In the 2002–04 PBS series American Family, she embraced her Hispanic heritage. The show revolved around a Mexican American family and its search for the American dream. Director Gregory Nava, also raised in La Jolla, sought out Welch for the part of Aunt Dora, the comic yet poignant sister of the family patriarch played by Edward James Olmos. "Raquel was always prepared and ready to rock, ready to improvise," he says. "We knew the show was something special for us."
Welch had the moral compass to avoid many of the pitfalls of being a young gorgeous superstar. "I'm the antidote to Lindsay Lohan," she says, laughing. "I know she misbehaves terribly, but sometimes it just seems like it's open season on her." When Welch was growing up, "women and young girls got the sense that they had to be in charge of what went on between them and men and society," she says. "If they didn't watch their p's and q's, they were going to get into trouble — with their reputation, a broken heart or any of the other possible complications."
She's held her own in a male-dominated industry, but celebrates the distinction between the sexes. "We try to do too many things that used to be in the men's domain, and we try to do them like men," she says. "I'm a prude — I guess you can tell that — but I think, 'Why would you do that?'"
Welch cautions against the prevailing trend of narcissism. "'My self-esteem,' 'my self-this,' 'my self-that.' Believe me, I've been there — I'm an actress," she says. "At one point you just get nauseous with it and think, 'I have to take my mind off myself!'"
To that end, six years ago she began working with the American Cancer Society as spokesperson and creative collaborator for Hair U Wear's line of Raquel Welch Signature Collection wigs. "When women go to the mirror and see their hair falling out, it's like they see the cancer winning," she says. "If they don't have to see themselves that way, it's very helpful with morale."
Welch and the company donate up to $1 million worth of wigs yearly to the American Cancer Society. Her involvement — she's worked with Hair U Wear since 2000 — garnered honors from ACS in 2009 and an AARP Inspire Award in 2010.
As she's sought to focus on others, she's also made an effort to spend more time with her family. She has strengthened her once-strained relationships with her children, Damon, now 51, and Tahnee, 49, and is close to her sister and brother. "I wasn't impossible before," Welch says, "but in the past 10 years I've made a concerted effort to think about what I have to do for other people, what I owe, what my part is in whatever relationship or situation I find myself in. It's getting older, I guess, that makes you think that way."