Fifty years, three more husbands and scores of TV, movie and theater roles later, Welch still seems larger than life. Today she's wearing Dolce & Gabbana leopard-print sandals with serious heels. Hoops the size of bracelets dangle from her ears and twinkle with diamond chips. She has the gleaming skin of a 30-year-old and a soft voice, both melodic and patrician. Her upbringing in La Jolla, California, didn't prepare her for Hollywood. "They used to say, 'La Jolla is full of nearly-deads, newlyweds and damned old geraniums,'" she says. "It's a pretty affluent community, but when I left, I learned how protective and insular it was. I wasn't exposed to the big, bad cruel world."
Christened Jo Raquel Tejada, Welch was a high school beauty queen, crowned Miss La Jolla and Miss San Diego County — The Fairest of the Fair. Her mother was born in the United States, of English descent, and her father was a Bolivian engineer who came to the United States to study. In part because of the challenges he faced assimilating as a teen, he rarely alluded to his background or family. Spanish was never spoken in the home.
Early in her career, Welch had a contract with Fox Studios and spent years overseas. The spotlight was exciting and daunting, but her children helped ground her. "When I first came to Hollywood," she says, "other people may have thought, 'You poor thing, you don't have a car, you have two children, what possessed you?' But it made me focus. I didn't know if I did right to leave Jim and thought, 'This thing better work for me, and I better really keep my eye on the ball and be careful.'"
Caution notwithstanding, she was brave in her choices, starring as a transsexual in 1970's Myra Breckinridge opposite John Huston, Mae West and Farrah Fawcett. Filming was rough, with script changes and new directions daily. "I'd go into the bathroom and cry," she says. "John Huston knocked one time and said, 'Now Raquel, what seems to be the problem?'" (Her impression of his gravelly voice is dead on.) "I said, 'I'm worried we're going to make a bad movie.'"
She was right — the film was a flop. But a few years later, she won a Golden Globe as the accident-prone young maiden in The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Diamonds, a much happier set.
At one point, Welch attempted to retire her sex-bomb image and be taken more seriously. "I wasn't getting the romantic, lovely parts," she says. "I was kind of exotic for this country, not the girl next door. I'd go up for a role and they'd say, 'Oh, no, you look so European. What are you anyway?' I'd say, 'Well my father is from Bolivia.' 'Bolivia! Where is that?'"
For a brief period she buttoned up her appearance, patterning her look on Mary Tyler Moore: "I flipped my hair and put a bow in — to make myself look less exotic. But at some point I said, 'I'm not going to fight it. This is what makes me different.'"
Next: Embracing her Hispanic heritage. »