Monday, 9 September 2013

THIS WOMAN WAS BORN ONE MILLION YEARS BC


I was interviewed today about the time I spent living in Hollywood with Raquel Welch.  Because of her, I will never have plastic surgery, however badly I might need it.
 
We met on Mustique in a rickety beach bar, where she sat eating tuna tartare with her tiny fingers while sipping a long Rum Punch. I barely recognised her. Her cherry nail polish was chipped, her tawny hair hung in rats' tails, and her perfect doll's feet were bare. The famous breasts were suspended like huge hams in a Lycra top, and her skin glistened with oil. Up close, she smelled like a Bounty bar. Not a single punter bothered her, most of the diners were stars themselves. Tossing a cap-toothed smile at Mick and Jerry, she leapt to embrace Basil, the owner, and undulated a little to some steel band tunes. Out across moonlit Britannia Bay, billionaires were turning in for the night on twinkling yachts. Perhaps the fantasy world of a private island had worked its magic on Raquel Welch, softening a tough movie broad into the sassy woman who charmed us so effortlessly that night. Back in LA, the Hollywood Raquel I got to know during my tenure as a West Coast showbiz reporter bore little resemblance to her Caribbean incarnation. I should have known. But what young, opportunistic journalist eschews the chance of friendship, however fleeting,with a motion picture icon like Raquel Welch?

She was a fabled but faded drama queen old enough to be my mother. I was an upstart nobody, young enough to be in awe - which was the rub. Hollywood friendships are always symbiotic but rarely equal, never devoid of ulterior motive, inevitably short-lived. It is not the fond beginnings of former friendships that we tend to recall, but the sorrow provoked by their demise.
  
The thin line which divides love from hatred, fantasy from reality, has never existed in Hollywood. All edges are blurred, and anything goes. Arguably the only town in the world in which a personality disorder is a distinct advantage, everyone is from somewhere else, and everybody is Going Places. Even the guy serving your coffee and bagel at breakfast has a script-meeting later. It can take minutes, months or a lifetime to comprehend its hidden shallows, and even then, too many fail to take heed. It is all but impossible to plant roots. Some newcomers last a week, others get trapped for a lifetime. When I left, it was because I had to, before the place swallowed me whole. Looking back on heady days spent with Raquel Welch and others like her, I still believe what I suspected then: that Tinseltown is nothing but its own facade, and is certainly no place for the sane.

A chance encounter with Raquel's then manager in Atlantic City had led to her granting me an interview to promote her new fitness video – a big deal for Raquel, a workout and meditation fiend, as she was about to turn fifty that year. I was looking forward to meeting her again when I arrived at her elegant home in Evelyn Place on the Trousdale Estates. She may not have remembered our Basil's Bar encounter, but Raquel wasted no time in playing to the camera, even though there wasn't one. Perched on the edge of a mustard leather sofa in her creamy drawing room, I found myself dealing with a real-life Norma Desmond - the over-the-hill silent screen idol played by Gloria Swanson in cult classic Sunset Boulevard, who is determined to make an against-all-odds comeback. Self-absorbed to the point of obsession, oblivious of the fact that the world had moved on from inflatable dolls in chamois swimwear, it occurred to me that Raquel would be the perfect choice for a remake.
Everywhere I looked, pictures of her gazed down at me. Two huge Warhol-style portraits sat one either side of her fireplace. A vast Revlon advertising print dominated her formal dining room. Her home was part museum, part shrine, paying homage to her then quarter-century as a superstar. Not that she had worked much in movies since her 60s/early 70s heyday, denounced by the industry as too high-maintenance. A brief spell on the set of Cannery Row had led to her sacking by MGM Studios and replacement by Debra Winger. Raquel sued so brilliantly that she banked $15 million and never had to work again. She did, though - Body and Mind videos, cosmetic endorsements, TV shows, stage work, a hugely successful line in wigs - for profile rather than remuneration, the usual thing that keeps a superstar at it. If fame is a drug, the addiction knows no cure. Raquel and her ilk would sooner be dead than Has-Been.

She had a peculiarly masculine energy. All-woman, scarily sex-on-legs, her smooth, tanned complexion looked more Latin than in her photographs. But her personality revealed a perplexing Alpha Male-ness. Her language was ripe, her laugh straight out of a locker room. She spoke loudly and clearly, her pronunciation at times almost English. Her maid looked long-suffering as she pottered about, fetching 'Squirt' grapefruit soda and black coffee,and serving a chicken lunch. Raquel called me 'sweetheart', 'darling', 'Baby'. I'd heard vague bisexual rumours, and had a fictitious boyfriend up my sleeve, just in case.

'White girls are just so tightly-wrapped sexually', she remarked through ravenous mouthfuls.
'Hmmm', I thought, 'how does she know?'  

It seemed a good time to ask why she'd never done topless or nude work.

'Dark Latin nipples, Baby' she shrugged.
Wanna see?' 

Reader, I declined. It didn't stop her talking about her sex life. I was taken aback, as I hadn't asked. She confided that she had a 'very European' attitude towards sex, which most American men 'found intimidating'. Munching away on chicken and rice cakes, she'd clutch her fingers together and jab at me to emphasise a point. Her hand was like a snake's head, preparing to strike. I was mesmerised. While I found her compelling, I was terrified. She even confessed to a penchant for sex in cars, a habit acquired during her misspent San Diego youth. Embarrassed now, I clicked off the tape and legged it to the bathroom. On my way back, a stash of racy videos caught my eye.
Hours later, when I made to leave, Raquel insisted on driving me in her new Japanese car. She sang along unselfconsciously to Beatles tapes, getting the lyrics wrong – very Raquel - played Peter Gabriel full-blast, and raved about the singer Jody Watley. On pulling up outside my hotel, she invited me out to dinner. As I sat watching her tuck in to Caesar salad and tomato soup, and knocking back Martinis in famous Musso and Frank's Grill, the urge to phone home and squeal 'guess where I am' was irresistible.

For what felt like years but was in fact only months, we seemed inseparable. At Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset and Doheny, we'd bump into her celebrity pals - Carrie Fisher, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin. Jack In the Box drive-through was another fast-food favourite, as was The Apple Pan diner on Pico. She adored being seen at Le Petit Four on Sunset, and at Le Dome (now closed). During the day, with nothing better to do, we'd meet for lunch in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, then hang by the pool until dinner. When we weren't indulging in 'mani-pedis' in the hotel beauty salon, I'd sit chatting with her while she had her mane coloured and sculpted at Umberto's. 'She has to look like Sixties Raquel', she'd say, often referring to herself unnervingly in the Third Person. 'This girl has to stay the same with her looks. That's the way people expect her to look. That's the only way they know Raquel Welch!'
But how did she still look as fabulous as 25 years earlier in her only memorable picture, One Million Years BC (who can recall any other?) without ever having resorted to plastic surgery?

'That's the point!', she'd squeal, delighted that 'the work' was undetectable.

'The secret is, start having it before you need it! Raquel started getting things done back in the 60s. All it's taken is a tuck and tweak ever since. You're sitting inches away from her face, you can't even notice? Result! But look at Nancy (Sinatra): richer than Croesus and one of the worst face jobs on the globe - with HER millions! That's because she came to it too late. Take it from Raquel, go now before they notice you need it' – at which she reached out to shove my sagging jowl into my ear.

'By the time you really DO need it, you'll be ahead of the game. Mother Nature figures she has us licked with this ageing business. But Baby (her usual nick-name for me – hers was 'Rocky'), it doesn't have to be that way'.
I never took Rocky's advice, however. I have never regretted it. Too squeamish. I couldn't help but admire her, though, for having the guts to admit to what so many in her shoes were denying back then, before surgery got respectable.

Our 'Girls' Nights Out' took us from the Rainbow Bar and Grill to le Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Strip, Raquel often raunchily attired in black stockings and mini skirts. Even at 50, she got away with it. At her beloved Trader Vic's, she'd drink Mai Tai and Pina Pepe cocktails, served up in a real pineapple shell. Raquel, health-obsessed, would otherwise plump for apple cider or plain water. While her behaviour was never that wild, she enjoyed a good time. Her enjoyment hinged not a little on being recognised. She'd cluck about like a mother hen, introducing me as her 'new best friend'.
I never understood why the most legendary sex symbol since Marilyn wanted to hang with me, a nobody. Was it for my plainness, which accentuated her beauty, my Englishness, my innocence, my 'minion' stance? Every Leading Lady needs her lackeys. Reluctant to rock the boat, I never asked. If it sounds trite to say that she taught me plenty – about love, men in general and husbands in particular (she'd had three by then, there was later a fourth, so she knew a bit), single motherhood (later to hit me – Raquel was a mother of two), about Hollywood, self-belief, about guts and determination and not giving up – I make no apology. Her control freakery was forgiveable while the ride was still too exhilarating for words.
Raquel could talk for Bolivia, her native land. She was under no illusions: it was reflection rather than talent which got her hired.

'What's wrong with keeping a hold of my image while I still have it?' she'd reason.

'It's more constructive than wailing 'They never treated me right because I was so pretty.' Women have to be so many things, because men can't be. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy them all. I'm very grateful for my image', she declared, 'and will maintain it for as long as I am able. I made my choice a long time ago, and now I have to live up to it. Other people can let themselves go in middle age, and that's fine too. I cannot afford that luxury.'


And then, just as swiftly as our friendship had ignited, it faded. That's show business. I'd begun to irritate her - she'd tell me my outfit was 'tacky', while she was wearing leg-warmers! She lost her rag with me once too often, screaming and screaming before crying her eyes out, expecting me to forgive and forget. Her compliment-fishing, speaking volumes about her deep-rooted insecurity, was beginning to get on my nerves.

'Baby, aren't you going to tell me I look pretty today? Do I look sexy, c'mon, Baby, a girl's gotta know ...'

Worse, she had a terminal falling-out with her manager. Because he had introduced us in the first place, I found myself tarred with the same brush. It proved the perfect get-out.
Regrets? Only a few. As a journalist, I'd had nothing but a walk-on part in Raquel Welch's epic drama. I doubt she's even thought of me since. I never heard from her again after quitting LA. Not a Christmas card, fewer happy returns, even though our September birthdays fell only days apart.

I was not your typical Tinseltown victim. But I'd had my fill. The tragedy is probably that Raquel has, too. Anonymity is preferable, in the greater scheme. We bit-part players get to walk away, call time on the madness. Nearly 20 years on, still caught in the trap, Raquel Welch, now 73, is still doing Eyes And Teeth whether she wants to or not, for a camera which is only sometimes there.



















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