Thank Heaven for Charo
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Maria Rosario Pilar Lorenza Emilia Eugenia Martinez Molina Baeza De La Osa Rasten — you know her as Charo — was walking through her home looking for her husband, singing, “Good morning, good morning,” when she found him. He had shot himself.
Kjell Rasten was 78 when he died in February. Charo has said that he had been suffering from a rare disease called bullous pemphigoid, which is characterized by terrible blistering of the skin, and that he had become depressed.
“My husband put a bullet in his head,” Charo said. “I have an invisible bullet in my heart.”
In the month after his death, Charo retreated to her bedroom, where she cried, but did not pray. “I was empty,” she said.
After 30 days of isolation she emerged. She came to understand, once she resurfaced, that while, as she put it, “my time as a woman has ended” — meaning her life as a woman who experiences romantic love — she has her son, and her sister, and her nephew, and God.
“I love life. I will continue entertaining, and I will continue praying,” Charo said, and it’s the most obvious thing in the world, the way she says it. In an Instagram post 40 days after his death, Charo and her son drank wine and planted a cherry tree to honor Mr. Rasten, and you knew Charo would be O.K., even if you didn’t know how she was doing it.
Charo emerged, somehow, with her mind made up that she will devote herself to bringing joy to others.
In person, Charo clings to you, her floral-musk scent, her hands. Her breasts are everywhere; she calls them maracas. Meeting her, I wanted to say her name right to her face as many times as I could, and clutch at her because she is Charo. She has a way of wanting to make you call her Charo at every opportunity, like it’s an exclamation. Charo!
Charo’s son, Shel, 38, walked into the sunroom as his mother (Charo!) was talking about making cuchi cuchi with his dad. “I clearly picked the right time to show up,” Shel said, as if he were doing sitcom deadpan.
And being in Charo’s home is like traveling through time, if time were told in major network prime-time specials. I half imagined stepping outside from her shag-carpeted bar overlooking the pool and finding myself in the middle of a lido deck scene on “The Love Boat.”
Cuchi Cuchi Contains Multitudes
Charo, whose own age is something of a mystery (it is likely anywhere from 68 to 78), uses her famous catchphrase, cuchi cuchi, the way the Smurfs use “smurf.” It can mean many things, although most often it means one very specific thing: sex. Or the female anatomy.
She also uses another, more vulgar word for the body part, and it’s somehow innocent and cuchi cuchi all at the same time. In fact, Cuchi was the name of the family dog, whom Charo’s grandmother had nursed back to health after an accident. “You know, dogs wiggle the tail by nature, but this poor guy had to move it up and down, up and down, like he was having sex,” Charo said.
And so, just as cuchi cuchi contains multitudes, Charo does as well. She is a classically trained guitarist who studied under the Spanish virtuoso Andrés Segovia. “When I say cuchi cuchi they just say ‘ha ha ha, she crazy,’ but when I play guitar I take them to another world,” she said.
She is also a businesswoman. The cuchi cuchi isn’t a persona, it’s very much exactly who Charo is, but Charo is extremely smart and Charo is no joke.
Charo is also very, very rich.
“I’ve got property, because we were homeless. My sister and I were like the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’: We said, ‘We will never be homeless again,’” she said. When Charo and her older sister, Carmen, were little, their father, a lawyer and accountant, fled Spain.
In her telling, he feared for his life under Francisco Franco’s regime, so he went to Morocco, leaving his wife and two daughters behind. “We were cute little rich girls, full of love, but the good life finished,” Charo said, of the time they had to leave the farmland her grandfather had left her family because it had been seized by Franco.
“When I have to do a big opening or something important, the night before, I dream that I can see the oranges but I cannot grab them,” Charo said.
Her money, which funded buying all that property on which she has built a fortune, came from working relentlessly. There were regular guest appearances on “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” a rendition of “Feliz Navidad” on the 1988 holiday special “Christmas at Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” turns on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Dancing With the Stars."
Most notably, Charo was, is and will always be a Vegas performer: “I was making so much money. I always bring the high rollers.”
She got her start in 1964 when her first husband, the Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat, added her to his roster in a fit of spiteful pique. His fourth wife, the performer Abbe Lane, a femme fatale type, divorced him and he wanted her replacement in his band to be her opposite; enter Charo, in all her glory. (She divorced Mr. Cugat, and married Mr. Rasten in 1978.)
Her first television appearancewas on Johnny Carson’s show in 1965; the host asked Charo, “What are you?” “I am cuchi cuchi!” came her reply.
After that, she got a call from Norman Brokaw, the renowned agent at William Morris who made Marilyn Monroe into a star. “We want to sign you,” he said, “but not with one name. We cannot sell anyone who only has one name.”
Charo began reciting her full name, “Maria Rosario Pilar Lorenza Emilia Eugenia. …” Mr. Brokaw told her to pick one, and she said, “Charo. Johnny Carson introduced me as Charo,” and Mr. Brokaw had to concede that if it was good enough for Johnny Carson, it was good enough for the rest of the world.
“Then, they all want one name!” Charo said, rattling off a list of the era: Cher, Sammy, Elvis. …
It was while performing at casinos that Charo made two important decisions. The first was to tell Mr. Rasten that she was three months pregnant. Though she knew she was carrying a child — “the maracas, they were like meow-meow-meow,” Charo said, singing the Meow Mix jingle to describe her growing bosom — she put it out of her mind to focus on work.
She had an engagement scheduled at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe (Mr. Harrah himself had sent the private plane to transport her to the gig), and she had made up her mind that she was going to honor it, pregnant or not.
But during the first part of a two-show set, Charo began to bleed. She told Mr. Rasten, who promptly picked up the phone and canceled the second half of the performance. Charo cried, because she didn’t want to let Mr. Harrah down.
Then, after her son’s fifth birthday party in Las Vegas, it was Charo’s turn to make a hard call about her work. “We invited George Burns — ‘George, my son is turning 5, you want to go?!’ — and George Burns comes in and says, ‘How old are you, boy?’ ‘5!’ ‘I give you a gift,’ and he gives a cigar,” Charo said.
She plays that story for laughs now, but back then she was 100 percent serious. That night she told her husband to call it all off, to cancel her engagements. “This is not how we grew up,” she told him. “I don’t want when he grows up to write a book called ‘Cuchi Cuchi Dearest.’”
Of her signature style, all big hair and tiny outfits and high, high heels, Charo said, “When I was born, every single thing that had color, I put it on top of me.” She knew from a young age that she enjoyed being beautiful, adorning herself. “One time I found a condom of my father’s, and I put it in my hair,” she said.
Her sister has been making Charo’s outfits for their whole life. “I like dresses that move,” Charo said. “I drive her crazy because I tell her, ‘I want to be taller, I want to be skinnier.’” Charo says her butt is “bigger than Montana,” so she’ll ask her sister to
“reduce it a little bit.” And she will, Charo said, “because she loves me.” Her sister also engineered her relationship with Mr. Rasten. They were, as all the best ones are, an unlikely love story. They met at the Golden Globes, when Charo spotted him and admired his good looks.
“This man was hot, hot, hot. When I saw him I said — ” and here she cursed, thrice. (Charo!) So Carmen called him over: “Mister, come meet my sister.”
A lunch date was the result, but for Charo then work came first; relationships weren’t on her mind. A year passed, and while she was idling at a gas station in a borrowed Rolls-Royce, a man approached. She didn’t recognize him; he had a mustache and glasses. “You don’t know who I am,” Mr. Rasten said.
“I will call you, of course I remember who are you!” Charo lied.
He handed her his card and said, “If you really mean it this time, call me.”
After some confusion over how to pronounce his name, Charo issued a dinner invitation. “I’ll make paella,” she told him. But with Charo you must remember that there’s always a little phony baloney (to be clear, she’s delighted by her baloney, and she’s equally delighted when someone calls her on it), and she had no intention of making that paella.
Her sister, Carmen, would make the paella in the bungalow just off the main part of the compound and sneak off through a secret passageway (yup) back to the big house.
Charo was to offer Kjell a glass of wine and then put the finishing touches on the paella — Carmen instructed her to put the scallops here, the shrimp there; so Charo put the scallops here, the shrimp there, sprinkled some salt over the dish and presented it to Kjell. Except Carmen neglected to tell Charo one important detail: She had already salted the paella.
Charo fell in love with him that night, over too-salty paella. There was no cuchi cuchi, and there wouldn’t be for the next six or seven months as they courted. They married on Aug. 11, 1978. Shel arrived in 1981.
“The best thing that happened in my life,” Charo said. “I recommend it to you, one day you have sangria, open your legs and get pregnant.”
‘You Must Live’
When they were leaving their childhood home, Charo’s mother said to her and to Carmen, “‘Don’t look back.’” Charo pantomimes her mother reaching out to turn their faces so that they were looking forward, not backward. Charo, like her mother, doesn’t look back.
She is absent answers about her husband. She said he had never discussed suicide (“one day, if I behave good and I go up, I’m going to look for him and I’m going to say, ‘I’m still looking for that note’”). Now she wants to save lives through the power of cuchi cuchi, that ephemeral thing Charo has about her that simply makes people happy.
“From now on, every day is your birthday, Ryan,” she insisted to the men photographing her for this story as they were leaving, who were both named Ryan. She is pleading, in a way, with everyone she can — the Ryans, me, you, her thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter and YouTube — to keep suicide from happening ever again, from leaving anyone else to carry on the way she now finds herself each day.
“You must live! And you must watch out for the people you love!” Charo said.
“I have a plan. I want to change the world,” she said. “I know what I want, what I want is what people want.” She has discovered that she can use social media to entertain her fans directly, on her terms, whether it’s a workout video in which she uses pineapples as free weights or making a sexy salad to salvage a crummy Monday.
“When I read on Instagram, ‘You make my day,’ they make my day,” Charo said. “When I can make people happy, I am happy.” She believes in television, she said, “but I also believe in evolution,” and so she will present her own reality without the interference of producers who want to steer her into, as she puts it, “starting fights with women in restaurants.”
After many hours of talking, offers of food, and even an embrace and more words of love (with Charo, journalistic distance is difficult), I asked if she is happy with her legacy, with what she has accomplished. The answer came as a surprise, and startled me back into my floral upholstered wicker chair.
“No!” Charo said. “I am a Capricorn, and a Capricorn always goes to the mountain. In my mind it’s, ‘Next!’”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here’s what to expect if you call. For help of any kind, in the United States you can text HOME to 741741.
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