Welch's unique persona on film made her into an icon of the 1960s and 1970s. She carved out a place in movie history portraying strong female characters and breaking the mold of the submissive sex symbol. She won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical or Comedy in 1974 for her performance in The Three Musketeers. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Television Film for her performance in the film Right to Die (1987). In 1995, Welch was chosen by Empire magazine as one of the "100 Sexiest Stars in Film History". Playboy ranked Welch No. 3 on their "100 Sexiest Stars of the Twentieth Century" list. In 2011, Men's Health ranked her No. 2 in its "Hottest Women of All Time" list.
Welch was born as Jo Raquel Tejada on September 5, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Armando Carlos Tejada Urquizo (1911–1976), was an aeronautical engineer from La Paz, Bolivia, born to Agustin Tejada and Raquel Urquizo; Welch was named after her paternal grandmother. Her mother, Josephine Sarah (née Hall; 1909–2000), was the daughter of architect Emery Stanford Hall and his wife Clara Louise Adams, and was of English origin, originally of Salford, Lancashire, that dated back to the Mayflower. She has a younger brother James "Jim" Stanford and younger sister Gayle Carole.
The family moved from Illinois to San Diego, California when Raquel was two years old. Welch attended the Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church every Sunday with her mother. As a young girl, Raquel wanted to perform. She studied ballet from age seven to seventeen but gave it up after her instructor told her that she didn't have the right figure. At age 14, she won beauty titles as Miss Photogenic and Miss Contour. While attending La Jolla High School she won the title of Miss La Jolla and the title of Miss San Diego – the Fairest of the Fair – at the San Diego County Fair. These long line of beauty contests eventually led to the state title of Maid of California. Her parents divorced when she finished her school years.
Welch graduated from high school in 1958 and a year later married her high school sweetheart, James Welch on May 8, 1959. They had two children, Damon (born November 6, 1959) and Latanne Welch (born December 26, 1961), but they separated in 1962 and divorced in 1964. She married producer Patrick Curtis in 1967 and divorced him in 1972. In 1980, she began a 10-year marriage to André Weinfeld, whom she divorced in 1990. Welch wed Richard Palmer in 1999 but then separated from him in 2008 and later divorced. Welch has stated that she does not intend to marry again.
Seeking an acting career, Welch won a scholarship in drama, took classes at San Diego State College and won several parts in local theater productions. In 1959, she played the title role in The Ramona Pageant, a yearly outdoor play at Hemet, California, which is based on the novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson and Bob Biloe.
She got a job as a weather forecaster at KFMB, a local San Diego television station. Due to her demanding work schedule, she quit college. After her separation from James Welch, she moved with her two children to Dallas, Texas, where she made a "precarious living" as a model for Neiman Marcus and as a cocktail waitress.
Welch initially intended to move to New York City from Dallas, but moved back to Los Angeles in 1963 and started applying for roles with the movie studios. During this period of time, she met one-time child actor and Hollywood agent Patrick Curtis who became her personal and business manager. They developed a plan to turn Welch into a sex symbol. To avoid typecasting as a Latina, he convinced her to use her husband's last name.
She was cast in small roles in two films, A House Is Not a Home (1964) and the musical Roustabout (1964), an Elvis Presley film. She also landed small roles on the television series Bewitched, McHale's Navy and The Virginian and appeared on the weekly variety series The Hollywood Palace as a billboard girl and presenter. She was one of many actresses who auditioned for the role of Mary Ann Summers on the television series Gilligan's Island.
Welch's first featured role was in beach film A Swingin' Summer (1965). That same year, she won the Deb Star and was noticed by the wife of producer Saul David, who recommended her to 20th Century Fox, where with the help of Curtis she landed a contract. She agreed to seven-year nonexclusive contract, five pictures over the next five years and two floaters.
She was cast in a leading role in the sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which she portrayed a member of a medical team that is miniaturized and injected into the body of an injured diplomat with the mission to save his life. The film was a hit and made her a star. She was the last star to be created under the studio system.
Fox Studio loaned Welch to Hammer Studios in Britain where she starred in One Million Years B.C. (1966), a remake of the Hal Roach film, One Million B.C. (1940). Her only costume was a two-piece deer skin bikini. She was described as "wearing mankind's first bikini" and the fur bikini was described as a "definitive look of the 1960s". The New York Times hailed her in its review of the film (which was released in the U.K. in 1966 and in the U.S. in 1967), "A marvelous breathing monument to womankind." One author said, "although she had only three lines in the film, her luscious figure in a fur bikini made her a star and the dream girl of millions of young moviegoers". A publicity still of her in the bikini became a best-selling poster and turned her into an instant pin-up girl. The film raised Welch's stature as a leading sex symbol of the era. In 2011, Time listed Welch's B.C. bikini in the "Top Ten Bikinis in Pop Culture".
In 1966, Welch starred with Marcello Mastroianni in the Italian film Shoot Loud... Louder... I Don't Understand for Joe E. Levine. The same year, she appeared in the film Sex Quartet (1966) as Elena in the segment "Fata Elena". She was the only American in the cast of the anthology film The Oldest Profession (1967); her segment was directed by Michael Pfleghar. In Italy, she also appeared in a heist movie for MGM, The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968). It co-starred Edward G. Robinson who said of Welch, "I must say she has quite a body. She has been the product of a good publicity campaign. I hope she lives up to it because a body will only take you so far."
Welch did with Fox her first starring vehicle, the British Modesty Blaise-style spy movie Fathom (1967), filmed in Spain. Second unit director Peter Medak said Welch "was at that time quite inexperienced, exactly like one of those American drum majorettes. But she tried very hard and went to see the rushes each day, gradually improving. 'Who's this dumb broad?' people used to say. But I said: 'You wait. I'll bet she makes it.' I liked her very much because she was such a genuine person. And she had a beautiful body which always helps." Welch said her role was "a blown up Barbie doll." Reviewing her performance, the Los Angeles Times film critic said that "each new Raquel Welch picture brings further proof that when Maria Montez died they didn't break the mold. Like Maria, Raquel can't act from here to there, but both ladies seem to have been born to be photographed... this sappiest of spy pictures."
At this stage, Welch owed Fox four films, at one a year. She and Curtis also established their own production company, Curtwel. Fox wanted Welch to play Jennifer in their adaptation of The Valley of the Dolls but she refused, wanting to play the role of Neely O'Hara. The studio was not interested, casting Patty Duke; Sharon Tate played Jennifer North.
In England, she appeared as lust incarnate in the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore comedy, Bedazzled (1967). It was popular, as was a Western, Bandolero! (1968), which co-starred her against James Stewart and Dean Martin. "I think she's going to stack up all right," Stewart said of Welch. "No one is going to shout, 'Wow it's Anne Bancroft all over again'," said Welch of her performance, "but at least I'm not Miss Sexpot running around half naked all the time."
In 1968, Welch appeared with Frank Sinatra in the detective film Lady in Cement, a sequel to the film Tony Rome (1967). She played the socialite Kit Forrest, the romantic interest of Tony Rome. Welch said later wittily that she catches the film from time to time and now realizes Kit Forrest was an alcoholic: "I'm watching this movie and I'm thinking, 'What the hell has she got on?' At one point, I had this epiphany: 'Oh, she's an alcoholic!' I didn't know that. How could I miss that?" She reportedly was so smitten with Sinatra that she forgot to act: "I think I was just so enamoured with Frank Sinatra, you know. He's hypnotic."
Welch starred as a freedom fighter leader in 100 Rifles, a 1969 western directed by Tom Gries and filmed in Almeria, Spain. It also starred Jim Brown, Burt Reynolds and Fernando Lamas. The movie provoked publicity and controversy at the time because it included a love scene between Welch and Brown that breached the Hollywood taboo of on-screen miscegenation. The film is remembered for the famous and spectacular "Shower Scene" in which Welch distracts the soldiers on the train by taking a shower at a water tower along the tracks. The director, Gries, tried hard to convince Welch to do the scene naked, but she refused. It was one of the many instances Welch resisted going nude on-screen and pushed back for years against producers who wanted her to act or pose nude. In 1969, Welch also starred in the thriller Flareup for MGM.
Welch's most controversial role came in Myra Breckinridge (1970). She took the role as the film's transsexual heroine in an attempt to be taken seriously as an actress, but the movie was a failure. The production was characterized by constant animosity between Welch and Mae West, who walked out of the film for three days. The film was based on Gore Vidal's controversial bestseller about a man who becomes a woman through surgery. The film's producer Robert Fryer stated: "If a man were going to become a woman, he would want to become the most beautiful woman in the world. He would become Raquel Welch".
Her looks and fame led Playboy to dub her the "Most Desired Woman" of the 1970s. Welch presented at the Academy Award ceremony several times during the 1970s due to her popularity. She accepted the Best Supporting Actress Oscar on behalf of fellow actress Goldie Hawn when she could not be there to accept it.
In 1970, Welch teamed up with Tom Jones and producer/choreographer David Winters of Winters-Rosen Productions for the television special Raquel!, considered by some viewers to be a classic pairing together of 1970s popular culture icons in their prime. The multimillion-dollar television song-and-dance extravaganza was filmed around the world, from Paris to Mexico. The show featured lavish production numbers of classic songs from the era, extravagant costumes, and guests including John Wayne and Bob Hope in the Wild West.
In the early 1970s, Welch starred and produced the films The Beloved (1970), filmed in Cyprus, and Hannie Caulder (1971), a Tigon and Curtwell western shot in Spain. She followed with a series of films that included Kansas City Bomber (1972), The Last of Sheila (1973), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Wild Party (1975).
In Kansas City Bomber Raquel Welch played a hardened derby star and single mother that tries to balance her desire for a happy personal life and her dreams of stardom. Life dubbed Welch the “hottest thing on wheels” for her role. The production of the film shut down for six weeks after Welch broke her wrist doing some of her own stunts. In the interim, she flew to Budapest and filmed a cameo in Bluebeard (1972) opposite Richard Burton. Although Kansas City Bomber was not considered a critical success, it vividly depicted gender relations in the early 1970s. In a 2012 interview with GQ, Welch reflected on the roller derby world depicted in the film: "You have all those women out there, but the men in the front office are really running it. Which I thought was a really nice metaphor for the way a lot of women felt about their lives at that time."
In a 1975 interview, Welch said she thought she had been "good" in Kansas City Bomber, Myra Breckenridge and The Last of Sheila "but being good in a bad movie doesn't do anything for your career."
In the late 1970s, Welch appeared in the action comedies Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976) and Animal (1977), the last one filmed in France with Jean-Paul Belmondo. In 1977, she also starred in the British swashbuckling adventure The Prince and the Pauper.
Along with Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, Welch was among the candidates considered for the role of Alexis Carrington on the ABC prime time drama Dynasty which began in 1981, before the producers settled on Joan Collins. The actress was due to star in a 1982 adaptation of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row but was fired by the producers a few days into production. The producers said that at 40 years old she was too old to play the character. She was replaced with Debra Winger. Welch sued and collected a $10.8 million settlement.
In addition to the television special, Raquel!, Welch television film work include the Western The Legend of Walks Far Woman (1982) and the drama Right to Die (1987) in which she turned in a stirring performance as a woman stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease. She also starred in the films Scandal in a Small Town (1988), Trouble in Paradise (1989), Torch Song (1993) and The Ultimate Legacy (2015).
In 1978, Welch appeared in an episode of The Muppet Show and in 1979, for the series Mork & Mindy, Welch was featured as an alien bounty hunter pursuing Robin Williams in "Mork vs. the Necrotons". She appeared in the night-time soap opera Central Park West (1995). In a 1997 episode of the comedy series Seinfeld, entitled "The Summer of George", Welch played a highly temperamental version of herself, assaulting series characters Kramer and Elaine, the former because he fired her from an acting job and the latter because Welch mistakenly thought that Elaine was mocking her. As a guest, she played Sabrina's flamboyant Aunt Vesta on the American comedy series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996). In 2002, she starred in the PBS series American Family, a story about a Mexican American family in East Los Angeles. She also appeared in Welcome to The Captain, which premiered on CBS television on February 4, 2008.
In 1994, Welch returned to the big screen with a humorous and self-deprecating cameo role in the hit comedy Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. In 2001, she had supporting roles in the comedy films Legally Blonde opposite Reese Witherspoon and Tortilla Soup. Her other recent films include Forget About It (2006) and How to Be a Latin Lover (2017).
In 1987, she flirted with a pop singing career, thus releasing the dance single "This Girl's Back In Town". She has performed in a one-woman nightclub musical act in Las Vegas and has starred on Broadway in Woman of the Year, receiving praise for following Lauren Bacall in the title role. She also starred in Victor/Victoria, having less success following Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli in the title roles.
In 1974, Welch won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical or Comedy for The Three Musketeers. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance in the television drama Right to Die (1987). In 1994, Welch received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7021 Hollywood Boulevard. In 2001, she was awarded the Imagen Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for her positive promotion of Americans of Latin heritage throughout her career. In 2012, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a special retrospective of the films of Raquel Welch at the Walter Reade Theater.
The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program book and videos were first released in 1984. The book, written by Welch with photographs by André Weinfeld, includes a hatha yoga fitness program, her views on healthy living and nutrition, as well as beauty and personal style. The Multi-Platinum collection of Fitness and Yoga videos were produced and directed by André Weinfeld. As a businesswoman, Welch succeeded with her signature line of wigs. She also began a jewelry and skincare line, although neither of those ventures compared to the success of her wig collection HAIRuWEAR.
In January 2007, Welch was selected as the newest face of MAC Cosmetics Beauty Icon series. Her line features several limited-edition makeup shades in glossy black and tiger-print packaging. The tiger print motif of the collection celebrates Welch's feline and sensuous image: "strong and wild, yet sultry and exotic".
Welch has been married four times:James Welch (1959–64), publicist and agent; divorced
Patrick Curtis (1967–72), director and producer; divorced
André Weinfeld (1980–90), producer, director, and journalist; divorced
Richard Palmer (1999–2008), divorced
Welch is the mother of Damon Welch (born November 6, 1959) and actress Tahnee Welch (born Latanne Rene Welch, December 26, 1961). Tahnee followed her mother's December 1979 example and appeared on the cover of Playboy in the November 1995 issue and in a nude pictorial inside it.
Welch posed for Playboy magazine in 1979, but she never did a full nudity photo shoot. Hugh Hefner and Gary Cole later wrote: "Raquel Welch, one of the last of the classic sex symbols, came from the era when you could be considered the sexiest woman in the world without taking your clothes off. She declined to do complete nudity, and I yielded gracefully. The pictures prove her point." Welch has refused to take all her clothes off on screen or pose naked throughout her career spanning five decades, saying it is the way she has been brought up. While her image in the 1960s was that of a torrid sex temptress, Raquel's private life was quite different. She once famously said: "What I do on the screen is not to be equated with what I do in my private life. Privately, I am understated and dislike any hoopla".
Raquel Welch helped transform America’s feminine ideal into its current state. Her beautiful looks and eroticism made her the definitive 1960s and 1970s sex icon, rather than the blonde bombshell of the late 1950s as typified by Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and others. Welch became a star in the mid-1960s and was exotic, brunette, and smolderingly sexual. Her countless publicity photos helped to popularize her image, dress style, and 1960s and 1970s fashion trends. Welch and other actresses also made big hair popular.
Raquel Welch is mentioned in the 1971 song, “One's on the Way” by Country Music Legend Loretta Lynn.
Raquel Welch is one of the first and few actresses who portrayed a female leading role in a Western movie. Hannie Caulder (1971) was a clear influence on later revenge films. Quentin Tarantino said that the film was one of his inspirations for Kill Bill (2003). It took many years, arguably until the 1990s, until female leads appeared in mainstream US cinema who are strong – without adding fictional or overemphasizing masculine traits (or portraying them as femme fatales).
Additionally, Welch was a significant figure in the film The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The poster that Andy Dufresne had on his prison cell wall at the time of his escape was of Welch whilst wearing her outfit from One Million Years B.C. Prior to Dufresne's escape being realized, the warden refers to Welch as Miss Fuzzy Britches.Raquel Welch: Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage, Publisher: Weinstein Books (March 29, 2010), ISBN 978-1-60286-097-1