By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Actress Raquel Welch, who helped reshape the traditional image of the Hollywood sex symbol in an era when the movie industry was still overtly defining an idealized version of sensuality for mass consumption, died on Wednesday at age 82.
Her death following a brief illness was confirmed in a statement released by her Los Angeles-based manager.
Welch first grabbed the public’s attention with her role in the 1966 sci-fi adventure “Fantastic Voyage,” playing a member of a miniaturized medical team injected into the body of an injured diplomat and memorable for the skin-tight diving suit she wore in a scene where she was attacked by antibodies.
Her success in that film was followed by an iconic appearance later the same year in the prehistoric fantasy drama “One Million Years B.C.” depicting cavemen and women coexisting with dinosaurs.
Although Welch had just a few lines of dialogue in “B.C.,” still photos of her appearance in a deer-skinned bikini made her a best-selling pinup and a global symbol.
Other screen credits in the late 1960s and early ’70s included starring roles in “Bedazzled,” “Bandolero!” “100 Rifles,” and the title roles in “Myra Breckinridge” and “Hannie Caulder.”
She won a Golden Globe Award for best actress in a musical or comedy for her performance in the 1973 swashbuckling romp “The Three Musketeers.”
Her portrayal of strong, willful characters was credited with helping break down stereotypes at a time when the sexual revolution and changing attitudes toward gender roles converged to empower women on screen, even if their looks remained objectified.
“Raquel Welch enters into the arena of the American culture industry in a time when one of the products that rolled off the assembly line of that industry was sex symbol,” said Robert Thompson, a media scholar at Syracuse University and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
“She came to represent a certain kind of sensuality for this culture that Aphrodite did for classical culture,” Thompson said, adding that Welch had also been “an accomplished actor … who helped to define the kinds of roles that women could play in a society that had some highly compromised ideas about gender.”
Playboy magazine once ranked Welch No. 3 in its “100 Sexiest Stars of the 20th Century,” and though she posed for the magazine in 1979, she never did a fully nude photo shoot.
In a 2010 memoir and self-help guide titled “Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage,” she wrote: “I’ve definitely used my body and sex appeal to advantage in my work, but always within limits.”
She added: “I feel strongly that a woman’s mystery is part of her appeal; and the power of the imagination is more potent and provocative than graphic on-camera sex or explicit nudity.”
She played a tough frontier wife out for revenge in “Hannie Caulder,” a Native American revolutionary with a vendetta in “100 Rifles” and a dressmaker to the queen in “The Three Musketeers.”
Her title role in the 1970 comedy film “Myra Breckinridge,” based on the Gore Vidal novel of the same name, stirred controversy around Welch’s portrayal of a transgender woman who undergoes sex-change surgery and later forcibly sodomizes a man with a strap-on dildo.
The film, a box office flop lambasted by critics and disavowed by Vidal as “an awful joke,” also featured John Huston, Mae West, Farrah Fawcett and Rex Reed, among others.
She was born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago. Her father was an aeronautical engineer from Bolivia. Her family moved to California when she was young. She later studied ballet before entering a series of beauty contests.
She briefly earned a living as a model and cocktail waitress before applying for film roles and breaking into the movie business with small 1964 roles in the drama “A House Is Not a Home” and the Elvis Presley musical “Roustabout.”
She went on to a career spanning more than half a century, appearing in more than 30 films and 50 television series, and as an entrepreneur was involved in a successful line of wigs, HairUWear, as well as a collection of jewelry and skin-care products.
(This story has been refiled to fix a typo in paragraph 1)
(Writing and reporting by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller and Bradley Perrett)