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Kesha, Raquel Welch, and the Lawsuits that Destroy Female Stars

Thirty-five years ago, Raquel Welch sued over her contract and her acting career imploded.

by Tori Telfer
Nov 10 2015, 5:00am

Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. Still via IMDB

In the 60s and 70s, Raquel Welch was the It Girl. She was young, beautiful, a successful actress and Golden Globe winner. But by 1980, her career was basically over.

She had been suddenly and awkwardly fired from MGM's production of Cannery Row, which MGM said was because she had been difficult and temperamental on set. But it wasn't her dismissal as much as Welch's ensuing lawsuit against MGM, which dragged on for six years, that would ruin her career for good. Welch came out on the other side with a win of $10.8 million—and a career that would never fully recover.

Today, 35 years later, Welch's lawsuit seems to foreshadow the one facing Kesha, who is currently locked in a legal battle that threatens to stretch on for years, taking her youth and her relevancy with it. The suits themselves are fairly different: Welch was protesting unfair professional treatment; Kesha's case has a frightening personal element to it. Welch sued because she was dropped from a contract; Kesha is suing because she can't get out of one. But both women sued in a desperate, wounded attempt to reclaim what was theirs—even though it put their careers at stake. And as Kesha's lawyer recently warned that if Kesha isn't allowed to release an album soon, her career will be over, the situation seems eerily reminiscent to Welch's.

Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder. Still via IMDB

Welch rose to popularity in 1966, when she was cast in the film One Million Years, BC. The promotional poster featured Welch clad in a deer-skin bikini, and the image instantly launched her status as a sex symbol. She worked steadily, appearing in about 30 films after One Million Years, BC. But she wanted to act in more serious roles, instead of the bombshell beauties she typically played.

By the time 1980 rolled around, Welch was 40, and the perfect serious role was finally available. MGM was turning two of John Steinbeck's novellas (Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row) into a feature film, and the character Suzy, a prostitute, was just the sort of part that Welch longed to play. Plus, the director and producer wanted an actress with name recognition, and Welch had that in spades. She jumped through a couple of unusual hoops to get the role: She auditioned, which was uncommon for established actresses, and she agreed to do nude scenes, which until then she had refused to do.

And it paid off—she got the part. Principal photography for Cannery Row began on December 1, 1980, but by December 4, the film was already behind schedule and $84,000 over budget. Welch, who already had a reputation for being strong-willed, had made a few special requests on set: She wanted a trailer big enough for her hair and makeup artists, and she wanted an extra hour to get ready in the mornings before her set call, because she liked to do a preparatory routine that involved yoga.

All of this was approved by the studio beforehand. But when filming started, Welch's makeup trailers were too small for her crew, so she asked the production manager if she could get ready at home. According to Welch and witnesses, the production manager was totally fine with her request. After all, she was never late for her set calls, and the producer had even called her at home to compliment her on how she looked in the dailies.

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So it came as a total surprise when Welch received a hysterical phone call from that same producer, warning her that she was about to receive a letter from the president of MGM accusing her of breaching her contract.

That December, MGM sent Welch the dreaded letter, which said she'd been "terminated due to Welch's failure to comply with her contractual obligations." They went on to replace Welch with Debra Winger, who cost less and was 15 years younger. Welch, of course, was devastated, and believed that the studio had simply used her name to pull in funding for the film, and then kicked her off in favor of someone younger and cheaper.

She sued MGM, and the lawsuit stretched on for almost six years. It was ultimately decided in Welch's favor, but her film career had stagnated. Her reputation had been trashed, and she'd only gotten two acting jobs in those six years: A made-for-TV western called The Legend of Walks Far Woman, and a Muppet video, in which she played herself. It's true that she won what she'd asked for—reparations—but she lost six of her prime acting years, and her career never bounced back.

She spent the rest of the 80s and 90s acting in TV movies; later, she would become the face of a wig company, called HAIRuWEAR. Earlier this year, she told Closer magazine rather cryptically, "I don't look back. It's impossible to live up to your former self."

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In many ways, Kesha is nothing like Welch—she's a glitter-bombed pop star to Welch's screen siren—but they've both risked everything by suing companies much bigger and more powerful than them. When Welch decided to sue MGM, her friends insisted that she "shouldn't take on the big boys." And in Kesha's lawsuit, Sony Music itself has called it a "transparent and misguided attempt to renegotiate her contracts." In both cases, their reputations were at stake.

Kesha signed with producer Dr. Luke when she was 18, and this eventually led to her hugely popular first album, Animal. Beneath the surface, though, their professional relationship was allegedly plagued with contention and dread. In October 2014, she brought a lawsuit against Dr. Luke, in which she asserts that he abused her emotionally, sexually, and professionally.

The claims being made against Dr. Luke are scary, graphic, and have been well-documented on the internet already. There's an account of him allegedly plying Kesha with the date rape drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate, which he called "sober pills;" there's an account of him allegedly screaming at her until she ran, terrified and barefoot, down the Pacific Coast Highway. He allegedly refused to renegotiate her contract for her second album, despite the fact that in the music industry, platinum-level success like hers usually leads to new negotiations between artist and label. He even supposedly threatened to kill her dog. Dr. Luke denies these allegations and has filed his own lawsuit against Kesha.

Read: Kesha, Slut Shaming, and the Tyranny of Pop Music Patriarchy

At the end of October, Kesha's lawyer, Mark Geragos, filed a court injunction requesting that Kesha be allowed to record new music without Dr. Luke–something her current contract forbids. The wording is strong, almost panicked: "Kesha now faces an abysmal decision: work with her alleged abuser... or idly and passively wait as her career tick-tocks away... Her brand value has fallen, and unless the Court issues this injunction, Kesha will suffer irreparable harm, plummeting her career past the point of no return."

Kesha even has an affidavit from the former president and CEO of Universal Music Group Distribution, Jim Urie, to emphasize just how badly she needs to start recording again. "No mainstream distribution company will invest the money necessary to distribute songs for an artist who has fallen from the public eye, as is happening to Kesha at this very moment," Urie wrote in the affidavit. "Accordingly, if Kesha cannot immediately resume recording... her career is effectively over."

As the lawsuit drags on, Kesha is watching the peak years—or months, even days—of her relevance slip away, and there's not much she can do about it. If her case drags on like Welch's did, there may be no more yodeling, no more glitter canons, no more disheveled hair and green lipstick for her. In turning to the law for independence, both women found themselves even more trapped: caught up in a protracted system that wreaked havoc on their "brand value" and their professional aspirations.

On the day Welch won her lawsuit, she told the press: "I think what this shows is that it's important to stand up for your rights, and I hope that women in and out of Hollywood stand up for their rights when they feel they've been wronged." In hindsight, the quote is chilling and ominous; a warning that when women in and out of Hollywood stand up for their rights, they pay for it.

Follow Tori Telfer on Twitter.

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