Raquel Welch was born as Jo Raquel Tejada on 5 September 1940 in Chicago, Illinois. The family moved to San Diego, California when Raquel was two years old. As a young girl, she wanted to perform and studied ballet from the age of seven to seventeen but gave it up after her instructor told her she did not have the right figure.
She won beauty titles as Miss Photogenic and Miss Contour while attending La Jolla High School, later winning the title of Miss San Diego – the Fairest of the Fair – at the San Diego County Fair and eventually the state title of Maid of California. Her parents divorced when she finished her school years.
Seeking an acting career, Welch entered San Diego State College on a theatre arts scholarship and the following year she married her high school sweetheart, James Welch.
She won several parts in local theatre productions and got a job as a weather forecaster at KFMB, a local San Diego television station.
After her separation from James Welch, she moved with her two children to Dallas, where she worked as a model for Neiman Marcus and as a cocktail waitress. Moving back to LA in 1963, she was cast in small roles in two films, A House Is Not a Home (1964) and the Elvis Presley musical Roustabout (1964).
She was one of many actresses who auditioned for the role of Mary Ann Summers on the television series Gilligan’s Island.
Welch’s first featured role was in the beach film A Swingin’ Summer (1965) before signing a seven-year nonexclusive contract with 20th Century Fox. She was cast in a leading role in the sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which she portrayed a member of a medical team that is miniaturised and injected into the body of an injured diplomat with the mission to save his life. The film was a hit and made her a star.
Fox loaned Welch to Hammer Studios in Britain where she starred in One Million Years BC (1966) and her only costume was a two-piece deerskin bikini. The New York Times hailed her in its review of the film as “a marvellous breathing monument to womankind”. A publicity still of her in the bikini became a best-selling poster and turned her into an instant pin-up girl. The film raised Welch’s stature as a leading sex symbol of the era.
Her first starring vehicle, the British Modesty Blaise-style spy movie Fathom (1967), was filmed in Spain for 20th Century Fox. In England, she appeared as Lust incarnate in the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedy film, Bedazzled (1967), a Swinging ’60s retelling of the Faust legend. It was popular, as was the Western, Bandolero! (1968), which co-starred her against James Stewart and Dean Martin.
Welch’s most controversial role came in Myra Breckinridge (1970) where she played the transsexual heroine in an attempt to be taken seriously as an actress. The production was characterised by animosity between Welch and Mae West, who walked out of the film for three days.
She continued to work in films including The Beloved (1970) in which she starred and produced, Kansas City Bomber (1972), The Last of Sheila (1973), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Wild Party (1975).