Raquel Welch, who turned 80 on Saturday, is one of the rare sex symbols to enjoy a long, successful life, marked by a fascinating, illustrated profile in Closer USA. She was arguably the first American actress to achieve comparable pin-up status after Marilyn’s death, and perhaps this is because she was strong, brunette, with a very different look to the fifties bombshells.
She was born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago. Her father was an aeronautical engineer from La Paz, Bolivia; and her cousin, Lidia Gueiler Tejada, would become Bolivia’s first female president. The family moved to San Diego when Raquel was two years old. She studied ballet as a child, and began entering beauty contests while still at high school. She would eventually win the state title, Maid of California, and a theatre arts scholarship to San Diego State College.
Although her parents divorced after she finished her education, it’s probably fair to say that Raquel had a more stable, and comfortable upbringing than her fellow Californian, Norma Jeane Baker – which doubtless served her well in later life. Nonetheless, the young Marilyn would also find her beauty was a ticket into the entertainment world, albeit via modelling rather than pageants. And both women would first marry the boy next door – in Raquel’s case, her high-school sweetheart, James Welch.
As with Norma Jeane’s marriage to Jim Dougherty, the Welch union would not last. However, Raquel would have two children during this time, while also working as a weather girl on local television. After separating from her husband, she and the children moved to Dallas, where she took jobs as a model and cocktail waitress.
She returned to Los Angeles in 1963 and began trying out for movie studios. Hollywood agent Patrick Curtis, who became her second husband, persuaded her to keep her first married name to avoid Latina typecasting. (She would marry twice more, before choosing the single life in 2004.)
In 1965, Raquel signed a five-year contract with Marilyn’s former home studio, Twentieth Century Fox. After playing the lead in a sci-fi movie, Fantastic Voyage (1966), Fox loaned her out to Britain’s Hammer Studios for the role that would make her a star – One Million Years B.C. The image of Raquel Welch as a prehistoric ‘glamazon’ in a fur bikini became almost as iconic as Marilyn’s turn on the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch, just over a decade before. She then appeared in another British film, the comedy Bedazzled! (1967), and co-starred with Frank Sinatra in a detective movie, Lady In Cement (1968.)
After playing a transgender woman opposite a hostile Mae West in the much-hyped Myra Breckenridge (1970), Raquel sought out more credible roles in films like Kansas City Bomber (1972), while also displaying her showgirl prowess in a TV variety special. She won the 1974 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her swashbuckling role in The Three Musketeers (the same award Monroe had won in 1960, for Some Like It Hot.)
Nonetheless, like Marilyn before her, Raquel found it hard to escape the sexpot image, and in later years, would work increasingly onstage and in television. In 1982, she successfully sued MGM for breach of contract after being fired from Cannery Row. However, the victory was bittersweet as she found herself blackballed by the industry for years afterwards (in an echo of Marilyn’s own battles with Fox.)
Closer USA‘s illustrated profile ends with some interesting thoughts from Raquel on her predecessor as America’s Most Wanted…
“I felt like there was always a struggle. There was the perception of, ‘Oh, she’s just a sexpot. She’s just a body. She probably can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.’ In my first couple of movies, I had no dialogue. It was frustrating. And then I started to realize that it came with the territory. Look at somebody like Marilyn Monroe. I always wondered why she seemed so unhappy. Everybody worshipped her and she was so extraordinary and hypnotic on screen. But they never nominated her for any of her musicals or comedies, as good as she was. Because for some reason, somebody with her sex appeal, her indescribable attraction, is rarely taken seriously. Hollywood doesn’t honor comedy and it doesn’t honor sex appeal. And they definitely don’t give awards to either of them. So you always feel a little insecure.”