Remembering Raquel Welch, the Iconic Cave Girl

Raquel Welch

The international sex symbol had a funny side.

Raquel Welch, whose defiant pose on the poster for the 1966 movie One Million Years BC numbers among the most iconic images of the last six decades, has died at 82.

Welch’s rep confirmed the news in a statement to ABC, which read: “The legendary bombshell actress of film, television and stage, passed away peacefully early this morning after a brief illness.

“Her career spanned over 50 years starring in over 30 films and 50 television series and appearances. The Golden Globe winner, in more recent years, was involved in a very successful line of wigs.”

“Raquel leaves behind her two children, son Damon Welch and her daughter, Tahnee Welch.”

Though Welch’s fame was largely founded on her undeniable sex appeal, her career took some surprising turns. She never received serious acclaim for her dramatic roles, but over time, she revealed a knack for comedy — and even dipped her toe into Broadway with huge success in the 1980s.

Here are just a few highlights from her incredible journey.

Welch’s early life

Welch was born Jo-Raquel Tejada in Chicago on Sept. 5, 1940. She was the oldest of three kids. Her parents, Armando Carlos Tejada, a Bolivian aeronautical engineer, and Josephine Sarah Tejada, had met in college in Illinois. During the Second World War, the family relocated to Southern California, where Armando was assisting with the war effort.

After graduating from high school in San Diego — and successfully competing in local beauty pageants — Welch received a scholarship to study theater at San Diego State College. She dropped out to marry her high school boyfriend James Wesley Welch while she was still just 19 years old, and became a weather girl for the local TV station. The pair had two children, but their marriage didn’t last.

Her rise to fame

After leaving her husband in what she described as “the most painful decision of my entire life,” Welch moved to Los Angeles in 1964. According to The New York Times she’d have preferred New York, but it was expensive, cold, and she didn’t own a winter coat. She soon landed a contract with 20th Century Fox, which she hoped would lead to a starring role in a Bond movie. That didn’t pan out, but after being cast in the 1966 science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, Welch was offered a leading role in One Million Years BC — and catapulted to international fame.

The photo of Welch in her tattered doe-skin bikini is one of the best-recognized in cinematic history — though the representation of her body was out of step with her more reserved upbringing.

Welch once said she “was not brought up to be a sex symbol, nor is it in my nature to be one”.

“The fact that I became one is probably the loveliest, most glamorous and fortunate misunderstanding,” she added.

Welch made a name for herself playing strong female action characters that redefined the traditional sex symbol image, though her acting skills didn’t take Hollywood by storm. When Fathom, a spy thriller, came out in 1967, the Los Angeles Times said:  “Each new Raquel Welch picture brings further proof that when Maria Montez died they didn’t break the mold. Like Maria, Raquel can’t act from here to there, but both ladies seem to have been born to be photographed … this sappiest of spy pictures.”

Welch herself was clearly well aware of her reputation, but appeared happy to make her way regardless. “No one is going to shout, ‘Wow it’s Anne Bancroft all over again’,” she said of her performance in 1967’s Bedazzled. “But at least I’m not Miss Sexpot running around half-naked all the time.”

Speaking to Dick Cavett in 1970, Welch remarked that it wasn’t important to her that people recognize her “unexpected” intelligence, saying: “I don’t care about proving anything, one way or another.”

Her appearance on The Dick Cavett show was to discuss Myra Breckinridge (1970), her most controversial role. Welch played a post-op trans woman in the movie, which was based on Gore Vidal’s bestselling novel. The film follows Breckinridge’s mission to dismantle gender norms as a teacher at an acting school.

Welch hoped that the film would establish her as a serious actress, but instead the production from hell — her co-star, Mae West, wasn’t a fan — was followed by dismal reviews. She didn’t appear to regret the decision to get involved, later telling Out: “I’m so very glad I made it, because I think it means that someday, someone somewhere will have the cojones to come along and really do it the way Gore intended it. And make it the funny, erudite movie it really should be.”

Myra Breckinridge had the potential to end Welch’s career, but ever the survivor, she returned to the screen the following year in Hannie Caulder, a Western shot in Spain. The movie, which Quentin Tarantino later cited as one of his inspirations for Kill Bill, Volume 1, was one of the earliest Westerns to offer an actress a leading role, and one of few ever to do so. In 1973, she revealed an aptitude for comedy as Constance de Bonacieux in The Three Musketeers — a role that earned her a Golden Globe.

Guest stints on Broadway

Taking her lead from Frank Sinatra’s club act, Welch started singing and dancing at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1973. Two years later, she sang I’m A Woman with Cher on The Cher Show.

She echoed the performance with an equally memorable turn alongside Miss Piggy just a few years later.

Her musical skills garnered further respect when, in 1981, Welch filled in for Lauren Bacall in Woman Of The Year on Broadway.

“It would be inaccurate to say that Miss Welch is a better actress than Miss Bacall,” read The New York Times’ review, “but certainly at this stage of her career she is a more animated musical personality.

This lady can move and she can dance – and I think she can sing, although it is not always easy to tell over the crackle of the overmiking in the Palace Theater. Her performance is in all respects marked by show-business know-how.”

In 1997, Welch returned to the stage to replace Julie Andrews for seven weeks in Victor/Victoria — a daunting undertaking, given Andrews’ stunning reviews. Again, she pulled it off, bringing a hitherto unexplored element of comedy to the part.

At times, Welch clearly felt that her looks had impeded her efforts to be taken seriously as an actress. “It’s very hard to accept a brain and a very strong, willful personality in the shape of a beautiful and sensual woman,” she told Barbara Walters in 1985 per Vogue. “People don’t like that because it complicates things.”

Later, writing in Beyond the Cleavage, Welch appeared to have reconciled herself to the contrast between the world’s expectations of her and what she had to offer, and suggested that women often underestimate the advantages inherent in their sex. 

“I’ve fought that tendency in myself, and have come to adopt a more positive and empowering attitude toward the art of being a woman,” she mused.