We met in a Mustique beach bar, where she sat eating tuna tartare with her tiny fingers and sipping a 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. Her legendary breasts were suspended like huge hams in a Lycra top, and her skin glistened with oil. She smelled like a Bounty bar. As most of the diners were stars themselves, no one bothered her. Tossing a cap-toothed smile at Mick and Jerry, she leapt to embrace Basil, the bar’s flamboyant owner, and undulated to lilting steel band tunes. Out across moonlit Britannia Bay, billionaires were turning in for the night on twinkling yachts.
Maybe the fantasy world of a private island had worked its magic on Raquel Welch, who has died aged eighty-two, softening this tough movie broad into the sassy woman who charmed me so effortlessly that night. Back in LA, the Hollywood Raquel I got to know in the 1990s bore little resemblance to her Caribbean incarnation. I should have known. But what rookie writer eschews friendship, however fleeting, with a movie icon?
She was a fabled but faded drama queen old enough to be my mother. I was no one. Hollywood friendships are rarely equal. Some newcomers last only a week. Others are trapped there for a lifetime. Looking back on my friendship with Raquel, I still believe what I suspected then: that Tinseltown is no more than its own façade.
A chance encounter with her then manager in Atlantic City led to her granting me an audience to promote her new fitness video. She would turn fifty that year. I arrived at her $10 million-plus home in Evelyn Place on the Trousdale Estates, a posh, gated community patrolled by armed guards within the City of Beverly Hills.
She did not remember our Mustique encounter. Perched on a 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 desperate to make a comeback. Self-absorbed to the point of obsession, oblivious of the fact that the world had moved on from inflatable dolls in chamois swimwear, Raquel would have been the perfect remake choice.
Everywhere I looked, pictures of her gazed down at me. Two huge Warhol-style portraits sat either side of her fireplace. A vast Revlon advertising print dominated her dining room. Her home was part museum, part shrine to her then quarter-century as a superstar. Not that she had worked much in movies since her Sixties/early Seventies heyday, having been 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, who replaced her with Debra Winger. Raquel sued, banked $15 million and would never have to work again. She did, though. ‘Body and Mind’ videos, cosmetic endorsements, TV shows, stage work, a successful line in wigs, you name it. For the maintenance of her image and profile rather than for remuneration: the usual thing that keeps a superstar at it. If fame is a drug, the addiction knows no cure. She would sooner be dead than a has-been.
She had a strange masculine energy. All-woman. Sex-on-legs. Her smooth, tanned complexion looked more Latin than in her photographs. Her personality was perplexingly Alpha Male. Her language was ripe, her laugh out of a locker room. She spoke loudly and clearly, her pronunciation at times almost English. Her long-suffering maid fetched grapefruit soda and black coffee and served a chicken lunch. Raquel called me 'sweetheart', 'darling', and 'Baby'.
'White girls are just so tightly-wrapped sexually,’ she remarked through ravenous mouthfuls.
It seemed a good time to ask why she'd never done topless or nude work.
'Dark Latin nipples, Baby,' she shrugged. ‘Wanna see?'
I declined. It didn't stop her talking about her sex life. She confided that she had a 'very European' attitude towards sex which most American men 'found intimidating'. Munching on her chicken and rice cakes, she'd clutch her fingers together and jab at me to emphasise a point. I found her both compelling and terrifying. She even confessed to a penchant for sex in cars, a habit acquired during her misspent San Diego youth. 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 back to West Hollywood in her new Japanese car. She sang along unselfconsciously to Beatles tapes, getting the lyrics wrong - very Raquel – and played Peter Gabriel full-blast. When we reached my hotel, she promptly invited me to dinner. In the Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, I sat watching her tucking into Caesar salad and tomato soup and knocking back Martinis.
For about three months, we were inseparable. At Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset and Doheny, we'd bump into Raquel’s celebrity pals Carrie Fisher, Nancy Sinatra and Dean Martin. The 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 Elton John’s Le Dome. During the day, with nothing better to do, we'd lunch in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, then hang by the pool until dinner. When we weren't indulging in 'mani-pedis' in the hotel beauty salon, we’d sit chatting while she had her mane coloured and sculpted at Umberto's.
'She has to look like Sixties Raquel,’ she'd say, referring to herself 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.'
How did she still look as fabulous as twenty-five years earlier in her only memorable movie, ‘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, Baby, is to start having it before you need it! Raquel started getting things done back in the Sixties. All it's taken is a tuck and tweak here and there ever since. You're sitting inches from her face and you can't even notice? Result! But look at Nancy (Sinatra): richer than Croesus and one of the worst face jobs on the globe – and with her millions! That's because she came to it too late. Take it from Raquel, Baby, go now before they notice you need it!’ She reached to shove my sagging jowl behind my ear.
'By the time you really do need it, you'll be ahead of the game,’ she went on. ‘Mother Nature figures she has us licked with this ageing business. But Baby, Baby, take it from Rocky: it doesn't have to be that way.’
I never took Rocky's advice. Nor have I 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 cosmetic surgery became ‘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 naughty black stockings and mini skirts. Even at fifty, she got away with it. At her beloved Trader Vic's, she'd drink Mai Tai and Pina Pepe cocktails, served in a real pineapple shell. Otherwise health-obsessed, she would usually order apple cider or plain water. While her behaviour in front of me was never that wild, she knew how to have a good time. Her enjoyment hinged on being recognised.
I never worked out why the most legendary sex symbol since Marilyn Monroe wanted to hang with me. Was it for my plainness, which accentuated her beauty? My Englishness, my innocence, my 'minion' status? Every leading lady needs lackeys. Reluctant to rock the boat, I never asked.
We talked about everything. Love, men, husbands. She'd had three by then, and there was later a fourth, restauranteur Richard Palmer. She had also dated Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty and Dudley Moore. Single motherhood we had in common. Raquel was a mother of two. The Hollywood piranha pool had taught her never to give up.
Born Jo Raquel Tejada in September 1940, she could talk for Bolivia, her native land. She was under no illusions, either. It was reflection rather than talent that 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 I 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.'
Just as swiftly as our friendship had ignited, it faded. I'd begun to irritate her, she said. She would tell me that my outfit was 'tacky', while she was wearing leg-warmers. She lost her rag with me once too often, screaming, shouting and crying her eyes out. Expecting me to forgive and forget, as I hitherto had. Her constant compliment-fishing, which spoke 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 ...’
She had a terminal falling-out with her manager. Because he was the one who had introduced us, I was tarred with the same brush. It proved the perfect get-out.
Regrets? Only a few. I'd had nothing but a walk-on part in her epic, ongoing drama. I doubt she ever thought of me again. I did not hear from her after I left LA to move back in the UK. There was never so much as a Christmas card. Fewer happy returns, though our September birthdays fell only days apart.
I was not your typical Tinseltown victim. But I'd had my fill of the place. The tragedy was, I think Raquel had, too. We bit-part players get to walk away unscathed. Until the end of her life, Raquel was caught in the trap, flashing eyes and teeth for the inevitable camera that was only sometimes there.