Iconic American actress Raquel Welch might be best-remembered for that skimpy fur bikini she wore on the big screen and thousands of movie posters around the world, but there’s much more to the star than that one photo.
To this day, Welch is included in lists such as Empire magazine’s “100 Sexiest Stars in Film History” and Men’s Health magazine’s “Hottest Women of All Time.” But Welch broke the “sex symbol” stereotype when she opted for strong roles that empowered women, and she’s just as talented as she is beautiful.
She Was Born Jo Raquel Tejada
On September 5, 1940, Raquel Welch was born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother was an Irish-American named Josephine Sarah, while her father was a Bolivian aeronautical engineer named Armando Tejada Urquizo.
She’s later said that studio executives wanted her to change her first name to “Debbie” because they thought “Raquel” would be too difficult to pronounce. Raquel refused, wanting to honor her heritage and the name her parents had chosen for her.
Fairest Of Them All
When Raquel Welch was a student at La Jolla High School in California, she started entering and winning local beauty pageants. She won several titles, including “Miss Contour” and “Miss Photogenic,” when she was just 14 years old.
One of her titles might have hinted at the future she’d have as one of the world’s biggest starlets. Welch was crowned “Miss Fairest of the Fair” at the San Diego County Fair in 1958. Here she is in a promotional portrait from the 1960s.
Raquel Welch enrolled in San Diego State University on a theater arts scholarship, graduating in 1958. Her alma mater’s school newspaper later declared, “Raquel Welch heads list of famous SDSU grads,” before going on to mention other notable alumni including Art Linkletter and Gregory Peck.
“Ms. Welch is also a film star and, according to a recent article in Parade Magazine, is ‘The Sex Symbol of the Western World,'” read the December 10, 1975 edition of SDSU’s The Daily Aztec.
Filming The Biggest Bundle Of Them All
Filming for The Biggest Bundle of Them All started in April 1966, but it wasn’t released until 1968. Although Welch had already completed One Million Years BC, it had not yet been released when she signed onto The Biggest Bundle and therefore, she wasn’t yet the megastar she was about to become. Here, she’s pictured with director Ken Annakin on set in Italy.
Co-star Edward G. Robinson had this to say of the actress after filming wrapped. “I didn’t get to know Raquel Welch too well – we didn’t have too many scenes together. I must say she has quite a body.”
The Bikini That Changed Everything
Little did Raquel Welch know it then, but her life would bever be the same again after she put on that doeskin bikini for One Million Years B.C. in 1966. It was just her second film with 20th Century Fox.
“I am living proof that a picture speaks a thousand words,” she wrote in her autobiography, Beyond the Cleavage. “It seems like everything that’s happened to me since has flowed from that moment, frozen in time.”
Playboy magazine called Racquel Welch “The Most Desired Woman” of the 1970s, and it’s not hard to see why. Posters of her image, especially the one of her in the fur swimsuit from One Million Years BC, sold like hotcakes when the movie came out and still do to this day.
In fact, that iconic poster played a role in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
She Originally Wanted To Become A Ballerina
Ever since she was a young girl, Raquel Welch wanted to be a performer. She loved to dance and studied ballet from the age of seven to seventeen but decided to give it up for a surprising reason: her teacher informed her that she didn’t have the right figure for it!
Although Welch was heartbroken at the time, she didn’t need to worry. Today, her famous figure is considered one of the most iconic in film history. The New York Times even said that she was “a marvelous breathing monument to womankind.”
Meeting The Queen
As one of the biggest stars in the world, Raquel Welch gets to meet lots of famous people and dignitaries from around the world. In 1966, she greeted Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain at a Royal Film screening of Born Free.
Welch chose an elegant white gown and ostrich feather shawl for the occasion. The next person in line to meet the Queen was writer and comedian Woody Allen.
She’s A Golden Globe Winner!
Raquel Welch is much more than just a pretty face. She’s also racked up a Golden Globe award and an additional nomination for her acting skills. In 1974, she won the award for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Three Muskateers.
A few years later, in 1987, Welch received a nomination for Best Actress in a Television Film for her work in Right To Die. This was a television movie where she played a psychologist who is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Raquel, The Weather Forecaster
Well before she became an internationally-recognized star, she was known locally in San Diego as Raquel Tejada, weather forecaster. The college student worked for KFMB in San Diego for a short period. She then moved to Dallas where she found a job as a cocktail waitress and Neiman Marcus model.
Not long after that, she headed back to Southern California to focus on an acting career and the rest is history. This photo of the rising star was taken in 1967, just a couple of months after One Million Years B.C. was released.
She Almost Starred In Barbarella
In 1968, Raquel Welch was cast as the lead in Barbarella, the now-iconic sci-fi movie based in the 41st century. However, in the end, she was replaced by Jane Fonda. She also auditioned for another recognizable role: Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island! Producers were looking for someone a little more “wholesome/girl-next-door” though, and the part went to Dawn Wells.
Things worked out just fine for Welch in the end. Here she is in front of a poster promoting One Million Years BC.
Meeting Elvis Was A Disappointment
Raquel Welch got to meet the King himself, Elvis Presley, on the set of his 1964 musical film Roustabout. She played an uncredited “College Girl” in the movie. The encounter surprised her since she had already seen him in concert and had been blown away by how irresistible he was.
“[W]hen I finally did meet him [on set], he just didn’t look the same. It looked like they cleaned him up. It was like white bread or something,” she explained. “It was not at all his kind of sassiness that he exhibited on stage… What happened to the rebellious, sexy guy? I was so in love with him as a teenager.”
Entertaining The Troops
During the Vietnam War, Raquel Welch showed her support of the American troops by performing in United Service Organizations (USO) shows. In 1967, she teamed up with Bob Hope and others to put on a TV special that was taped in Saigon, Vietnam.
Dressed in a mini-skirt, Welch danced for the troops for part of the program. Bob Hope later recalled that she received the “loudest cheers I ever heard.”
At The Cannes Film Festival, 1966
The first-ever Cannes Film Festival took place in 1946. Raquel Welch was there for the prestigious and glamorous event’s 20th anniversary in 1966. She presented an award to Orson Welles for his work directing and acting in the film Chimes at Midnight.
At the same festival, she also presented a Golden Palm Award to the Italian screenwriter Pietro Germi for Signore & Signori, which translates to “Ladies and Gentlemen” in English.
She Can Sing, Too
Not content to be “just an actress,” Raquel Welch also pursued a pop singing career. She released a single called “This Girl’s Back In Town” in 1987, which peaked at #29 on the Billboard US dance chart.
Welch also performed in a successful one-woman nightclub musical act in Las Vegas for several years and is mentioned in Loretta Lynn’s 1971 song, “One’s on the Way.” Here, she’s pictured with then-husband Patrick Curtis in 1966.
She’s Done Broadway
Raquel Welch has done it all — she even transitioned to Broadway! In 1981 she starred on the Broadway hit Woman of the Year and was critically acclaimed for following Lauren Bacall in the title role. Years later she followed Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli in Victor/Victoria’s title role.
This glamorous photo is from the set of the 1966 Italian crime film Shout Loud, Louder, I Can’t Hear You, directed by Eduardo De Filippo.
On Set With Ringo Starr
Raquel Welch had a part in the 1969 British satirical black comedy The Magic Christian, co-starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr and featuring a host of other celebrities. John Cleese, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, and Richard Attenborough were just a few of the guests to make appearances.
Welch played a slave priestess who was in charge of a team of topless girl rowers on a luxury cruise liner. Here, she’s pictured with Starr during filming.
‘Mankind’s First Bikini’
In the prehistoric saga One Million Years BC, Raquel was billed as “wearing mankind’s first bikini.” That iconic fur two-piece is one of the most recognizable costumes in film history and even has its own Wikipedia page today.
Costume designer Carl Toms “just draped me in doe-skin, and I stood there while he worked on it with scissors,” she said. Time magazine included the ensemble in its “Top Ten Bikinis in Pop Culture” list. Three versions of the bikini were made for filming.
Raquel Welch And Mae West Fought Over A Dress
There were some behind-the-scenes tensions on the set of 1970’s Myra Breckinridge. Actress Mae West was contracted to wear only black or white in the film and grew upset when Welch also planned to wear a black and white dress. In her own words: “Apparently Mae got wind of the fact that I was wearing this exquisite dress and I went to the studio that day for our scene together.”
“I…got my hair done and went to the closet to get the dress and it wasn’t there. I asked my dresser what happened to the dress and she said, ‘It’s been confiscated. Mae does not want you to wear that dress. You can wear the red dress that you wore in the last scene!” Mae got her way in the end.
She Starred In A TV Special Called Raquel!
In 1970, Welch starred in a CBS-released television special called Raquel! The elaborate song-and-dance production was her debut special on TV and featured guest stars Tom Jones, John Wayne, and Bob Hope. It was produced, directed, and choreographed by David Winters.
Filmed in Acapulco, Mexico City, Yucatan, Big Sur, Los Angeles, London, and Paris, the special is a fan-favorite that exemplifies the 1970s pop culture. Raquel! received great ratings when it debuted.
She’s Been Linked To Some Very Famous People
Although these days Welch says she’s not overly interested in dating, she has been romantically linked to some pretty famous people in the past. She had high-profile relationships with Dudley Moore, Steve McQueen, and Warren Beatty.
It’s also rumored that the brunette beauty also dated football player Joe Namath, champion boxer Gary Stretch, actors Richard Burton and Sean Connery, film executive Robert Evans, musicians Alice Cooper and Bob Dylan, and costume designers Bob Moore Jr. and Ron Talsky.
Raquel Was Married Four Times
First, the star married her high school sweetheart, James Welch. They divorced in 1964 after five years of marriage. She then married Patrick Curtis, a film producer, and they were together from 1967 to 1972. Next was a filmmaker and journalist named André Weinfeld (1980-1990) and finally, restaurateur Richard Palmer from 1999 to 2008.
In 2019, she was asked why none of her marriages worked out. “Because I’m too set in my ways,” she explained. “I like what I do, I actually enjoy being me and I make a very good living at it and I’m happy. I don’t have to have a man.” Here, Raquel is pictured at Orly Airport in Paris in January of 1970, while she was married to Curtis.
Many Small-Screen Appearances
As an aspiring actress, Raquel Welch managed to land small appearances in television shows such as McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, and The Virginian.
After achieving mega-stardom, she appeared in a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show and the following year played an alien bounty hunter who was after Robin Williams’ character in Mork and Mindy. More recently she’s been in American Family and Date My Dad, where she reunited with former co-star Robert Wagner.
Raquel Appeared On Several ‘Worst-Dressed’ Lists
Although she was one of the most sought-after women in the world (especially in that fur bikini), Raquel Welch’s sense of style failed to impress at least one person: fashion critic and journalist Mr. Blackwell. Each year, he published a “Ten Worst Dressed Women List.” Welch made the list several times, in 1967, 1968, 1972, and 1974. Blackwell once wrote, “[Raquel] may have a heavenly body, but her clothes look like they were designed by the man in the moon – a real luna-tic.”
The fashion critic certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed her costume in this photo, taken from the set of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage.
She’s Claimed Not To Be As Voluptuous As People Think
In a 1974 Rolling Stone interview, Welch tried to downplay her sex appeal. Some of her fans might disagree with what she said.
“A lot has been made over the gigantic dimensions of my [chest],” she said. ”It’s total myth. I’m really a rather normal-sized lady of good proportions and a nice figure. I have a tiny waist and I go in and out and I’m not that voluptuous, as you can see.”
Frank Sinatra Left Her Speechless
In 1968, Raquel appeared in the film Lady in Cement alongside the legendary blue-eyed crooner Frank Sinatra. She said she’d found his presence to be so distracting it nearly caused her to forget her lines. “I think I was just so enamored with Frank Sinatra, you know. He’s hypnotic.”
She had seen him perform at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel years earlier. “You could hear a pin drop when he was singing a ballad. [When] Frank came out on the stage, he had everybody eating out of his hand at about 37 seconds.”
With Robert Wagner, 1968
This photo shows Raquel and Robert Wagner on the set of The Biggest Bundle of Them All. She spoke of the actor in a recent interview. “There wasn’t a particular rapport except, of course, he’s Robert Wagner and what’s not to like?” she said.
“We had a really good time… It seemed like a perfect match in a sense… I had no objection. What possibly could I object to? We had a lot of fun. And people seem to enjoy our interaction. It’s all been very enjoyable, I have to say.”
She Broke Her Wrist On Set
In the 1972 drama Kansas City Bomber, Welch played a single mother who was also an aspiring roller derby star. She did all of her own stunts in the film and broke her right wrist during filming! The injury held up production for eight weeks.
That wasn’t the only injury she got making this movie, also suffering from a bruised knee, cut lip, and swollen face. Here’s Welch in a promotional photoshoot that looks a little less dangerous than the set of Kansas City Bomber.
She Has Two Children
Raquel Welch had a son, Damon (pictured here), and a daughter, Tahnee, with her first husband James. Tahnee is an actress, and like her mother, she’s appeared on the cover of Playboy.
In her autobiography, Raquel Welch wrote of her experience as a mother: “The irony of it all is that even though people thought of me as a sex symbol, in reality I was a single mother of two small children!” She continued, “Can you picture the girl in the poster with a baby in one arm and pushing a stroller with the other? Kind of destroys the fantasy, doesn’t it?”
Arriving To Film Bedazzled
In a 2019 interview, Raquel Welch recalled being approached about the 1967 British comedy Bedazzled, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. She initially didn’t want the role of Lillian Lust. “I was like, ‘Ugh, I don’t need to wear something skimpy again,'” she said, but changed her mind when she found out that Stanley Donen would be directing.
Here she is arriving at Heathrow Airport in London on June 3rd, 1967, to begin filming.