Her name is María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza Gutiérrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa, but you can call her Charo. Perhaps the world’s most famous Spanish-American, you may know Charo from her work as an actress, comedienne or flamenco guitarist, but you most definitely know her as the “cuchi cuchi” girl. As you’re about to see, though, she’s much more—the very first artist to go by a singular name, Beverly Hills’ only resident with a domesticated bull and perhaps most importantly, an activist for animal rights and gay rights who fully supports our right to marry.
Charo is nothing if not bubbly, energetic and extremely funny. The tales this living legend recounted during our photoshoot—held at her gorgeous Beverly Hills home—had the crew rolling with laughter at every flash of the camera. She is the quintessential performer at heart, always going for the laugh and always the center of attention—a place she has occupied in pop culture since her first United States television appearances more than 40 years ago.
To be honest, there’s not much that Charo has not already accomplished. Some of her earliest television appearances included stints on The Ed Sullivan Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, on which she appeared more than 45 times. She made show-stopping guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show and Sonny & Cher and appeared on The Love Boat more than any other star. More recently Charo graced the likes of VH1’s I Love the ‘70s and The Surreal Life.
Despite these television appearances and the extent of Charo’s “cuchi cuchi” fame, music has always been Charo’s first love. As a young girl in Spain, Charo studied under the world-famous master of Flamenco guitar, Andrés Segovia. She has throughout the years released seven full-length albums and numerous singles. Today she is considered one of the world’s greatest Flamenco guitarists, a well-deserved title, but it was a decades-long fight for Charo to be recognized for her musical talents above her sex appeal and thick accent.
These days Charo has recreated herself in the public eye once again. Dance music is no stranger to this accomplished musician—she broke rules with the first bi-language pop track, 1969’s “Dance A Little Bit Closer,” and the Flamenco-infused 2008 dance track “España Cañi,” both of which found a place on U.S. dance charts. Charo returns once again to making music with “Sexy, Sexy,” a brand-new dance track set to be released in early February, a labor of love she hopes to promote in every single discotheque worldwide.
One of your very first U.S. television appearances was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But first, how did you get to that point?
The original founder of Salsa, Xavier Cugat, got divorced from his lead singer, his wife. He tried to find a new female lead singer and couldn’t find one. He said, “I need something new, and every single big star that I’m trying right now, people don’t accept them.” So he went to Spain, turned on the TV and there I was in a show called Villa Alegre, a Spanish copy of Sesame Street. I was with my guitar singing “La Bamba,” with my hair looking like Pippi Longstocking. And he said, “That’s what I need to make people talk.” He found me and contacted my parents. My father met him in Italy and said, “I cannot go to Spain [He was exiled under Franco’s dictatorship], but I can go around the world, and if you touch my girl, I’ll kill you.” Cugat was scared to death and said, “I’ll give you my word of honor.” So that was the deal—my sister and I came to America and I had to make it.
So I am in America, illegally, the most scared an immigrant could be, because my sister and I didn’t know how we would stay here. My father is in Casablanca, and if he goes back to Spain, Franco will execute him. My mother was in trouble. We had to make it, or where would we go?
Fred de Cordova [director/producer of The Tonight Show] was looking for new talent.
And you made it onto the show.
To begin with, I found him very attractive, and I regret that I didn’t “cuchi cuchi” him. [Laughs] Let me put it that way. The man was very attractive.
Everybody told me, “My god, you don’t even know, if Johnny Carson likes you—make a prayer, because if he likes you, you are in. You don’t need that old man [Cugat], you don’t need nothing, you’re in. He’s muy egotistical, he has a very big ego. You’ve got to attack him through his ego. Everything he tells you, just make him happy.”
OK, but I don’t speak English, so what am I gonna do? So I just figured—probably he was asking me, “Are you laying with this old man?” “Oh, yes.” “Are you a hooker?” “Oh, yes. Cuchi cuchi.” [Laughs]
So that’s what I did, and he liked me. I got to his ego. He probably thought that Cugat was using me in the bedroom, so he felt bad for me. I owe my career to him. His ego saved me, and that is the truth—and I regret that I never used him in bed. [Laughs]
You’re actually one of the first people to go by a singular name—the first mononym.
I was the first one. I went to the William Morris agency, who knew me already as “the cuchi cuchi girl.” They said, “We want the girl, we see money.” So I went there—it was ‘67 or ‘68—and they said, “What is your name?” I told them, “María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza Gutiérrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa. But my mother, my grandmother, my father and in school they called me Charo.”
They said, “In America, they’re going to mispronounce your name, and we don’t want that. And we cannot work with so many names. Why don’t we call you Charo and one of them, either Martínez or Baeza?”
And I said no. I didn’t care if they mispronounced my name, but they were going to learn the name Charo. And they said, “Girl, it’s a rule. You’ve got to have a second name.” And I said, “Do you know that you’re talking to someone who breaks rules? I want to be Charo.” And they said, “OK. When no one buys your stuff, we can talk about it again.” [Laughs]
Now, years later, in comes Cher and Elvis and Madonna and now Rihanna. It’s almost the rule now.
A lot of people don’t realize that you’re one of the world’s best guitar players. Tell me about how you got started.
I come from a farmer family and I grew up with gypsies. In the summer they parked and lived on the farm for free and ate fruit and were beautiful people. They didn’t know what they were going to eat the next day, but they were happy—every sunset they had a fire and they would sing Fandango.
I grew up with that every summer and an old man called Juan taught me the technique of Bulería, taught me the Rumba Flamenca, taught me things that now they don’t even know is around. At the age of 7,8 or 9 he gave me the guitar and said, “You’re different, you’ve got duente”—duente means you’ve got something inside—”You take my guitar and buena suerte.”
I went to the institution of Segovia [Segovia taught music classes as a community service], and I shocked them. I was so young and so little, but I was instantly admitted. My father had to send money from Morocco, the best he could, and whatever my mother had, and I started studying.
When I came to America, I was better than I am now, because now I’m being pulled in so many directions. But when I had nothing else to do I was so dedicated that I was really supposed to be number one.
But the United States of America was not ready for that act. They fell in love with the girl that said “cuchi cuchi.” One time I went to do The Tonight Show. I picked up a guitar—“Sir,” to the producer, holding my guitar, “can I play Flamenco?” Maybe he was joking, but he said, “We don’t have flamingos for you to play.” So I said to my sister, let’s make money, and “cuchi cuchi” showed me the way to the bank.
But I love playing the guitar. It’s my passion.
You also talked to me about what music means to you. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Music is to me—it’s my life savings. It’s my contact with God, my contact with myself, the fight that I always win with my pressure, tension and negative thought. It’s a spiritual connection. And I remember the words of Segovia: “Hold it to your heart. When you play the guitar, the closer it is to your heart, the more you will give to every note that you play.” That’s why when you see me I have a special stool where the guitar is resting against my heart.
When I play, I feel OK. I feel at peace. I recycle myself. It’s like when you go to a place to meditate. It’s my friend for life.
How did the new single, “Sexy, Sexy,” come about?
My son called me from Las Vegas and said, “Everywhere I go, they say ‘cuchi cuchi.’ Do me a favor. I’m gonna send you a song and maybe now they’ll say ‘sexy sexy.’ I told him to send it to me, and I liked it. The lyric is very cool. “Sexy girls, sexy boys. In this sexy, sexy world we play with sexy, sexy toys.” The groove is good. I recorded it and it was sent to several DJs for remixing. We got a great group of DJs and they all said “Yes, we love it, and it’s possibly a hit.” I tested it with an audience, and the audience, to my surprise—not necessarily 17, 18, but we’re talking 30, 35, 40—and they’re dancing and responding like, “I love it.” So we are doing everything we can to release all the different remixes on Feb. 1. And I’m hoping with my fingers crossed that I can promote it in every single discotheque—San Francisco, L.A., you name it.
Let’s talk about your work with PETA, specifically dealing with bullfighting, because I know you’re very passionate about that.
I was born in Spain, and I’m Hispanic by generation, but I have not connected with certain Spanish traditions—I cannot. I admire the music, art, food, friendliness, passion, but there are certan old traditions and rules, and one of them is bullfighting, that I’m so disconnected to that I’m even embarrassed to be Spanish. Since I was very young in Murcia, you could hear “Olé! Olé!” from the bullfighting ring, which meant the bull was dying. Me and my sister used to hide in the corner where we could not hear the screams, hoping that soon it would be over and the bull would stop suffering—we’re talking at 5, 6, 7 years old. My mother used to say, “There’s nothing we can do. Don’t cry.”
When I saw that I had a little bit of a voice, I decided I would fight. What I did was, in connection with PETA, I shared with the world how they do it.
Most people don’t know exactly how it happens. It’s a pretty brutal thing to watch.
The poor bull, called el toro miura, is the best fighting bull in the world. They select them from a farm, and this bull is sentenced to die when it grows up. They take it to the bullfighting ring six days prior to the fight and put it in a small confined box, and from six feet they throw sacks full of sand—sandbags—over and over to break the back and break the muscle. Then, becasue the bull can’t do anything about it, they shave two inches off the end of the bull’s horns to expose the nerve. Then they cut the tendon in the neck. They also don’t feed the bull or give it water.
So everybody goes to the bull piazza. Watching the beginning is very spectacular—you would like it too—you see the gorgeous men in tight pants. Then the bull comes in, thinking to itself, “What’s going on, why are so many people screaming?” Already it has pain in the back and in the horns, and the tendon is broken. But because it’s a bull, it’s powerful and can still do certain things.
The matador starts putting what we call banderillas—that is something with a hook—into the kidneys, and the bull tries to get rid of it but cannot. Six in one side, six in the other. Then out comes a man on a horse—the horse is blinded so it’s not afraid of the bull and is very padded and protected. The men come like in the medieval times with a lance and go into the kidneys, and sometimes when the blood comes out you can see part of the liver, the kidneys, and all of the blood starts coming out like a fountain.
Immediately, the bull is so clever, it’s thinking, “Where is the door that I came out? If I only remember that door, I am safe.” And the bull looks at the people—blood is coming out of the eyes, too—and hears everyone yelling “Olé!” By then the tourists usually start throwing up or walking out. I know that because they’ve attacked me when I’m performing in Las Vegas or anywhere I go—they’ll say about bullfighting, “Barbaric! Shame on you, I want my ticket back!” For years I’ve heard that.
So now, the bull is very near to death. Now the matador comes at the bull with a sword, and for that, the bull needs to be in a position looking at him where the ribs are open so the sword will go directly to the heart. But if it’s not a good matador, it will take several times to hit the heart. Hopefully, if the bull is lucky, after three or four times the sword will go straight to the heart and the bull falls. But the bull is still alive, and out come the men of mercy. They come out with a little puñal—it’s a very thick knife with an ending like an arrow—and he tries to get it into the brain. Sometimes you can count 10 times, and you can see some brain coming out. Once the bull is dead you hear the people yell “Olé!” and you hear the orchestra start. Tourists are throwing up, walking out, people are fainting. This is the true story.
So, PETA made a great video after I gave them the description of what happens. They went and filmed it, step by step. In Barcelona, people prefer to pay money to see soccer and the younger generation doesn’t want to see this barbaric event where you shed blood for entertainment. And that’s why we won, and I got an award, and it’s right now banned forever in Barcelona and certain places all over Spain. Now we’re fighting to end it in the rest of Spain. Now, surprisingly, they love me.
I was going to ask you how this affected your relationship to the Spanish people.
A few traditional old people are hanging in by a thread, but 99 percent, I can’t even tell you—the postcards, the letters, the emails that I’ve received. Everybody says congratulations, thank you so much, we love you. I feel like civilization right now is more sensitive. Portugal doesn’t kill the bull—I don’t know why they don’t do that in Spain. If you’re so strong and so good, challenge the bull. Many places in South America don’t kill the bull.
The other day PETA sent me some information about Mexico. They were blocking the entrance to the bullring, blocking people from entering. The new generation really wants to stop this barbaric event. Thank god for that.
Alright, now tell me the story of Manolo.
I went to World of Wonder [about doing a music video for the single “España Cañi: Dance, Don’t Bullfight”]. I had called a place called Gentle Jungle and said I needed a talented baby bull for the video. They called me and said they had found a baby bull, two weeks old, not black but a dark brown. “It’s cute, it’s adorable,” they said.
So I show up with all my dancers and a choreographer and everything. When the baby bull showed up, it was now black, when I was expecting chocolate. I asked why it was black and they told me they had sprayed it black. That didn’t work with me, because a baby bull doesn’t need that. I named him Manolo because Manolo is a great bullfighter. He was going to show people in the world that he didn’t want to get killed.
Manolo looked at me and we had eye contact and I hugged him and tried to wash off as much of the spray as I could. I started playing the guitar and we put Manolo in front of the green screen and he had talent—Manolo started walking. I would say, “Manolo, walk” and I would dance in front of him and he would come to me. They couldn’t beleive it, because he was just a baby. At the end of the shoot he got a standing ovation.
The following day, my sister and I called and asked how Manolo was doing. They said, “Well, to tell you the truth, we sent it to Chino, back to the ranch, and the mother refused to take it back.” They put it on sale for $200. So we went to Chino and picked up Manolo. When he came home we gave him a bath, and it took a long time for Manolo to get rid of the spray. Immediately Manolo was sick. I started calling veterinarians and they said, “Oh, bring the animal in.” And I’d say, no it’s a bull, and they’d say “What?!”
Finally we found a vet. We had to give him antibiotics and nurse him back to health, and Manolo never knew that he was a bull after that. I would pick up my guitar and play for him, “Manolo baby bull, your mother is a bitch, abandoned you, but don’t worry, beacuse we love you.” [Laughs]
He started growing up with my music—Flamenco—and Manolo lived here and grew up here at the house. One day he went upstairs and got stuck on the second floor. I didn’t know what I was going to do—I couldn’t call the fire department and say, “I have a bull in my bedroom.” He was very clever, though, and we were able to get him down without the fire department. We called him the Beverly Hills bull.
The neighbors across the street and others love him, but it looks like the other corner where right now Jennifer Lopez lives, someone placed a call—not her—but somebody called the police, and they never told me who. So I went to the police department and they said “We understand you have a bull.” And I said, “This is bullshit.” And they said, “Listen, you have a bull and you have a dog that barks all the time. What are you going to do about it?” I said, “OK, give me a break and I’ll try to do my best.” But I have to admit, they were very nice to me.
So I followed their orders and we found a place where Manolo is more happy than here because he can run as a bull. And he became the best friend of a horse, named Lasso. So I go to see him, and it’s exactly like the movies—he comes to me. He dances and plays soccer with me, and everytime, I swear to god, when I leave I say, “Manolo I’m sorry, I love you,” and he will shed a tear. He really is a member of the family, but he’s about 1,000 pounds. He’s handsome though, with huge eyelashes.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I follow the rule of my grandma—she didn’t see classes. I grew up in a place where I didn’t see races, money or class. Are you a good person, or are you just carrying a title? And that’s how I am with people. That’s just the way we grew up, and my son is doing the same thing. That’s why I could see the Pope, and I would treat him the same way I would a good priest right now in the middle of the street giving food, or shelter on a cold night to some homeless. And that’s part of why I’m an activist—I don’t like discrimination or a dictatorship. When someone says “do this” or is a threat, I immediately start digging into why. Why do you have to threaten me? I’m a human being. Respect me as a human.
Let’s talk about your relationship with the gay community.
Growing up in Spain where there was no discrimination, I see people as they are. To me, if two men want to get married, it’s up to them. It’s private. The government should not go into that. If you want to get married, you find a partner and you get married. It’s no different if you are heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. The government, in my mind—this is my own opinion—is not supposed to go into a person’s private life. Let gays get married, and I hope their marriages work out. I will not change my mind. And I think in the next few years it will be legal—it’s common sense. I have great friends—gays and lesbians—and I think that Hollywood is Hollywood because of gays. The best choreographer I ever had, the best producer, best agent, best director, best designer, best painter. How can you explain that? You explain that because they are extra-sensitive. They can penetrate in art deeper than heterosexuals. Going through history and seeing what they’ve given to history—better music, better concerts, better books.
I know that you’ve lived all over the world, but tell me about the place you’ve come to call home.
Home for me, right now, is dressing rooms, airplanes and the places where I perform. This [Beverly Hills] home here is just a headquarters—it’s not “home” for me. My residence is in Las Vegas—we have a place there. My love, really, is Hawaii on the north shore of the island of Kauai. One day you will have to go. Hawaii is a natural high, it’s a rebirth. Honolulu is too crowded. Where I worked for years, in Waikiki, it’s no different than Las Vegas. It’s overcrowded with different tourists from around the world, and it’s beautiful, but the peace and the contact with nature for an artist, it’s not there. When you need a break, you go to the island of Kauai, to the north shore. You close your eyes and you don’t give a shit for nothing four or five days later—guaranteed. If you like snorkeling, you will be face-to-face with the most beautiful, colorful little creatures. And if you’re not afraid of cute, little sharks, they don’t attack people. My Hawaiian friend says it’s because there’s so much fish, they’re on a diet. This is where I have my home.
But I moved along because I love Hollywood. You can see our family is very close. We respect our culture to the maximum—you never forget who you are. What your mother told you, she’s right, believe me. She’s never wrong. So the bottom line is, Hollywood is exciting and everything, but we are not part of Hollywood—that’s why we call home Hawaii.
So yeah, home for me is Kauai. For excitement and business, here, Hollywood. And for my residence, where I perform a lot, Nevada. And once in a while, Madrid, because my sister has a great place in Madrid very near to the palace.
You’ve done so much in your career—everything from singing and playing guitar to television—is there anything left you haven’t done that you want to accomplish?
In my personal appearances and live shows, the people know that they’re going to have fun. For 30 minutes, fun, energy, whatever’s going on in the industry, I’m going for it—but the last hour or the last 45 minutes, it’s going to be Charo playing guitar. I want everyone to know that when they see me, they’re going to see an international show with the music of what’s going on right now, but I’m also going to put on a tuxedo and play guitar, and I’m going to hit them with concertos that are deeper than life and you’ll see them cry.
I am at the Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, Feb. 8-12. A spectacular show. When I perform I get a beautiful audience from all ages that respects the gay community and respects freedom and everything that is human rights, and they are open-minded. You have no idea last year how many champagnes I was sending to gay married couples or couples getting engaged.
It’s a fabulous new show—a salute to 2011—at the Riverside. I’m putting on the most incredible, sensual tango production you can imagine.
So things are good then!
I am happy. It’s a high.