Before there was a Cara Delevingne Planet Sex docu-series, or worthy praise for Kim Petras, or a deification of all Kardashian-Jenner women, a lionizing of Beyonce and Rihanna, and the glorification of each and every RuPaul Drag All-Star, there was Raquel Welch – actress, model, camp icon and the first modern-day pinup bombshell.
When Welch passed away yesterday, February 15, a slew of millennial-aged, social media responses questioned who she was – you know, beyond being in Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon – and what she meant to the present day of beauty iconography and fierce womanhood. Who Welch was, was the fiercest.
Initially, that ferocity meant being the first object of fetish-ization for so many young men and women at the top of the 60s psychedelic/free love/woman’s liberation era courtesy of a wall-sized poster that hung in every bedroom in the world – her One Million Years B.C. costume of a two-piece deer skin bikini. Was this the first monster sized poster – before the Bruce Lees, the Nastassja Kinski snakes, the Pam Griers and the Farrah Fawcetts? Probably.
With a fur bikini, a wild stare, and wilder hair, Welch’s scantily-clad image immediately became one of a mighty sense of empowerment and towering strength (she had to fight off dinosaurs, man). This was a woman – beyond the kitsch ultra-violence of Russ Meyer’s “ultra-vixens” – who would never kowtow to any brand of patriarchy. This was a formidable woman who could kick your ass.
That stature, however, intimated film producers and directors who could rarely capitalize on Welch’s strength. Such missteps were not her fault, but rather that of a misogynistic cinematic studio system (or just a bunch of clueless men) that was so regularly used to throwing mighty women under the bus and into submission (Hello, Marilyn Monroe) for attempting to portray anything but the damsel in distress, the compliant woman/mom/wife, and the ravaging beauty without a brain in her head.
Thankfully, there were indeed iconic moments and cultural changing media where and when Welch was able to capitalize on her powers, show might, and occasionally with a wink to more camp sensibilities.
Welch actually started her film career in a brainiac position as part of the Fantastic Voyage (1966) team of scientists shrunk down to the size of a head of a pin so to be injected into the bloodstream of a man set to save the world. A littler-than-life Welch, however, could never be enough.
After the spectacle of/marvels surrounding One Million Years B.C., turning Raquel into a grand, first-class 007 spy type saving the world from nuclear annihilation ( in Fathom from 1967) and one of the Seven Deadly Sins personified (also in 1967, the under-appreciated British comedy Bedazzled) made more sense.
Further revelations and revolutions came with 1969’s 100 Rifles where Welch had a love scene (as a Native American revolutionary, no less) with a Black male icon – the one-time NFL fullback Jim Brown. Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura may have shared the first interracial kiss for the sake of television and the space where no man had ever gone before, but Welch and Brown made interracial sex a thing for the big screen, Technicolor, WideScreen, Vista-Vision and all.
However, when you’re considering camp and the broad beauty of Welch, no part was better, more cynically humorous or upsetting to many as her role in Myra Breckinridge (1970) as a manly man who transitions into being the most beautiful woman in the world of its title. After that, playing the brawny, tawny, roughly physicalized K.C. Carr of the beyond roller derby team, Kansas City Bomber (1972) was a piece of cake.
Welch skated through the 1970s and 80s in fluffy, swashbuckling buxom beauty roles in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and The Prince and the Pauper, went the foreign film route with macho French fucks such as Jean-Paul Belmondo in Animal, played an alien bounty hunter pursuing Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy and wound up as an alternative universe Jane Fonda doing workout videos with leg warmers. By the 2000s, she played countesses and stately ex-wives in comedies such as Legally Blonde. Still, the visage of haughty strength – of surviving in the wilds of prehistoric times (and pre-thought processing masculinity) and staring boldly into a future where women ruled the world is how Raquel Welch is best remembered.
Take that, Cara Delevingne.