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Raquel Welch: Aging Beautifully

Sex symbol reveals what’s behind the glitter: career highs and lows, helping cancer patients and more

The signature leopard-print clothes and decor hint at the sexy side of Raquel Welch. But she's also funny, entrepreneurial and a self-proclaimed prude.

That last bit of news might come as a surprise as you chat in her home high in the hills of Los Angeles. But the camisole she's wearing under the sheer leopard-print blouse barely camouflages the famous attribute headlined in The New York Times best-seller Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage. Today she's focused on redecorating.

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"I moved in before going on tour with the book," says Welch. "I took everything I had from another house. I have different ideas now about where I want everything. I'm having fireplaces, a staircase and window shades put in. That's just the beginning!"

spinner image Raquel Welch, Profile of sex icon Raquel Welch at 70
Raquel Welch is looking good and doing good.
Photo by Art Streiber

Slideshow of Raquel through the years

Welch, born Sept. 5, 1940, is settling in but not settling down — personally or professionally. Unlike most celebrities, she wrote every sentence of her book, a combination of memoir, observations and beauty advice. "It was girl talk for me," she says. "I felt like people had me on a pedestal, and they didn't know there was this other person. They saw the poster but they didn't really know the story behind it."

She's referring, of course, to the poster from her 1966 movie, One Million Years B.C., the one with a voluptuous, long-legged Welch swaddled in a doeskin bikini that struggles to keep her decent.

She hadn't expected much from the movie — she may have been its heroine but she uttered only a single line: "Me Loana, you Tumak." But the poster catapulted her to instant fame as America's reigning sex symbol.

"I was a bigger-than-life persona before I was anyone in my own mind," she says. Just 26 at the time, the single mother of two toddlers was separated from their father, her high school sweetheart Jim Welch. "I regret that I didn't give that marriage more of a chance," she says.

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.'"

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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.'"

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."

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