Before there was Jennifer Lopez, the stylishly daring actress with more curves than Mulholland Drive, there was Raquel Welch, who could throw Lopez a curve or two of her own. After all, she was known as El Cuerpo, or the body.
"That's what they used to call me," Welch says, laughing on the phone as she recalls her trips to Latin America where the media christened the actress--born in Chicago to a Bolivian father and an American mother--the Venus of Hollywood.
"It was all about my body when I took photos. I guess they saw me as someone who represented the epitome of the female physique," she says. At 60 and proud of her Latin heritage, Welch, after nearly 40 years in show business, remains a woman of a certain agelessness, her physical features still showing she is Toda Mujer or All Woman. She can easily fit into the very chamois-leather bikini as the blond-tressed cavewoman Loana Shell from the 1966 prehistoric fantasy flick "One Million Years B.C." about love in the Stone Age.
The role, with only three spoken words, made Welch an international hottie. And that bikini is somewhere in her closet with the embroidered Escada matador outfit she'll wear to tonight's Imagen (Spanish for "image") Awards gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. She will receive a lifetime achievement award as a Latina who has made a difference. Also being honored by the nonprofit Imagen Foundation for their positive portrayals of Latinos and Latino cultures, will be actors Benicio Del Toro and Cheech Marin, writer Lisa Loomer and music agent Jorge Pinos.
Welch, one of America's premier sex symbols in the '60s and '70s, says she still can't get away from the vixen stereotype, "especially after the kind of career I've had and the struggle to be taken seriously because there are people who still don't think of me as an actress." So, she says, let those fans think of her as a screen goddess, and she has learned "to just embrace" that part of her life.
"I'm not 19 anymore and I certainly don't run around in a bikini," she says. "My style has always been more about striking a balance between being sensual-- because as a woman I still feel very sensual--and elegant. I like to have a sense of humor and fun with my clothes. I don't like to be cheap."
Clothes aside, Welch says real style begins with knowing "who you are, what's inside your heart and soul. That's the real thing."
But that wasn't always the case for Welch who says when she started out as an actress her handlers asked that she change her first name, which means Rachel in English, because it sounded too Latin.
"I also was told that 'Raquel' would be too difficult to pronounce and if people had trouble pronouncing it, they would have trouble remembering it too." She fought to keep the name.
"I wouldn't stand for losing my name--that was the only thing that I had left that showed who I was and if I lost that I felt that I would really be selling out" on her Latin background, says the daughter of Armand Tejada, an engineer who was in his 30s when he arrived in the United States, where he met his American wife, Josephine Hall, in Chicago. When Welch was 2, her parents moved to La Jolla, where she attended school and then studied drama at San Diego State before she dropped out at 19 in 1959 to marry her La Jolla High School sweetheart, James Welch.
Granted, she says, she was torn between the two cultures her parents shared when she was growing up. "I really didn't know which culture I belonged to. I had that dilemma.
"When I started in this business people would ask me, 'What type are you? You seem an exotic type and we're looking for the girl next door.' I wasn't blond or blue-eyed," she'd say, adding, "But I'm the girl-next-door to my neighbors."
Through the decades, she persevered in films from "Myra Breckinridge" to "Kansas City Bomber" to earning a Golden Globe best actress award in 1974 for her work in "The Three Musketeers." Later, television and Broadway beckoned. She also was the author of two best-selling yoga and fitness books in the 1980s. Soon, she'll be seen in the movies "Legally Blonde" and "Tortilla Soup." She also is prominently featured in the HBO documentary "The Bronze Screen" about Latinos in films and will begin work on the Gregory Nava series "American Family" with Edward James Olmos and Sonia Braga, to be aired next season on the Public Broadcasting System. The series will focus on the lives of a Latino family, which pleases Welch.
And there's also the entrepreneurial Welch at work with her celebrity signature wigs and hair extensions, and in September, she'll launch her own skin care line, Raquel Timeless Beauty.
"This is a country of immigrants and so many of us are not connected to our roots. That's a big struggle for so many of us especially if you grow up without, for instance, speaking Spanish at home, like I did. At one point in our lives we realize we need to have more connection with the things that came before us in order to know who we are," she says.
Welch says she figures that's why New York-born Rita Hayworth, christened Margarita Carmen Cansino, the daughter of a Spanish immigrant father, was a favorite icon of hers as was the late Anthony Quinn, who she saw at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. where he was honored just months before his recent death.
"My personality has always been more like a Latin strong woman. I don't have an itsy personality. That's why I was so fascinated by Rita."
These days, she's sees a little bit of herself in Lopez, mostly because like Lopez, Welch also started as a dancer and "she has a sexy image and she's very body conscious and she exudes Latin style, which is very much in style right now.
"I feel because of the Latin movement that is underfoot, because of the recognition of the Latin culture being more a part of the American culture, well, I feel a lot more fulfilled. It has defined me even more in this late point in my career and in my life. Finally, finally, finally."
While many of her fans might not know that Latin blood courses through her veins, Welch is the first to admit that, style-wise "because of my Latin blood, I've always felt drawn to things that are sensual and having an attitude of knowing what men like.
"I think men like women to wear something sexy and suggestive, but not loose. Of course, when I was younger maybe I showed off too much. I remember Howard Koch saying to me once, 'My dear Raquel how did you ever think you would wear that dress here?' It was a dress cut down to my navel. That was then and now I look positively pristine."
She does, after all, have two grown children, Damon Welch, 40, a computer consultant and actress Tahnee Welch, 39, both from her first marriage that lasted six years. A second, to Patrick Curtis in 1967, ended after four years. Her decade-long union with photographer Andre Weinfeld ended in 1990. She is now married to restaurateur Richard Palmer, who owns a chain of restaurants called Richie's Neighborhood Pizzeria and Mulberry Street Pizzeria. Palmer owns three of each, with the flagship in Beverly Hills. The couple will celebrate their second anniversary next month.
"Style has to have substance," she says. "It has to have fire or it's just not style. Every decision I make reflects who I am--and that's style, you see. It's synergy and instinct and being real.
"Just to follow the trends and read fashion magazines isn't style. You have to have imagination. And, of course, it has to wear well. And most of all, you have to know who you are. It's not just about the drape of a dress or the cut of a suit. Style is about the person wearing it. It's about an attitude. It's about being yourself on purpose."