No matter how Raquel Welch approached it, she was saddled with an image — that of a buxom bombshell from the 1960s — without much of a long-term future. Yet this summer, she's enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
Born Raquel Tejeda of a Bolivian father and an American mother, Welch suppressed her Latino background early in her career for fear of being stereotyped. Now, it's one of the reasons she is back on the screen in this, her 60th summer.
Welch plays a widow in search of a new husband in the movie Tortilla Soup. She's featured as a Latino mother in the PBS series An American Family. And she takes a comic turn in the film Legally Blonde.
In her early 20s, she was the most visible and highly promoted sex symbol in Hollywood. Her name is among the first three women listed in Playboy magazine's ranking of the sexiest women of the 20th century.
But unlike the other two sirens at the top of that list — Marilyn Monroe, who died at 36, and Jayne Mansfield, who died at 34 — Welch has survived to reflect on her image and what she's done to make it different.
"I know I was a nice little piece of T and A," Welch says. "But there's been a … a lot … good-looking girls with nice racks, you know, in this planet. And they didn't do anything with it."
The Perils of a Pinup
Her breakout came in a 1966 movie called One Million Years B.C. She posed as a cave girl for what became the biggest-selling poster up to its time. She says the poster represented a new kind of sex symbol.
"That one image of me — with the arms akimbo and the legs spread apart — that's not a pinup girl that you saw any time before," she says. "I think that photograph caught the essence of that rather formidable new woman."
But Welch says she wasn't comfortable with her image and struggled to move beyond it.
"It's a very scary thing to be a sex symbol," she says. "It sort of obliterates everything else. And I was always fighting in that I was just struggling to get out."
When Welch fought for better roles, she gained a reputation for being difficult. Her career stalled at 40 when she was taken off the cast of the film Cannery Row.
Then, in 1982, she took a job that some thought she could never fill: She replaced Lauren Bacall on Broadway in the musical Woman of the Year.
It was tough adapting to a role with no retakes, but she astounded critics and got uniformly good reviews. "The curtain came up and I just, I couldn't believe it … they liked what I did," she said, "Somehow I got through to people."
In addition to acting, she's about to launch a line of high-end skin care products and has a line of wigs, which she has marketed for several years. She still practices yoga, which she credits with helping her maintain her looks and maintain her sanity during the hard times.
"I had these blocks that I had about trying to live down my image … this sex symbol thing," she says. "I suddenly stopped being ashamed, I stopped being angry… I'm connecting with me, the real me."