Only a year earlier, my life had taken an unexpected turn. It was one of those nonsensical things that happens and somehow changes everything. One day, out of the blue, I got talked into joining a beauty contest. My home economics teacher recruited all the girls in her class to participate as models at a photography convention. As part of this "field trip," we would also compete in a contest for the title "Miss Photogenic."

Huh? It had come out of left field, and I balked. We were being asked to wear one-piece bathing suits and high heels, of all things. I really didn't want to go. High heels and bathing suits sounded kind of cheesy to me, and I said so. But all the other girls thought I was trying to wriggle out of it and sort of shamed me into going along for the ride. So despite my grumbling, about a dozen of us ended up in Balboa Park one Sunday afternoon as models and rather unwilling contestants.

There were about 150 girls in the pageant from all over the city. What a big deal our glorified field trip had turned out to be. It was quite a scene backstage, with all of us primping and posing and stumbling about in heels. Before long I discovered that I actually liked to strut around in a pair of high heels and a bathing suit. It was fun! And because of the ballet, I was quite good at it. Those heels sure gave a girl tons of attitude. In the end, I walked off with the trophy.

Monday morning, the school campus was abuzz. My picture started appearing in the local papers, and complete strangers began to recognize me! It was my first taste of small-town fame, and it was exhilarating! But when the adrenaline stopped pumping, there was a bitter aftertaste. Even my friends treated me differently.

My win kicked off a series of events. Now the town council wanted me to enter the Miss La Jolla pageant. That was one I really wanted to win. After I became Miss La Jolla, I was automatically obligated to represent La Jolla in the countywide competition for Miss San Diego—the Fairest of the Fair. It was the beginning of a long line of beauty contests that eventually led to the state title of Maid of California. This was too much of a good thing. I was so done with all that . . . or so I thought.

That same year, I graduated with honors and received a scholarship to study theater arts at San Diego State College, where I also joined a sorority. But my heart wasn't in it. I couldn't stop thinking about Jim. I wondered when and if he would ever come home. He wrote to me from Peru, but his letters took forever to arrive. His mother, Tahnee Land, was always very sweet to me and kept me posted. 

Months later, when Jim finally did come back home, I couldn't wait to see him. There I was, along with his mother and three sisters—Jan, Jerry, and Judy—waiting dockside to watch his ship come in. The Portuguese tuna clipper ambled sluggishly into sight looking like anything but a pleasure cruiser. But when I spotted Jim on deck, he was quite a sight for sore eyes. He was all tan and lean and muscled up from pulling those giant tuna nets aboard. He had also grown a rather dashing goatee and looked, for all the world, like John Derek in a pirate movie. Well, it was all over for me. I kept thinking what beautiful children we could make together. And I got my way. I dropped out of college, and we were married in Las Vegas. His mother, Tahnee, was there with us at the ceremony. We had her blessing. My mother was less than thrilled. My father was furious!

From Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage by Raquel Welch (April 1, 2010); reprinted with permission from the publisher.


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