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Raquel Welch, actress and Hollywood sex symbol, dead at 82

Actress Raquel Welch speaks onstage during the 16th Costume Designers Guild Awards in 2014.
Jerod Harris
Getty Images
Actress Raquel Welch speaks onstage during the 16th Costume Designers Guild Awards in 2014.

Updated February 15, 2023 at 7:33 PM ET

Raquel Welch, who rose to fame as a sex symbol in the 1960s, has died. She was 82.

Welch's son, Damon, confirmed she died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles after a brief illness.

"She passed away with no pain," he said. "I'm very proud about what she contributed to society and her career and everything. I'm most proud of her doing the U.S.O tours with Bob Hope during the late 60s and early 70s. We missed Christmas with her for three years while she was doing that. She said that was the hardest thing."

Welch's career started in the 1960s with appearances on TV shows such as The Virginian, McHale's Navy and Bewitched. That paved the way for back-to-back roles in Fantastic Voyage, and One Million Years B.C. That latter role catapulted her to sex symbol status. Welch would go on to star in several films, including 1970's Myra Breckinridge, where she played a trans actress, and The Three Musketeers, which earned her a Golden Globe in 1974 for best actress in a motion picture comedy or musical.

She leaves behind her two children, her son Damon Welch and her daughter, Tahnee Welch.

Welch was born Jo-Raquel Tejada in Chicago, Illinois to a Bolivian father and an American mother.

Though she didn't often discuss her identity in the early years of her career, the actress embraced her Latinidad in the early 2000s, both by speaking openly about her background and by playing Latina roles like Aunt Dora in the PBS show American Family and Hortensia in the film Tortilla Soup.

"Raquel Welch was a screen legend during a time when Latinos rarely were given any work in Hollywood (unless it was a stereotype)," said film critic and Entertainment Weekly editor Yolanda Machado. "She had to hide her identity to succeed, and despite what a heavy weight that may have been to conceal, she triumphed in memorable performances that stand as a portal into an entire generation."

Welch told the New York Times in 2002 that though she didn't try to intentionally cover up her Bolivian heritage, it wasn't a significant part of her culture at home because of her father's attempts to assimilate as much as possible.

"Those people who wanted to make it in the American system found it necessary and desirable to kind of suppress their Latino quality," she explained. "He never spoke any Spanish in the home, so as not to have us have an accent. We never were in a neighborhood where there were other Latinos around. I didn't know any Latin people."

Welch went on to say that though she partially resented his erasure of their background, she understood he was trying to protect the family from facing prejudice and discrimination.

But 40 years into her career, as Latinos made more strides for inclusivity in Hollywood, so did Welch.

"Latinos are here to stay," she said at a National Press Club Luncheon in 2002. "As citizen Raquel, I'm proud to be Latina."

Political cartoonist and TV writer Lalo Alcaraz said that though Welch's background might have come as a surprise to many, he's honored Latinos can say she belongs to the community.

"We don't have that many stars," Alcaraz said. "Raquel Welch is viewed as one of our stars, and I'm happy and proud about that."

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Ciera Crawford
Ciera Crawford is Deputy Culture Editor on the Culture Desk. Prior to this role, she was a supervising producer at All Things Considered. She joined the show in October 2019 as the update producer who helps keep the show fresh for later feeds. Crawford previously worked at Westwood One News in Washington, D.C., where she worked as the overnight executive editor, and later as the morning drive assignment editor. There she wrote for anchors and hosts, assigned stories, pitched story ideas and edited copy, while producing special report coverage for big breaking stories such as the North Korea summits and the mass shootings in New Zealand and Las Vegas, as well as political stories including the 2018 midterms and 2016 presidential election. She is an alumna of Virginia State University. Outside the office, she enjoys sports (Go Celtics!), spending time with her wife and four dogs, and all things pop culture.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a producer with the Culture Desk and NPR's Book of the Day podcast.
Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.