Raquel Welch defined big-screen glamor in the 1960s and ’70s. There were several screen sirens, but few happened to be Welch, with her striking looks, inspiring attitude and supposedly difficult reputation putting her in the history books. She may be gone, but there’s a treasure trove of a career to look back on.
Read on for more about this timeless beauty, including her tragic passing.
Raquel Welch studied ballet
Raquel Welch was born on September 5, 1940 as Jo Raquel Tejada. She spent the first two years of her life in Chicago, Illinois, before moving to California with her parents, Armando, an aeronautical engineer, and Josephine.
Her mother is described as having an Anglo-English background, and her overall family line was impressive. Welch’s grandfather was architect Emery Stanford Hall. Meanwhile, on her father’s side, her cousin, Lidia Gueiler Tejada, went on to become Bolivia’s first female president.
From a young age, Welch dreamed of becoming an entertainer. She began taking ballet classes at the age of seven, but was told in her teens that her figure wasn’t suitable for the medium. Not that this held her back. She was soon winning beauty contests, with her eventually being crowned the Maid of California.
“I was happiest in fantasy,” she told Rolling Stone in 1974. “I wasn’t good at dealing with reality. […] I wanted a storybook life, to be Rapunzel and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, all the beautiful ladies that wonderful men came along on their big white horses and dragged away. Which is not remarkable, a lot of kids grow up that way. But I decided it was gonna happen.”
Kickstarting her Hollywood career
In the late 1950s, Raquel Welch attended San Diego State College on a theater arts scholarship, securing roles in local stage productions. Her first on-screen job was factual, rather than fictional, as a weather forecaster on a local television station! While she tried to juggle everything, she soon had to give up her drama classes.
For several years, she was married to high school sweetheart, James Welch. Following their split in the early 1960s, she moved to Texas with her two children, struggling to make ends meet. It was then that Welch decided to relocate to Los Angeles and begin pursuing movie roles.
To help launch her Hollywood career, Welch teamed up with Patrick Curtis, who started as her manager, before becoming her husband from 1967-72. His advice to the burgeoning actor was to keep her first husband’s name, as her maiden one would have led to her being typecast.
Raquel Welch starred in many big-name movies
After a couple of very small parts on both television and the big screen, one of which was in the Elvis Presley film Roustabout (1964), she got her big break in the 1966 sci-fi adventure movie, Fantastic Voyage. Co-starring Stephen Boyd, Edmond O’Brien, Arthur Kennedy and Donald Pleasence, it told the story of a shrunken submarine on a perilous mission through the human body – and it was a smash.
However, before that spectacle burst onto the scene, audiences encountered Welch in the cave girl picture, One Million Years B.C. (1966). “I had made another movie which was a big step up for me,” she said of Fantastic Voyage in an interview with the Sunday Post. That “should have been released before One Million Years BC but the special effects delayed it, so I was the dinosaur lady first and the science lady second.”
Much was made of her infamous fur bikini, which drew as much attention, if not more than, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs. “Almost every day I get copies of the photo sent to me for an autograph,” she revealed.
Despite being the star of this Hammer Film classic, Welch’s dialogue was virtually non-existent. “I had three lines in that, the rest was silent. I rehearsed those three lines over and over, really worried I’d get them wrong. As it turned out I don’t think anyone would have really noticed if I hadn’t got them right!”
Raquel Welch’s looks meant she was often pigeonholed
This contrast between Raquel Welch’s outward appearance and artistic ambition meant she was often pigeonholed. Speaking with The Scotsman, she mentioned confident views of her performances. “I’d taken the bull by the horns by liberating myself and creating a career,” she said. “It took guts – it was scary and chancy – but they discounted me as empty-headed, some little piece of fluff without any brain that happened to come along.”
Welch definitely earned her acting stripes over the years. She starred in the spy comedy Fathom (1967) and was the embodiment of Lust in Bedazzled (1967). In the 1970s, she appeared in diverse fare, such as the Western, Hannie Caulder (1971), and the black comedy, Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). Her performance as Constance Bonacieux in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies is also fondly remembered.
In the 1980s, Welch famously sued MGM after they fired her from the film adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s Cannery Row (1982) and replaced her with the much younger Debra Winger. The situation is believed to have set back her career. She acquired a rep for being challenging to work with. In some cases, she rolled with that. A guest appearance on Seinfeld (1989-98) saw her playing herself as a stroppy diva who roughs up half the main cast.
As far as Welch was concerned, she did what she had to. “I needed to be a little tough to break through,” she told The Scotsman. “But at one point I found myself being just a little too much. I told a few people off, and that wasn’t at all what I should have done.”
Welch’s honesty was also present in her behavior toward the public. In the Sunday Post, she said, “I remember James Stewart telling me a long time ago never to avoid your fans or the things that your fans like about you. It was good advice.”
Passing of an icon
Four husbands and a string of awards later – including a Golden Globe for The Three Musketeers (1973) – Raquel Welch was proof that hard work and a level head pays off. “I am not fussy and don’t go to great lengths to try and preserve what I have,” she told the Sunday Post. “I’m just a normal person.”
Welch died in Los Angeles on February 15, 2023, after a “brief illness,” according to a statement from her manager. She was 82.
In April 2023, TMZ obtained a copy of the icon’s death certificate, which stated that her official cause of death was cardiac arrest. It also revealed that Alzheimer’s disease was an “underlying cause […] that initiated the events leading to death.” Welch hadn’t revealed the illness publicly before she passed away.