Raquel Welch takes herself seriously, and so should you


Raquel Welch has made her peace with Loana, the scantily clad cave woman she played in the 1966 camp classic “One Million Years B.C.” The poster of Welch wearing pelts in strategic places made her a worldwide sex symbol. The image is so iconic, it was even a pivotal plot point in the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption.”

“She’s really pretty OK,” says Welch of her reel-life character. “I recognize her as one part of my nature. But I just don’t want it to be my complete legacy.”

Welch is five months away from her 70th birthday. With a 50-year-old son and 48-year-old daughter, Welch is old enough to be a great-grandmother. But very few great grannies have looked like Welch.

Apologizing profusely for being about five minutes late for her interview, Welch breathlessly scurries into the living room of her Italian village-style house nestled in the West L.A. hills. Time has seemingly stood still for Welch, who looks more like she’s in her 40s. She’s whippet-slim with barely a line on her face (she swears by Oil of Olay). Wearing black pants, a crisp long-sleeve white blouse and a vest, Welch is a stunning near-septuagenarian.

Though not acting as much as during her peak of popularity, Welch certainly keeps busy. She was a regular on the 2002-03 PBS drama “American Family,” and has guest starred on “Seinfeld,” “Spin City” and “Welcome to the Captain.” She’s also appeared in the films “Tortilla Soup” and “Legally Blonde.” And she’s recently been featured in a fun Foster Grant sunglasses commercial.

For the last few years, Welch has been writing “Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage,” a compelling hybrid of autobiography and self help. She talks about her youth growing up in La Jolla -- her Brazilian-born father was tyrannical; her mother bent over backward to keep peace in the family -- her early first marriage, her children, her rise to superstardom, turning 50 and dealing with menopause.

“I did write every word of my own book,” she says proudly.

“Approaching 70, it’s a landmark of sorts and you feel that you know something and you have something to say,” Welch explains. “I desperately wanted to speak to women of my generation and, being a mother, to younger girls as well. I wanted to speak about my experience being a woman because it might help by knowing that even if you are touted as some big doo dah, the trials and tribulations and the beauty of being a woman is something that we all experience in our own way.”

But the four-time married Welch didn’t want “Beyond the Cleavage” to become a kiss-and-tell. “You don’t have to do just some dirty-laundry book,” she says. “I wanted to speak about the unspeakable, like menopause. What we really don’t need to talk about much has to do with plain old sex. But if we are talking about real life-changing experiences . . . I thought I would be useful and helpful.”

Welch also frankly talks about her firing in 1980 from the box office flop “Cannery Row” and being replaced by a much-younger Debra Winger. She sued MGM and was awarded $14 million for breach of contract.

Her film career, though, went south with the firing. Welch then found success on Broadway, replacing Lauren Bacall in the musical “Woman of the Year.” Still, she confesses, “I never really came back [to movies] 100%,” she says.

Welch explains that there is a paranoia that as life goes on you get less valuable. “That is not true,” she says. “As life goes on you get more valuable as a person. Many women look better. Personally, I think I look better because I have lived and I have a different kind of aura about me having lived.”

She feels her career would have taken a different route if the studio system were still in place. “I wasn’t working in the time of the studio system, where there were plenty of parts to do and parts that were appropriate for you -- not parts from left field where you had to somehow try to figure out how I am going to do this. . . . They do that now with Jessica Alba sometimes and Megan Fox and they get no respect.”

Welch said she managed to turn the corner in her career when she starred and produced the 1972 movie “Kansas City Bomber” at MGM, in which she played a single mother who becomes a roller derby star.

“I said let’s do something completely different -- not glam. I got very good reviews. I felt a rite of passage where I am over that part where I have to run around in a bikini forever. It’s just so painfully uncomfortable and in a way kind of humiliating.”

But she admits she never turned down sex kitten roles early in her career like the X-rated “Myra Breckinridge.”

“I am not a fool,” she explains. “I realized when I came along, I wasn’t Meryl Streep who had been put into a bikini. I was somebody that got rocketed into the spotlight and superstardom overnight. I knew this was going to give me an opportunity and I should make the best of it.

“I think that I managed to do that but it was not easy. I didn’t want to stay in people’s minds just as a physical presence.”

susan.king@latimes .com