Henry Kissinger and Raquel Welch, old friends and occasional companions, were dawdling over brunch one morning a few months ago in Rio de Janeiro. Henry sighed and said: "Raquel, I've got a problem. What does an ex-Secretary of State do?" Raquel smiled. "Henry, I've got the same problem. What does an ex-sex symbol do?"
On the record, her prospect isn't pleasing. Monroe overdosed. Lamarr ran afoul of the law. Gardner, Turner and Hayworth lapsed into booze or scandal or bejeweled depression. Raquel has other ideas. Encouraged by the example of Ann-Margret and Liza Minnelli, she decided at 35 to parlay screen success into a second career in the live-entertainment business. But Raquel has a problem Minnelli and Ann Margret have escaped. Films like One Million Years B.C. and Myra Breckinridge made her the sort of joke-Venus that turns up in Bob Hope gags: "Raquel Welch is my favorite double feature." Her latest boob-trap, Mother, Jugs and Speed, has critics reeling all over the U.S.—though as usual the turnstiles seem to be spinning.
Raquel at movie prices is one thing, but would her fans pay $7.75 and up to see their favorite in the flesh? Show businessmen doubted it, and wondered why she would risk ridicule and financial loss in a venture that seemed sure to fail. To understand that, one has to understand the lady that's known to Hollywood's toughest negotiators as Rocky. "There are plenty of actresses with big jugs in this town," one of her directors observed, "and plenty of them have more talent than Raquel. But how many have gone as far as she has? There's a lot more to this woman than meets the brassiere."
By Hollywood standards, Raquel's private life is square—she calls it sane. "I'm more serious than most of Hollywood's sex queens," she says. "No madcap romances. People flying in and out of my life just isn't my style." After her divorce in 1972 from her second husband, Pat Curtis, she kept steady company with a costume designer and producer, Ron Talsky. But during her official reign as queen of the 1976 Carnival in Rio, she fell carefully-rinsed-redblond head over reinforced seven-inch heels in love with a sandy-blond, blue-eyed Brazilian manager of musical talent named Paulo Pilla. They rushed off to a seaside hideaway; they fled to the mountains. Tabloids chronicled every move and, with Rio brio, a local flu epidemic was dubbed Influenza P. Pilla—"It strikes like lightning and puts you to bed."
"I can't stand men who come on strong," says Raquel. "All that flattery and hovering is for the sex symbol, not for me. Paulo is cool and laid back, very sensitive and sophisticated. He's not impressed with my career and not afraid of it. He has his own success. I've given up so much of the feminine role for the sake of career. Sometimes I like to put all this energy I've got behind a man. Ambience, food, conversation, lovemaking. There's great beauty in the traditional feminine role."
Most of Raquel's energy translates into ambition. At least one Hollywood executive called her "a ruthless bitch." What observers often fail to observe is that she plays even the worst parts with total intensity—she has the grand passion to perform. At 9, dancing in a school play, Raquel ran a splinter from the floor through the palm of her hand, but was so pleased to be in front of an audience that she finished her number oblivious to the pain. "From that moment," she says, "I knew I had to be in show business."
Fierce will, another of Raquel's qualities, helped her smash the suburban mold of her California childhood. After a brief marriage to her high-school sweetheart, James Welch, she showed up in Hollywood in 1963 with a divorce and two young children (Damon, now 16, and Tahnee, 14). With hard-nosed practicality she bought a blouse open to the navel and a skirt slit to mid-thigh—and got work. Two years later a cheesecake campaign put her in the movies, and for the next 10 years Raquel eagerly put her breast a foot forward for the cameras. But she sniffled softly all the way to the bank.
"Don't get me wrong," she says. "I love being a world-famous sex object. But if you're an artist, you like to use your whole instrument. Since I've had a lot of stupid parts, the reviewers have decided I'm stupid. That hurts. I've always thought I had a real talent for musical comedy, but when I tried to sell the idea of a Raquel Welch musical people laughed. So I decided to do a live show and show everybody I was more than a cash register with glands."
It hasn't been easy—or cheap. Last winter Raquel spent three months and about $200,000 putting an act together, but opening night in Acapulco was something short of a smash. She moved fairly well—she had studied ballet for 10 years and jazz dancing for 10 more—but her vocal style evoked Ted Mack, and she seemed inhibited by a live audience. Relentless, she took singing lessons by phone from a New York coach and danced till her feet felt like boulders. Audiences began to respond—in Paris she broke the house record set by Frank Sinatra at the Palais de Congrès. And she soon found she could survive and even relish the merciless life of the road. In Philadelphia she ran off a darkened stage, crashed into a piece of scenery and knocked herself cold—but revived in time to change costume and make her next entrance. More recently, her father, Armand Tejada, a Bolivian-born aeronautical engineer, died just after her new act opened. Absorbing a heavy financial loss, she closed the show and spent five days with her family, then gamely went back on tour.
The dressing room door with a star on it pops open and two scared brown eyes peer out. "Help!" Raquel yells. "I forgot the dance!" It's opening night and the star is having a bout of nerves. Understandably. The act that conquered Paris has been rewritten, rescored, rechoreographed and partly recostumed at a further cost of some $50,000, and it's about to debut before an audience that includes an ambush of New York critics. "God!" Raquel groans as she waits for her entrance. "How I wish I were Liza Minnelli!"
As she hits the circle of light, the audience gasps. Her liquid form has been spooned into a gown whose tawny glimmer grades so subtly into the tanned flesh that the eye can hardly tell where the body ends and the dress begins. She lifts the mike and belts the opening bars of Boogie Fever—and the audience gasps again. The microphone is dead! It's a moment that might rattle a Sinatra, but Welch doesn't flinch. With a gesture of command she silences the orchestra, waits calmly till the mike comes alive, then piles into the song as if nothing had happened. The audience is alert in a new way. People had come to glimpse a body; they have glimpsed an individual.
As the show goes on, the glimpses multiply. Her voice is her own, not mini-Minnelli or vanilla Ella. It can rise to an alley cat wail or sink to a low-gear moan. And her movements, as choreographed by director Rob Iscove, are a sensuous spectacle; even on those seven-inch heels, she struts her stuff like a panther in pants. As the show ends, Raquel gets a stand-up ovation, followed by a bravo even in the New York Times: "Surprisingly stylish...not at all the empty-headed charmer."
Where from here? "When I really get this show in my body," Raquel muses, "I'd like to go for a little richer material. When I'm good enough, I want to make some really classy movie musicals. Not pretentious, just terrific fun." But when she loses her looks? "Are you kidding? I'll get out of this racket! You think I want to bust my ass like this for the rest of my life?"