For more than 40 years, Raquel Welch has reigned as one of America's most famous sex symbols. Fans first took notice of the auburn-haired beauty in 1966, when she donned a doeskin bikini for the film One Million Years B.C.
Raquel went on to star in more than 30 movies and dozens of television shows—sharing the screen with leading men like Frank Sinatra. She took a turn on Broadway and also won a Golden Globe for her role in The Three Musketeers. Offscreen, Raquel's successful wig line has made more than $500 million in sales.
Despite being a household name, Raquel has rarely spoken about her private life—until now. At age 69, Raquel is opening up for the first time in her deeply personal memoir, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage. "I thought when I came along in that [One Million B.C.] poster I was a thing to be seen and not heard," she says. "By the time you get to 70, you might have a couple of things you'd like to say, and you might like to reach out and have a conversation with other women."
When Raquel rocked her career-defining bikini in 1966, the world saw her as an international sex symbol. In reality, she was the divorced mother of two young children who wanted to pursue a serious acting career. "When I first came to Hollywood, it was really clear that no actresses really had children. So I didn't really know which path my career would take."
Early on in the filming of One Million Years B.C., Raquel says she tried to approach director Don Chaffey with her ideas for a scene. "I say: 'Don, I've been thinking. I've been looking at the script and I've been thinking,'" she says. "And he said, 'Don't.'"
Soon, millions of copies of Raquel's iconic image were circulated around the world. In an instant, she was every man's fantasy. "Part of it was really flattering and fun," she says. "The other part was just really scary as hell."
A reluctant sex symbol, Raquel says she constantly found herself at the center of attention. "I was happy that I had got a break so I could have my career, but at the same time, it was like: 'This isn't me. But this is what I have to do because this is my ticket to ride,'" she says. "I'm not in a position to just say: 'Oh, no, wait a minute. You've got it all wrong. I'd like to do Shakespeare.'"
At times, Raquel says she felt taken advantage of. "I felt I was being manipulated and things were moving without my consent, but I was also trying to calculate, because I'm not stupid."
Still, Raquel admits she became accustomed to certain perks. "It had some power attached to it, so that part I became addicted to," she says. "It pulled me away from my more serious artistic side, and I kind of just let the other go, to tell you the truth."
With fame came the chance for Raquel to spend time with leading men like Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. She doesn't believe a woman should kiss and tell, but Raquel does spill some dirt in her new book. "They were all interesting in their own ways," she says.
In 1964, Raquel had a small part in Elvis' film Roustabout. "He was like high-octane energy set on idle," she says. "He had all this stuff in him. He was charged up. But it was all contained in this cool demeanor."
Still, she says he never actually seduced her. "He invited me someplace that I decided not to go," she says. "I just didn't want to be another notch in his gun."
In 1972, Raquel filmed Bluebeard in Budapest with Richard Burton. "He's like a heat-seeking missile, a smoking hot romantic," she says. "He was just so charismatic. He was just really something."
Raquel says a common misconception is that she's had lots of sex over the years. In fact, Raquel says sex is overrated. "Sex is great, of course. But sex to me is an expression of the relationship and the feelings that you have for somebody else," she says. "If those things are not working, and especially for women who are very strong and have a very high income—or at least a higher income than he does—it starts to just ruin everything."
Raquel says she falls for men who can see and feel the real her—not the girl on the poster. "All the men that I have really fallen for are those men that have reacted to me and have made me feel like I'm a person and it's not that they're going to bed with Raquel Welch," she says. "I'm a human being, you know. I put my high heels on one foot at a time."
Raquel say another misconception is that she's high maintenance. "I am for work but not the rest of the time," she says. "I'm usually just in sweatpants and some kind of raggedy shirt and my Keds."
Though her career brought many opportunities, Raquel says there is a personal cost. "When I'm running around the world and being Miss Sex Symbol and having this big career in film and everything and I'm running from place to place, I couldn't always be with my children when I wanted to be," she says. "Eventually, I could see that this was taking its toll on my kids, and it used to just break my heart."
Even when she was home, Raquel says she wasn't always present. In some birthday cards, Raquel says she signed "Raquel" instead of "Mom" because she was so used to autographs. "I was often preoccupied," she says. "I felt loving toward them and I would tuck them in and I would soothe them, but it wasn't the same as being there for them as a mother 24/7."
Today, Raquel says she has a great relationship with her kids, but it took work. "I just started out realizing that I really needed to swim out to the wave. I needed to take a lot more initiative and just keep letting them know that I wanted to be there in their lives with them, that I had something I could offer to them," she says. "Little by little, the disappointment or the lack of confidence they had in me melted away."
When it comes to aging, Raquel admits she was "totally" afraid of getting older. "To be an aging sex symbol is not exactly a picnic," she says. "If you're called old, you feel like it's over."
Raquel says she loved her 40s but felt blindsided when she hit menopause. She experienced heavy bleeding and drastic mood swings. She found herself without energy and depressed. "I used to find myself just down on the floor in a corner crying my eyes out," she says. "I couldn't handle anything."
Though Raquel found some relief through hormone replacement, she says she didn't find peace until she faced unresolved issues from her past. "I felt like a lot of what I was doing with my career and with the different men in my life was really a kind of [avoidance]," she says. "I just had to unravel the things that I hadn't been dealing with because I was just too busy."
In the end, Raquel says she felt empowered. "I actually felt like: 'Oh, my God, this is a new time. This is like an awakening. I'm coming into the light. I get myself now."
Raquel says the lesson for every aging woman is to embrace it. "I want them to stop being scared of it, because it's just another chapter in life," she says. "It's not time for you to give up. You don't need to repeat what you did already. Don't keep comparing yourself."
Raquel says she likes to think of aging gracefully as a game. "We might as well make up our minds to play it or just bow out and be spectators," she says. "Sitting around doing nothing is far from the best option. Just as you maintain your home, your car, your garden, you should look after your greatest gift: your body."