How far would you go to achieve your dreams? Would you marry a man old enough to be your grandfather? Could you smile brightly as Johnny Carson lampooned your lack of fluency in a different language? Would you appear on The Love Boat 21 times?
Charo did all of that. And much more besides.
American audiences first met her in the late '60s as the teenage bride of 66-year-old Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat. Nightclub dates and Laugh-In cameos followed as she gained recognition in the U.S. But Charo didn't necessarily get attention for the skills she'd most wanted to display — those of a serious guitar player. When she did the talk shows, the hosts were more interested in watching her jiggle and testing her limited English than in hearing her strum an instrument.
"They told me Johnny Carson was the king of talk shows," the legendary entertainer recalls. "If you speak at The Tonight Show, and this man likes you, he will make you a star." She offset her modest vocabulary with a determination to please. "Any question that he asked me — even if he asked, 'Are you a prostitute?' — I'd go, 'Oh yeah! Cuchi-cuchi!'"
Charo played along, hoping her good nature would yield opportunities to demonstrate her genuine fluency in music. "Every time I was invited, I would bring my guitar with me, and they never paid attention," she says.
Once, when she offered to show off her flamenco skills, a Tonight Show producer said they didn't have any birds on-set. "They thought I wanted to play with a fucking flamingo!" she laughs. "Shit, there goes my training."
Charo's studies, which began when she was a child in Murcia, Spain, were no laughing matter; they included classes with maestro Andrés Segovia. "He was a very powerful man," she recalls. "Kind, but impatient. You had to show him you had the same passion." It's clear she paid attention; her reminiscences about Segovia center on minutiae of fingering, tremolo, and other hallmarks of his style.
Through decades filled with Hollywood Squares and lisping disco albums, Charo kept plugging away. "Little by little, whenever I have a chance, I introduce to the audience that there is more than 'cuchi-cuchi,'" she says. Her persistence has begun paying off. Guitar Player magazine twice voted her Best Classical Flamenco Guitarist in the World. Her Guitar Passion CD won Album of the Year at the 1995 Billboard International Latin Music Conference. Her newest disc, Charo and Guitar, features pieces by Spanish greats Enrique Granados and Joaquin Rodrigo; its tendency toward overproduction smacks of Las Vegas glitz, but her nimble, percussive performances show legit proficiency.
A victory by small increments is still a win. "If you have a passion, if you believe in yourself, it takes a lot of time," she says. After 40 years, her accent is still strong, but her sentiment is clear: Never quit. "There are days when you say, 'Shit, why do I keep fighting?' But there is always the possibility that you will survive, and make your point."
Today, Charo weighs invites to appear with symphony orchestras, not Merv Griffin. Yes, she still wears eye-popping outfits and squeals "Cuchi-cuchi," but that is only part of her revue. "Now, when I am performing, if I don't play the guitar, you will hear a lot of complaints," she says. "Because now it is public knowledge that I am more, that I am a musician, not just an entertainer."
Any woman who expects to be taken seriously as a sex symbol and a musician should take a moment to say gracias to this career icon. "Beyoncé and Shakira are making a fortune copying the way I shake it," she says. "Those two should build a statue that says, 'Thank you, Charo! We are getting rich because of you.'" And if they ever need flamenco lessons, they'll also know where to turn.