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Raquel Welch: Sex symbol who never escaped her fur bikini

Actress Raquel Welch waves to photographers and fans as she sits in front of her newly unveiled star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on June 8, 1996 in Hollywood, California. (File photo by KIM KULISH / Agence France-Presse)

Actress Raquel Welch waves to photographers and fans as she sits in front of her newly unveiled star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on June 8, 1996 in Hollywood, California. (File photo by KIM KULISH / Agence France-Presse)

PARIS, France — When Raquel Welch donned a deerskin bikini for a 1966 caveman screen epic, she became one of the hottest sex symbols of her time, a role she never felt able to escape.

The film was mediocre, but the poster for “One Million Years BC” went around the world, taking her with it and making both of them an indelible part of cinema history.

“With the release of that famous movie poster, in one fell swoop, everything in my life changed and everything about the real me was swept away,” Welch wrote in her 2010 autobiography “Beyond the Cleavage.”

“All else would be eclipsed by this bigger-than-life sex symbol.”

With an auburn mane and lauded for her famous figure, Welch took over from the late Marilyn Monroe to become the universal sex goddess of the 1960s and 1970s.

The New York Times described her in 1967 as “a marvelous breathing monument to womankind” while Playboy magazine said she was “the most desired woman of the 1970s.”

Walk-on parts

Welch, who died Wednesday after a brief illness, was born Jo Raquel Tejada on Sept. 5, 1940, in Chicago to a Bolivian aeronautical engineer and his American wife.

Growing up in California, she took ballet lessons and won the first of several teen beauty titles at the age of 14.

She married her high school sweetheart, James Welch, before she was 20, having two children with him before they divorced in 1964.

Welch then moved to Dallas, taking on jobs as a model and barmaid. Seeking stardom, she returned to Los Angeles in 1963, where she met her agent and next husband Patrick Curtis.

Her never-illustrious acting career started with a string of walk-on parts in minor films, including the 1964 musical feature “Roustabout” starring Elvis Presley.

But a break came when she was picked by the 20th Century Fox studio to star in the 1966 science fiction film, “Fantastic Voyage.”

Typecast

The same year she had a leading role in “One Million Years BC,” a fantasy film forgettable except for its bikini-clad cavewoman.

In 1967 Welch married Curtis in Paris in a famously skimpy white crochet dress, living it up in a lavish Beverly Hills villa with a black marble swimming pool and a Rolls-Royce.

However, by then she was typecast and struggled to prove herself as an actress.

“Americans have always had sex symbols. It’s a time-honored tradition and I’m flattered to have been one,” she once said.

“But it’s hard to have a long, fruitful career once you’ve been stereotyped that way.”

Welch clocked up a series of films in the late 1960s and 1970s but remained restricted by her status as a beauty.

Titles included the western “Bandolero!” (1968), detective movie “Lady in Cement” (1968) and comedy “Animal” (1977).

In 1969 she was in Hollywood’s first interracial sex scene with Jim Brown in “100 Rifles.” Then came her most controversial role — a transsexual heroine in the explicit “Myra Breckinridge” (1970).

The swashbuckling “The Three Musketeers” (1973), in which she played the queen’s dressmaker, won her the Golden Globe for best actress.

While filming “Cannery Row” in 1982, Welch was fired for insisting on doing her hair and make-up at home. She sued MGM studios for breach of contract, ultimately winning a $15 million settlement.

Later roles

A lover of yoga, Welch later launched herself into the business of well-being, publishing her “Total Beauty and Fitness” program in 1984.

Having long hidden her Latino origins, as an elegant 60-something she took on Hispanic roles in the “American Family” series on PBS in 2002 and “Tortilla Soup” in 2001.

In 2008 at age 68, she divorced her fourth husband, Richard Palmer, who was 14 years her junior.

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