The world knows her as a model, pinup and overall commodity, but at age 69, Raquel Welch isn’t just going strong — she’s determined to let the world know her side of her own story. This month, TCM’s Guest Programmer: Raquel Welch gives her a chance, with the help of Robert Osborne, to explore the films that helped shape her attitudes and her subsequent career. She sat down long enough to talk to us about her career, the difficulties of being seen as a sex symbol and how the role of womanhood in society has evolved in her time — all of which is the subject of the new book she’s penned, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage.
The films you’ve chosen for your guest programming stint on TCM — were they particularly formative for you?
Raquel Welch: I think they all helped shape who I became, yes. Certainly Kate Hepburn did, and Lauren Bacall. And then, again, the stylishness and the sort of cosmopolitan charm that Audrey Hepburn had, and yet with this sweetness and this very authentic niceness and simplicity underneath. I really was fascinated with that.
TCM, April 1
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Jimmy Stewart, Claude Rains
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall
Everybody who guests on TCM has titles that they’ve had to leave out. What didn’t they have time for, in your case?
They could never include all of the lovely musicals that I like. … I asked for Some Like It Hot because I love Billy Wilder. I thought it was such a fun film. That was one of them. … I always loved Hollywood musicals, especially the ones from the ’50s. Oh, and also Gilda — Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. For me, I was a dancer, and I’d trained myself to be a dancer when I was very young, and I always envisioned that at some point even though it was clear that I wouldn’t be a classical ballerina, that I would be able to use my dancing and my singing — I studied some singing — to do light comedy. Not in the sense of being somebody like Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand, or these kind of people with epic voices, but it was very interesting to me to see that Marilyn Monroe, and before her Rita Hayworth, were able to do these very charming and enticing musical performances, and it was great fun. … I felt I would be good at that. But I came to Hollywood at a time when they were not making any musicals of that sort. And when they did make musicals, they were Barbra Streisand musicals, and I certainly was not in that category.
You became an icon in your own way, but being an icon eventually became a hindrance to your career, no?
You could say that. It’s sort of the reason that I’m here, and at the same time, something that one had to kind of sidestep at one point or prove that there was something more than just body beautiful, “Amazon woman,” you know. I think you can be beautiful, but if you are classified as a sex symbol, you’re in trouble. I mean, I really could identify, after I got there, all of the agonies that Marilyn must have gone through and others like her, including Rita Hayworth. You just don’t get any respect.
Marilyn was so much more than just what she became to the public.
I just feel fortunate that she got a chance to work with Billy Wilder and people who knew how to use her. After those musicals at Fox were over, you knew there were a couple of times when one went, “What’s going to happen?” Well, Seven Year Itch was pretty hot. That was pretty fun. She just had that special quality that was just luminous and hypnotic. You just watched everything she did.
How have things changed in Hollywood, from your perspective, over the years?
I just think that sometimes we have, like right now, we have all of these — whatever you want to call them, they’re not as sophisticated as the lovely screwball comedies we used to have with Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell, and all of those wonderful ladies. And of course, the wonderful Cary Grant, whom, by the way, I did get to know — he was a friend of mine, and a neighbor. It’s just different. Now they have Knocked Up and all of these kind of ribald, fun movies that are very much in the vernacular, and it’s all how young guys carry on today, and what the dating world is like, and the new promiscuity and how it affects people’s lives. It’s all very lighthearted. But that’s how we’re escaping, these days, is into those kinds of ideas.
You’re sharing your perspective publicly in your new book — what prompted you to tell your story at this particular time?
I’m getting up there. I’m 69 years old. I felt like, ‘You know what? Everywhere I go, people think of me one way, and they really don’t know anything about me.’ And at one point, I became such a symbol that I was more seen than I was heard, and it seemed as though people didn’t think there was anything to hear from me. I felt like it was time for me to do a book talking about who I am and what my life really was like behind the image — that’s why I call it Behind the Cleavage. … One of the things that I say very early on in the first chapter of my book is about how I grew up, and getting married to my high-school sweetheart and having two children before I ever hit Hollywood. Here I was, single mother of two small toddlers, trying to break into the movie business, and then suddenly I’m the girl from One Million Years B.C. with posters all over the planet. They have that vision of me and they don’t know that at home, I’m this young mommy. There’s such a huge gap between fantasy and reality in my case, that I felt like it would be fun to talk about it. Because it’s not known. And as a woman, being called a sex symbol and all that, I had a chance to live a kind of unique existence, but I’ve learned a lot about all that subject — of what is a real woman? What is a real woman all about? What is all of this thing that you are? You need to be attractive, and yet, what is the balance? What is this thing going on between men and women?
If you had it to do all over again, would you change anything about your life or career, given how your public image got so out of hand?
I grew up with a very, very strong father image, very domineering, and my mother acquiesced to him a lot. It seemed like she was making herself very small to fit in with his demands. It affected my attitude toward things, so when I got married — and it was no secret that I wanted to have a career — I said, ‘Let’s have a screen test. Let’s go to Hollywood with the kids,’ and there wasn’t a good reception to that. So it made a big difference in my life from what I had come from. I just suddenly thought, ‘I can’t do this — I can’t amputate that passion I’ve had, and that dream I’ve had my whole life. I’m going to take these kids and I’m going to go. He doesn’t want to go; he doesn’t want me to go. He wants me to stop all that — I don’t think I can.’ And so I went off on my own. I don’t know. It was a handicap in some ways, but in other ways, it’s so difficult to say you want to change things and do things differently. Because all of the beauty and the success and the good things that happened to me would not have been there if things hadn’t happened the way they did. So I’m going to give all of that a bad rap? In place of some fantasy of what might have been?
What about for your kids? How did they experience all of that at the time?
It’s difficult to have an actress as a mother. It’s very difficult, because mommy is supposed to be there for the very young children. Daddy can get away with it a little bit, not being around all the time, but when they’re very young, it’s really not — it’s a detriment to the kids. They wonder where you are, and they feel a little sadness and a little loss that you’re not there. And it does affect them. It’s one of the other kinds of prices that I paid to pursue my career in spite of having two young children. By the same token, I can see better in hindsight what was happening there, but I really did not know, when I was 19 and had my first baby, and 20 with the next baby, and then 23 when everything kind of broke loose — I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to be a proper mommy. I wasn’t geared for it. I hadn’t matured enough to have those kind of qualities, as a woman, to offer. And so I did the best I could.
Is there something universal you try to express in your book?
I write about my attitudes toward being a woman. It’s not just about my career. There’s a tremendous amount of beauty advice and things like that in there — because it seems like the publisher really and truly wanted all of that, and that was the hardest part to write because it bored me to tears, but there’s plenty of info in there about hair and makeup and exercise. … But for those women out there in my audience, and my same age group who have followed me over all of these years, the boomer-plusses — there’s a lot of talk about what it’s like getting older … [about] where you go after you’ve divorced or broken up with your significant other; about dating younger men; about your relationships with your children and your family and your friends; and what the future brings. Because now, of course, there are these extra bonus years of 20 or 30 years more than previous generations were able to enjoy. The prime time for women has been extended. We don’t age at the same rate. My generation that came to their prime in the ’60s — we’re still people who like to keep up with what’s going on. The latest music, what’s happening, and we like being part of what’s happening in pop culture. We’re interested in it and we want to keep participating. We don’t need to be teenyboppers to do it, but we’re different than my mother, per se, when she was in her 50s and 60s, because she was born in 1913 or something, so it’s a completely different ball of wax.
It’s the new woman, and there’s a lot of decisions to be made. A lot of confusion and crossroads — this whole cougar thing, dating younger men and all of that. I think it’s been touted as though we’re trying to pay back men because they always had the young girl — ‘Look, we can do it, too!’ — but is it all it’s cracked up to be? I talk about that a little bit [in the book], because I’ve been married to younger men and dated younger men. … I also talk about feminism and where feminism has taken us, from the feminism of my generation, which is the ’60s, and even ahead of that, Margaret Sanger and the suffragettes, and how that’s brought us along to where we are today, and young women and their new attitudes toward sex and relationships and all of that, and where women are going. Because I do think that women have changed incredibly. It’s interesting to take a look at it and see where it’s leading us. Sometimes we can throw the baby out with the bathwater. We wanted to be treated with respect. We wanted opportunities and we wanted decent pay for work given, but gaining all of those things doesn’t mean being like a man and copying men, and trying to do what men do. I don’t think that women are supposed to be promiscuous and carry on the way they do now.
Well, you could argue that men aren’t, either …
But with women, you see the new pubescent girls following a very bad example. Until you hear that 13-year-olds are having oral sex and this kind of thing, and they don’t think of it as sex, and you’re going, ‘Where are we? What’s happening here??’ I think that women’s role is to be nurturing and I think that if we want to pass something on to society and the next generation, we need to kind of start saying, ‘Hey — this is not right. This is not the way to be.’ You need to hold yourself with some pride and some self-respect. It’s a beautiful thing, and motherhood is a beautiful thing, and it’s not just about having a career and nothing else matters. I’m saying it because I had the experience of having that career I wanted. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do it again, but I’m just saying I learned from it, that it’s not the total fulfillment either, and that we need to look carefully at the roles of women and how we can be the nurturers and the wives, the mothers, the pillars of society that we used to think of that women could be. We carried the moral reins of the society. Women were the ones who would say, ‘No, hey — we can’t have any more pornography. We’ve got to put a stop on this.’ And now you don’t have that — you have post-feminism, all the girls saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s be a porno star! Let’s get to the pole dancing!’ … I got my ideas from Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe and Kate Hepburn. Think who these people, these young girls — and young boys — are getting their ideas from. It’s a terrible kind of rotten propaganda. I mean, I know I sound like a total prude, but I’m not, and I’m far from perfect or some little angel. But I just feel like, ‘Where are we going?’ Enough, enough, enough already. It’s tragic now. It really threatens to tear the whole culture apart. There are no standards anymore, for anybody.
So … what else is going on in Raquel Welch’s life lately?
Well, I have my own production company and I mean, right now I have a book tour and all of that, but I’m working on other things, other projects, and that’s all I’m doing. I’m working on, possibly, a television series. I do licensing. I have a Raquel Welch wig collection that’s been going on for 11 years now. It’s an international enterprise — it’s all over the world. And I’m doing all the Foster Grant commercials. … They’ve sort of revived that whole campaign, so I’m the girl for that. Meanwhile, it’s pilot season and I’ve got my fingers crossed.
Anything you’d like to be working on in particular?
I see myself as maybe part of an ensemble group that does comedy. That would be fun. I don’t need to be the one and only person, you know. I don’t feel that. It’s a lot of responsibility and all that. But I think to have a company of actors just doing a funny play, it’d be great fun. Who knows what else may be lurking in the wings for me?