Actor Raquel Welch, who redefined the image of a Hollywood sex symbol in the 1960s, passed away February 15. She was 82. The news was confirmed to The New York Times by Welch's son, Damon Welch.
Born Jo Raquel Tejada September 5, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, Ms. Welch was the first child of a Bolivian aerospace engineer, Armando, and the English descended Josephine Sarah Hall. When Ms. Welch was two, the family moved to San Diego, California, where Ms. Welch was soon enrolled in dance classes, initially pursuing a career as a professional dancer before being told at 17 that she did not possess the right body type for a career in ballet.
Ms. Welch's natural figure became an asset, however, when she shifted her focus toward the pageant circuit. At 14, she won her first regional titles as Miss Photogenic and Miss Contour, later winning Miss La Jolla, Miss San Diego, and eventually, the state title of Maid of California.
Ms. Welch was able to parlay this beauty pageant career into work as an actress, attending San Diego State College on a theatre arts scholarship. While enrolled, she married her high school sweetheart, James Welch, and would use his last name as her professional surname for the rest of her life. The pair separated after the birth of two children, Damon and Tahnee, with Ms. Welch moving to Dallas, Texas to support her children through work as a cocktail waitress and a model for Neiman Marcus.
In 1963, Ms. Welch moved her family back to California, where she teamed up with agent Patrick Curtis to devise a plan to turn her into the sex symbol of the decade. In order to avoid stereotypical casting, Mr. Curtis convinced Ms. Welch to continue to lose her ex husbands last name rather than reverting to her Latiné maiden name, and the pair quickly began to build a public image for Ms. Welch that was equal parts strong and sensual.
After small roles in A House Is Not A Home and the Elvis Presley picture Roustabout, Ms. Welch was featured in a LIFE Magazine spread, which caught the attention of producers at 20th Century Fox, who signed her to a nonexclusive seven year contract. While the studio urged her to change her first name to Debbie to further minimize her South American identity, she resisted, and the unique power of her first name became a calling card throughout her career.
In 1966, Ms. Welch appeared in One Million Years B.C., and a production still of her in a fur bikini caused a sensation, becoming one of the most popular posters of all time, and catapulting her to the position of the pinup girl of the decade. Through her image, the American sex symbol stereotype transitioned from the blonde bombshell to the smoldering brunette, with Ms. Welch immediately drawing comparisons in visual power to Marilyn Monroe. Ms. Welch immediately capitalized on the attention, working with Ms. Curtis to control her narrative as a sex symbol in order to reach the level of stardom to which she aspired. In time, the pair would form their own production studio; Curtwel.
On screen, Ms. Welch would star in Fathom, Bedazzled, Bandolero!, Lady in Cement, 100 Rifles, Flareup, The Magic Christian, Myra Breckenridge, The Last of Sheila, The Wild Party, and more. While producers would attempt to strongarm her into appearing nude on screen, Ms. Welch would firmly refuse, developing a shorthand to deal with so called 'sex pests' in the industry that other actors would adopt in her wake. Playboy would go on to name her the Most Desirable Woman of the 1970s.
In 1981, Ms. Welch came to Broadway, replacing Lauren Bacall in the musical Woman of the Year. Ms. Welch received rave reviews, hailing her as a showstopper and a wonderful dancer. She would take over the role for a second time in 1982 before returning to the screen. In the mid 1980s, she took MGM to court for breach of contract after they conspired to blame her for the production delays of a film adaptation of Cannery Row; Ms. Welch won more than $10 million from the lawsuit. The incident caused Ms. Welch to be blackballed by the industry, alongside her 40th birthday, which caused several producers to believe her viability as a sex symbol was behind her.
She attempted a career as a pop singer, releasing "This Girl's Back in Town" in 1987, which reached #19 on the Billboard Dance Club charts. She returned to Broadway in 1997, again as a replacement, this time for Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, which Ms. Welch would lead for the final month of its run.
She maintained a one-woman nightclub act in Las Vegas for many years, produced signature lines of wigs, jewelry, and skincare, and a series of health videos and books titled The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program, which reached multi-platinum status. In 2007, she was named a Beauty Icon by Mac Cosmetics, producing a line of beauty products emblazoned with tiger print packaging to play on the "feline sensuality" Ms. Welch was branded with during her height of fame.
Ms. Welch and Mr. Curtis married in 1967, divorcing after six years of marriage. Additionally, she was married to André Weinfeld, and restaurateur Richard Palmer. Ms. Welch is survived by her children.