Raquel Welch: A star beyond a symbol

While Welch, who died Wednesday aged 82, was idolized for her looks, she showcased an empowering attitude and talent as well

By Reuters

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 1:15 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 1:24 PM

Tributes are being paid to actress Raquel Welch, who helped reshape the traditional image of the Hollywood sex symbol in an era when the movie industry was still overtly defining an idealized version of sensuality for mass consumption.

Welch died on Wednesday at age 82.

Her death following a brief illness was confirmed in a statement released by her Los Angeles-based manager.

Welch first grabbed the public's attention with her role in the 1966 sci-fi adventure Fantastic Voyage, playing a member of a miniaturized medical team injected into the body of an injured diplomat and memorable for the skin-tight diving suit she wore in a scene where she was attacked by antibodies.

Her success in that film was followed by an iconic appearance later the same year in the prehistoric fantasy drama One Million Years B.C. depicting cavemen and women coexisting with dinosaurs.

Raquel Welch poses for photographers in Paris on Jan. 15, 1970
Raquel Welch poses for photographers in Paris on Jan. 15, 1970

Although Welch had just a few lines of dialogue in the film, still photos of her appearance in a deer-skinned bikini made her a best-selling pin-up and a global symbol.

Other screen credits in the late 1960s and early '70s included starring roles in Bedazzled, Bandolero! 100 Rifles, and the title roles in Myra Breckinridge and Hannie Caulder.

She won a Golden Globe Award for best actress in a musical or comedy for her performance in the 1973 swashbuckling romp The Three Musketeers.

Her portrayal of strong, willful characters was credited with helping break down stereotypes at a time when changing attitudes toward gender roles converged to empower women on screen, even if their looks remained objectified.

Raquel Welch poses backstage at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 1987
Raquel Welch poses backstage at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 1987

"Raquel Welch enters into the arena of the American culture industry in a time when one of the products that rolled off the assembly line of that industry was sex symbol," said Robert Thompson, a media scholar at Syracuse University and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

"She came to represent a certain kind of sensuality for this culture that Aphrodite did for classical culture," Thompson said, adding that Welch had also been "an accomplished actor ... who helped to define the kinds of roles that women could play in a society that had some highly compromised ideas about gender."

Raquel Welch appears at the Cannes Film Festival in Southern France on May 20, 1966
Raquel Welch appears at the Cannes Film Festival in Southern France on May 20, 1966

Playboy magazine once ranked Welch No. 3 in its "100 Sexiest Stars of the 20th Century," and though she posed for the magazine in 1979, she never did a fully nude photo shoot.

In a 2010 memoir and self-help guide titled Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage, she wrote: "I've definitely used my body and sex appeal to advantage in my work, but always within limits."

In this file photo taken on April 25, 1988, actress Raquel Welch and her husband André Steinfeld smile in New York as they arrive at Lincoln Center for a concert
In this file photo taken on April 25, 1988, actress Raquel Welch and her husband André Steinfeld smile in New York as they arrive at Lincoln Center for a concert

She added: "I feel strongly that a woman's mystery is part of her appeal; and the power of the imagination is more potent and provocative than explicit nudity."

She played a tough frontier wife out for revenge in Hannie Caulder, a Native American revolutionary with a vendetta in 100 Rifles and a dressmaker to the queen in The Three Musketeers.

Her title role in the 1970 comedy film Myra Breckinridge, based on the Gore Vidal novel of the same name, stirred controversy around Welch's portrayal of a transgender woman.

Raquel Welch, starring in Broadway Musical 'Woman of the Year,' poses with sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Saipan and a few Marines on July 3, 1982 in New York
Raquel Welch, starring in Broadway Musical 'Woman of the Year,' poses with sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Saipan and a few Marines on July 3, 1982 in New York

The film, a box office flop lambasted by critics and disavowed by Vidal as "an awful joke," also featured John Huston, Mae West, Farrah Fawcett and Rex Reed, among others.

She was born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago. Her father was an aeronautical engineer from Bolivia. Her family moved to California when she was young. She later studied ballet before entering a series of beauty contests.

She briefly earned a living as a model and cocktail waitress before applying for film roles and breaking into the movie business with small 1964 roles in the drama A House Is Not a Home and the Elvis Presley musical Roustabout.

She went on to a career spanning more than half a century, appearing in more than 30 films and 50 television series, and as an entrepreneur was involved in a successful line of wigs, HairUWear, as well as a collection of jewellery and skin-care products.


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