January 15, 1941 (or maybe 1951)– María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Gutiérrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa Rasten:
“Around the world, I am known as a great musician. But in America, I am known as the cuchi-cuchi girl. That’s okay because cuchi-cuchi has taken me all the way to the bank.”
In case you’re not lucky enough to be familiar with her, Charo is a pop-culture oddity who appeared on television talk shows and variety hours seemingly all the time in the 1970s and 1980s. The host would snicker at her shitty English, she would do some sort of high-octane dance number or musical performance, and the audience would roar and leave her with thunderous applause. Throughout each segment, she would repeat her catchphrase: Cuchi cuchi!
Yet, Charo is so much more than just her double cuchi, she has one of the weirdest and coolest backstories ever. Born in Spain as María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza (I am typing that for the last time), as a kid she studied classical guitar and was mentored by one of the greatest musicians, Andres Segovia. She also may or may not have gotten married when she was 13-years-old.
Today, Charo is better known for her amazing wigs and crazy behavior, but most people probably don’t know that she is an insanely talented flamenco guitarist. Because she became famous primarily as a Latin sex bomb, I suppose it’s not surprising that her musical talents were overlooked in favor of her other talents.
Gay people loved her right away and she became a Camp Icon. She made an appearance on Pee Wee Herman’s 1988 Christmas show, the best holiday special of all time. She has even been ”done” on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where she has also appeared as a guest twice.
She gyrated her first cuchi cuchi in the 1960s, thrusting her considerable bosom forward like a demented chicken. Today, many women of her age, whatever it is, couldn’t manage it, but Charo’s amazing physique just doesn’t stop.
Like some other Gay Icons in showbiz such as Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford, she knew what she wanted, and she went out and grabbed it.
As a young convent girl and guitar student from a farm in Murcia, Spain, she somehow managed to get herself to America, and, in 1966, to become the fifth wife of fabled Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat, despite their 40-year age difference. Charo claimed that Cugat was “a mentor,” and that their marriage was a business arrangement, with separate apartments, that allowed her to work in clubs even though she was underage. They divorced in 1978, when, she said: “I reached an age when I started dating.”
She appeared with him and alone on The Ed Sullivan Show several times in the late 1960s. In Las Vegas, Charo initially performed with her husband and later developed her own nightclub act. At one point in the 1970s, she was out-earning Frank Sinatra in Vegas.
She is a versatile performer, but she was always most in demand as the sassy Latina with the bubbly personality and bombshell looks.
By the early 1970s, she had begun to break out on her own, making a splash as a guest on such shows as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show and The Hollywood Squares. Charo was a favorite regular guest on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. In the mid-1970s, Charo seemed to be everywhere. On television, she had her own special in 1976 and appeared as a regular on the comedy series Chico And The Man (1974-78) with Freddie Prinze and on eight episodes of The Love Boat (1977-1984). She also released six albums and twelve singles that were in the Top 20 on the Dance charts.
Charo divorced Cugat in 1978 and married her manager Kjell Rasten that same year. Not long after the birth of their son, Shel Joseph Rasten, in 1982, they moved to the island of Kauai. Focused on her family, she scaled back on performing. Along with the occasional appearance, Charo continued to perform in Hawaii and opened a restaurant imaginatively named Charo’s.
Once her son went to college at USC, Charo set out to revive her career. She returned to performing with an emphasis on her music. Her album Guitar Passion (1994), reached Number One on the Latin charts. She received rave reviews for her last album, Charo And Guitar (2007).
Charo attracted a new generation of fans through the VH1 reality show, The Surreal Life, in 2004. She has appeared in lots of commercials and done guest spots on television series including a 2015 episode of Don’t Trust the B In Apt 23, where she played a guardian angel, and Jane The Virgin last year, and of course, on Season 24 of Dancing With The Stars where she was knocked out of the competition in the second episode, but hey, it least she was an actual star.
She continues to tour with her act, still plays Vegas, and performs with symphony orchestras around the USA.
She had a dance hit in 2008 with her single España Cañi, and performed an amazing version of Rihanna’s Don’t Stop The Music at the 2009 Muscular Dystrophy Association Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. In April 2010, she made a special guest appearance on Dancing With The Stars, and in 2011, she made an appearance on Watch What Happens: Live promoting a new song, Sexy! Sexy! Last summer, Charo played The Queen of England in the film Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.
Charo also teamed up with World Of Wonder to produce the video for España Cañí: Dance, Don’t Bullfight. The video is her protest against bullfighting, which is still practiced across Spain and Latin America. Charo, like Pamela Anderson, Paul McCartney, Stephen Rutledge, and Pink, is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and speaks out against animal cruelty.
So, here is the thing with her age. It doesn’t matter because she is ageless, but official documents from Spain say she was born in 1941. Later on, she claimed she was born in 1947, then 1949. In 1977, following the divorce from Cugat, Charo claimed the age on her passport was wrong and she was born in 1951. A U.S. judge supported her claim. Who knows? Do we care?
She has been voted Best Classical Flamenco Guitarist In The World by Guitar Player Magazine, winner of a Billboard International Latin Music Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and honored with the proclamation of Charo Week from the City of San Francisco.
Charo has long been an ally of the LGBTQ community, openly embracing her LGBTQ fanbase. She was the Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade in 2008, and rode on a pink float surrounded by lovely Charo drag queens. She enjoyed a close friendship with both Paul Lynde and Liberace. She stayed with Liberace during the mid-1980s, when his other “friends” fled when they learned he had AIDS.
“To me, a gay actually is a greater person because they have an extra sense that a straight person doesn’t. Look into history. For centuries, the greatest painters, composers, historians are gay! And the reason must be because they’re extra sensitive. When I am composing music, I swear to you I hold the guitar close to my heart and close my eyes because I put all my senses into each note. I think gays have an extra sense. Heterosexuals have five. Gays have six. I admire that. When I need an opinion I call my gay friends and ask what do you think of this? If they say, ‘Charo, it sucks’, I drop it. If they love it, I go ahead.”
Charo currently lives in Beverly Hills with her husband. Her son is a music producer and an actor. He’s recently appeared on Parks And Recreation, Workaholics, and CSI: Miami.
Glamorous, goofy, talented, fearless, and all-out fun, Charo is our kind of Gay Icon. Watch her below with World Of Wonder’s own James St. James: