Based on Gore Vidal’s novel the film saw her cast as a transsexual woman but the film was terrible not helped by rumours of on-set bust ups with her co-star Mae West. The film bombed and Welch hated the end product.
Despite her dramatic roles she really had an untapped flair for comedy best seen in ‘Three Muskateers’ (1973). So good was she in the film that it rightly earned her a Golden Globe. A sequel the following year followed. The 1970’s saw her appear in less successful films and perhaps the nadir was in 1981 when having been cast in ‘Cannery Row’ she was replaced within days of shooting by Debra Winger who was 15 years younger. Raquel Welch took out a law suit against the studio and eventually, six years later, she won her case and was awarded almost $11m in damages. Though she won the battle it cost her roles and she was never cast in a significant role in a feature film from thereon.
She had acquired a reputation for being ‘difficult’ but was the first to acknowledge that her looks gained her a career but would also prevent her being cast in certain roles but as her career progressed through the 1990’s onwards she seemed to have made peace with how she was perceived and found herself in demand on TV movies and shows that included cameos in Seinfeld, Sabrina the teenage Witch and CSI Miami leading to a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame in 1996.
The 1980’s saw her become a fitness guru in the same way as Jane Fonda and she produced books and videos which her third husband Andre Weinfield photographed and directed, She also started a business in wigs and hairpieces that was immensely successful. Cosmetic product endorsements also followed.
Having largely avoided talking about her ethnicity she came to embrace and talk openly and proudly about her Bolivian origins and began taking Hispanic and Latino roles. By 2008 she was going through her fourth divorce this time from Richard Palmer who was 54 years old to her own 68 years of age.
She never really escaped her sex symbol image and In 2010 she told a journalist, “I think they thought I was an emptyheaded girl with a nice rack and parlayed that into everything. That wasn’t my idea at all, but it turned out to be the Hollywood idea of me. Sometimes being in the world of being in movies and commerce and being in the public eye, you can’t really always choose the path that you want necessarily.”
She died 15th February 2023 aged 82 years old