WITH her hourglass figure and raw sensuality, Raquel Welch was perhaps the biggest sex symbol of the 1970s. That didn't mean, however, that she enjoyed the distinction. The money and fame were welcome, of course, but the image was no fun, especially when she was ridiculed by the feminists – whose movement hit its peak at the same time.
"I'd taken the bull by the horns by liberating myself and creating a career," says Welch, still remarkably youthful-looking at 69. "It took guts – it was scary and chancy – but they discounted me as empty-headed, some little piece of fluff without any brain that happened to come along."
Welch had become an instant celebrity with the release of a poster for One Million Years BC in 1966, depicting her in a fur bikini. Loana the cave woman was her first starring role, and overnight the exotic-looking actress – the eldest child of an Irish-American mother and a Bolivian father – was a pin-up queen.
She spent most of the next 44 years trying to show that she was more than a beautiful bubblehead. That hasn't been easy, she says, because even now Hollywood hasn't freed her from that stereotype.
"The whole sex-symbol thing is part of what I do as an actress," she says. "It's a kind of character I play. It's part of me, but not the whole me."
She reveals some of the rest in Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage. Mostly a beauty and fitness guide for older women, the book reveals that, yes, she has used Retin-A to treat fine mouth lines, along with a lip moisturiser originally used by farmers on cows' udders, to aid milking.
She also wears a jaw splint while sleeping to prevent teeth-grinding, which has caused her headaches in the past. As for cosmetic surgery, Welch is more ambiguous, in the book and in person. "I haven't indulged in overkill," she says. "Let's put it that way."
Welch may complain about the indignities of the sex-symbol label, but she's still willing to have fun with it. Asked about a recent report that she got a pat-down at Chicago's O'Hare airport after supports in her bustier set off metal detectors, she recounts the episode with gusto.
"It was all kind of fun," the actress says. "The girl kept explaining, 'And now I shall take my hand and tap it lightly through your cleavage. Now I'm going to touch you with the back of my open hand and make this movement underneath your right breast.' I said, 'Fine, carry on. Do your thing!'"
Welch turns coy, however, when asked for the record to divulge her bra size. "I would rather not say," she says. "My breasts are normal size. It's not really what people imagine. But we have to let them have their fun, don't we?"
She's not a fan of the modern look in bras, Welch adds. She prefers the jutting, cantilevered designs of the 1950s. "It's more fun to have a provocative look than just a big, round bulge there," she says. "If you're going to wear a bra, you might as well have a little torque to you, right?"
Since the mid-1980s Welch has been seen mainly as a guest-star on such television series as Spin City (1997-2000). In the past decade she has appeared on the big screen only twice, in a small role in Legally Blonde (2001) and a larger part in the little-seen Forget About It (2006). "There are no parts around for me," she says, "and haven't been from age 40 on."
That was when Welch was fired from Cannery Row (1982) during production, supposedly because she was too old for the role, and replaced by a 27-year-old Debra Winger. She sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and won, but the mess badly damaged her film career, enhancing her already formidable reputation for being, as they say in Hollywood, "difficult".
The root of that reputation, she says, was her repeated refusal to consider nude scenes. "People used to come knocking on my door saying, 'Your trouble is that you're a sex symbol who doesn't do enough sexy things,'" Welch recalls. "I'd say to myself, 'You think that if you pressure me I'll fold.' But if I did it, all it would mean is that I sold out."
Not that Welch denies she can be difficult. Since the beginning, when she left her husband and high-school sweetheart James Welch to break into the movies, with two toddlers and with only 200 in her pocket, she has been determined to get what she wanted. "With the force of will that you need to do what I did, you're going to be quite a handful," she says.
"I needed to be a little tough to break through. But at one point I found myself being just a little too much. I told a few people off, and that wasn't at all what I should have done. Eventually I realised that I had to be quiet."
Welch had a famous run-in with Mae West when the then-elderly film icon kicked up a fuss about a costume the younger actress wanted to wear in the poorly received Myra Breckinridge (1970). "At the time," she says, "I just thought, 'Raquel, she's a 77-year-old who never shot a movie in colour before, and now she has to share the screen with you. How would you feel?'"
Welch impressed critics with her acting ability in Kansas City Bomber (1972) and The Three Musketeers (1973) and, after the MGM lawsuit kicked her film career to the kerb, she proved it all over again when, at 42, she replaced Lauren Bacall in the Broadway musical Woman of the Year (1981) and earned solid reviews. Even in her seventh decade, however, she has been unable to shake being typecast as a sexpot: two years ago, on the sitcom Welcome to the Captain, she guest-starred as a cougar lusting after younger men. "I could make myself up with wrinkles and grey hair, look 90," the actress says, "and they'd say, 'But then it's all about you being Raquel Welch and that you're making this departure. That isn't the focus of our project.' They only want the specific sexual side. I would have happily played the part that Sally Field has in Brothers and Sisters... but it wasn't offered."
Her own interests, she says, have always lain less in sex, which she calls "overrated – there's so much more to life than sex, so many things that are exciting and interesting" – and more in romance. "To have a romance was a big ego-boost," Welch admits. "The reflection I saw of myself in their eyes was reassuring. But running from one relationship to the next is a trap. When I finally realised I had to get to know myself without a man, it was like coming into the attic where everything had been shoved, and you go, 'Holy cow, I've got all this stuff to deal with.'"
Welch has had four husbands, and in her book implies that she has also had relationships with such stars as Bob Dylan, Dean Martin, Burt Reynolds and Frank Sinatra. None of her husbands were celebrities, however, which wasn't accidental. "I became very aware of how impossible they all are," she says. "Being in the public eye is very self-involving. And when you see it in somebody else, you realise that there isn't going to be any wiggle room."
With four marriages came four divorces, which Welch blames on her husbands' discomfort in the shadow of her stardom, and a fifth round is not in her plans. "I don't feel like, unless I have a boyfriend or somebody to march down the aisle with for the fifth time, that I'm 'Oh, poor me,'" she says. "I'm not going to go running out desperately looking, making myself crazy and thinking that, without that, I'm nothing."
These days, when she dates it's likely to be someone decades her junior – not as a 'cougar' thing, but because of dissatisfaction with her male peers. "It's difficult to find a man my age who doesn't want to be with a 30-year-old," she says bluntly. "If the last person was 30, he would have to convince me he's really interested in me and not just so he can use me as a trophy. I'm not going to be the notch on somebody's gun so they can parade around saying, 'You think she's hot? Well, I've had her – and her too.' Who wants to be that?"
New York Times. Beyond the Cleavage, by Raquel Welch (Weinstein Books, 17.89)
• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, April 18, 2010