After her debut in the sci-fi adventure movie Fantastic Voyage in 1966, Raquel Welch hoped 20th Century Fox would start grooming her for more complex roles. But they had other plans: her first starring role was to be Loana, Queen of the Shell People, in the dinosaur epic One Million Years B.C.
Welch, who died yesterday at age 82 following a short illness, wasn’t thrilled with the idea. “I even complained to the studio,” she told Men’s Health in 2012. “I was like, ‘Please, please don’t make me do the dinosaur movie.’ They were like ‘No, Raquel, you don’t understand. It’s a classic. It’ll live on forever.’”
They were right. Posters and advertisements for the film centered around the now-iconic photo of Welch standing on a rocky landscape wearing a tattered, fur-skinned bikini. Welch became a household name and international sex symbol overnight, and the picture became one of the defining images of the 1960s.
But Welch had mixed feelings about that famous fur bikini and the fame that came with it. She hated wearing it during her scenes, which were so cold that she got sick after shooting wrapped. When the image brought her fame, she faced another challenge: making sure the world knew that she was more than just a beautiful body.
“In that photograph, I look so convincing, so formidable … like a mama bear, ready to protect her cubs,” Welch wrote in her 2010 memoir, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage. “In one way, the image was very apt, because I knew I was going to have to fight to stay afloat in the most treacherous of identities: the role of sex symbol. … It was me against the world.”
Filming the Notorious Scenes
Costume designer Carl Toms created the now world-famous fur bikini by draping Welch in doe-skin and cutting around her with scissors. One Million Years B.C. was shot high atop a volcanic mountain in the Canary Islands, where it was so cold that pots of hot coal were hung from the cameras to keep them from freezing.
The crew bundled themselves in heavy parkas while Welch stood there in her skimpy costume. When asked whether she could have one, she was told, “Cave girls don’t have parkas,” according to her memoir.
That wasn’t the only rejection she experienced on the set. When Welch approached director Don Chaffey with ideas about how to enhance her character, she was quickly dismissed.
“On the first day of shooting, I went straight up to [Chaffey] and said quite seriously, ‘Listen, Don, I’ve been studying the script, and I was thinking…’” Welch wrote. “He turned to me in amazement and said, ‘You were thinking? Don’t.’ … He was just the first in a long line of producers and directors who didn’t give a rat’s ass what I thought.”
Becoming Internationally Famous Overnight
Welch’s near-mute character had only three lines of dialogue in the film, and she assumed the movie would be quickly forgotten. Instead, the image of Welch in her fur bikini became a best-selling pinup. Her outfit was deemed “the definitive look of the 1960s,” and The New York Times called Welch a “marvelous breathing monument to womankind” in a 1967 article.
“With the release of that famous movie poster, in one fell swoop, everything in my life changed, and everything about the real me was swept away,” she wrote in her memoir. “All else would be eclipsed by this bigger-than-life sex symbol.”
Welch wanted the world to know she was more than just a woman in a fur bikini. After all, she was a single mother of two at the time that photo was taken. “Can you picture the girl in the poster with a baby in one arm and pushing a stroller with the other?” she wrote. “Kind of destroys the fantasy, doesn’t it?”
Striking a Balance
Welch wasn’t completely opposed to using her sexuality. She admitted to purposely accepting promiscuous roles in Bedazzled (1967) and Myra Breckinridge (1970) to advance her stardom. But her plan had always been to channel that stardom into a more three-dimensional career.
“I am not a fool,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I realized when I came along, I wasn’t Meryl Streep who had been put into a bikini. I was somebody that got rocketed into the spotlight and superstardom overnight. I knew this was going to give me an opportunity and I should make the best of it. … I didn’t want to stay in people’s minds just as a physical presence.”
Welch felt she finally achieved the right balance in Kansas City Bomber (1972), which she produced and starred in as a single mother turned roller derby star. The movie received positive reviews. “I said let’s do something completely different—not glam,” she told the Times. “I felt a rite of passage where I am over that part where I have to run around in a bikini forever. It’s just so painfully uncomfortable and in a way kind of humiliating.”
Making Peace With an Enduring Image
Still, the image of Welch in the fur bikini continued to endure. Welch told Men’s Health that she was still asked about it every day even when she was well into her 70s. Fans constantly mailed it to her with autograph requests.
A whole new generation discovered the image in the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994), when Tim Robbins’ character famously uses Welch’s poster to hide a tunnel he is digging in the wall of his prison cell.
“In the film, it takes Robbins 20-odd years to dig himself out of captivity and into freedom,” Welch wrote. “There were times when I wondered if I, too, would ever dig myself out from behind that image and into the liberating light of day.”
Nevertheless, by the end of her career, Welch felt she had come to terms with Loana and the fur bikini. In her memoir, she acknowledged that the character was a part of her but that she didn’t want it to be her complete legacy.
“We’re basically different sides of the same personality,” Welch wrote. “And if I ask her nicely, she steps aside and gets out of my way. Nevertheless, the loincloth is in mothballs now. When I look back at that poster today, I have to smile and say, ‘Who is she?’”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.