BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Charo was on. As soon as the gate to her Spanish colonial compound swung open, she was buzzing around the property, a gaggle of staff trailing somewhat helplessly behind as she delivered a running monologue studded with self-deprecating jokes.
“This is my most conservative outfit,” she said, gesturing to her low-cut red sweater and high-cut red skirt, her blonde hair pulled into a Pebbles Flintstone ponytail as she dipped a leaf skimmer into her backyard pool. Next she was in a reconstructed Spanish cave, showing off a desk she said she was duped into believing belonged to Miguel de Cervantes; next she was in her study, saluting an American flag and belting “José, can you see?”; next she was in the kitchen, balancing a vegetable basket on a knee while filming an impromptu video for her fans on Instagram.
“Hola amigos,” she said, which is how she begins each of her dispatches. “This is the secret of life: pepinos, pimientos rojos, pimientos verdes. There’s a lot of vitamins here. And very, very sexy.”
Charo got her start in America on the casino circuit, and more than 50 years later, she still radiates a neon glow. She remains on a club schedule: Most nights she plays guitar until 2 or 3 in the morning, practicing for her next live gig. Over the course of this February afternoon, she executed three costume changes, including into her most serious outfit, a sparkling tuxedo created by her sister and costume designer, Carmen Lesher. Charo’s comedy is very blue, and many of her jokes only become printable when the curse words are shaken into one of her fizzy malapropisms, like “the sheep is going to hit the fence.”
Truthfully, she is tired of that “cuchi-cuchi” sheep — the catchphrase that, paired with a vigorous shimmy, made her famous in the 1960s but also made way for a persistent public underestimation of her talents.
Charo’s self-deprecation works on a number of levels. She deploys it to counter the expectation that a one-named female icon should also be a pill. “I am against diva,” she said. “I hate diva.” Her musical director, Patrick Karst, told me that it’s impossible to navigate an airport with Charo because she will pause to chat lengthily with every fan: “It’s like, Charo, we have to be on this airplane! We have to go!”
Still, it is hard to listen to a person bad-mouth Charo for an afternoon, even when that person is Charo. It is as if, after a lifetime spent working to please American audiences, she is still conditioned to skilfully disarm those who would reduce her to a punchline. She races to the jokes before they can: about her age, her breasts, her strong Castilian accent. “I get away with murder in my comedy,” she said, “because I know they’re not going to understand me anyway.”
But the real punchline to Charo’s career is that, no matter how hard people try to peg her as “a stupid cuchi-cuchi,” as she put it, she is a virtuosic flamenco and classical guitarist with a singular talent. At her shows, after she sings and gyrates to a set of disco numbers, she slips backstage, emerges in the tuxedo, picks up the guitar and blows everybody’s mind. For years, Charo would diligently practice her guitar every night, even though she was seldom given the opportunity to play.
“I knew that the day would come. I would have the last laugh,” she said. “I said to Carmen, start preparing the tuxedos.”
CHARO WAS BORN — wait. When was Charo born? Charo’s age is the subject of intense speculation; her Wikipedia page has a section dedicated to her “birth year controversy.”
Charo says that she was born in 1951, and that she recently celebrated her 71st birthday. But when she first surfaced in America in the 1960s, on the arm of the Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat, the press reported a birth date as far back as 1941. For years this made Charo the butt of a running joke, where she was cast as a vain celebrity desperate to fool audiences into thinking she was younger than she really was. Charo knows that some people do not believe her — she still receives gifts on various fake birthdays — so she has rolled the whole thing into her act. “I know what you’re thinking: I saw Charo 257 years ago!” she jokes onstage. “My secret is that I came to America when my cuchi-cuchi was just a kichi-kichi.”
If you were to accept (as I do) that Charo is 71, and not 81 (as some insist she must be), it risks upending the easy, tittering assessment of her legacy. It recasts the entire context of her career. So: Charo was born in Francoist Spain, in a town called Murcia, as María Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, though her grandmother instantly dubbed her “Charo,” short for Rosario. Charo and Carmen shared a bedroom that “looked like a stable,” she said. They’d play a game there: setting a chamber pot treacherously between their beds, pretending it was the Atlantic Ocean, and jumping from bed to bed as if escaping from Spain to America. Summers were spent on their grandparents’ farm, where Romani families set up camp, inviting the girls to dance flamenco and pick up a guitar and play into the night.
When Charo was 7 years old, the Franco dictatorship terrorized her family, seizing its assets; her father, an attorney and business professor, was run out of the country, and she did not see him for 10 years. “It is a trauma that you never forget,” she said. “You never know when it will hit you.” Charo found psychological and sometimes literal refuge in music, and at age 9, her family scrounged together the funds for an overnight train to Madrid, where she auditioned to study at a school overseen by the guitar legend Andrés Segovia.
Charo was the only girl accepted into her class, and “so cocky” that she showed off for Segovia when he was in town; he gave her the Manuel Ramírez guitar that she plays to this day. “He taught me to hold the guitar like it’s a child to your heart,” she said, “and play what your heart is telling you.”
As a teenager, Charo landed on a children’s television program, a kind of Spanish “Sesame Street,” where she played a pigtailed imp. She was 15 when she caught the eye of the 65-year-old Cugat, who was fresh off his fourth divorce, seeking a new muse and impressed by the girl singing “La Bamba.” When he tracked her down, Charo’s mother was livid; Charo lined her bra with napkins and told him she was 25. “Hey, this was America,” she said. She and her sister “were jumping and falling on a pee-pee container because we so badly wanted to go to America.”
“Cugat,” as Charo called him, quickly realized she was a teenager. But he brought her and Carmen to New York anyway, installed them in a Manhattan apartment with a Cuban chaperone named Maria and brought Charo into his act and onto his arm, a move that generated the desired media spectacle. Charo says she inflated her age on her naturalization papers and her marriage license (she and Cugat tied the knot at Caesars Palace in 1966) to live in America and pass as an adult in casinos. She has since described their marriage as a business arrangement, but it was a business that chiefly enriched Cugat — Charo felt too indebted to him to ask for money of her own.
Charo spoke almost no English when she came to America. She found an English instructor in the comedian Buddy Hackett and a publicity coach in Maria, who advised her to flatter male egos, especially Johnny Carson’s. “I always say, he was very egotesticle,” Charo said. So when she landed on “The Tonight Show,” and she could only guess at the sexual innuendo in Carson’s questions, she nevertheless stood and affirmed him with a resounding “cuchi, cuchi, cuchi!”
“I didn’t understand what he was asking me,” Charo said. But from that day on, “there was no more Charo. People started calling me ‘the cuchi-cuchi girl.’”
Charo was a quick study. Cuchi-cuchi worked, so she repeated it until it became a mantra that defined a persona that could not be ignored. Even as “cuchi-cuchi” reduced her to a catchphrase, it expanded her prospects for an independent entertainment career. She grew into a casino fixture, a pop singer and a television regular, appearing on series like “Chico and the Man” and “The Love Boat,” and was such a frequent talk show guest through the ’80s that one critic suggested the genre was a ruse to keep “Charo off unemployment.”
At every opportunity, she offered to play her guitar. When she asked the director of “The Tonight Show” if she could play flamenco, “He told me, You can’t bring a flamingo in here,” Charo said. Instead she was often cast as sexualized comic stereotypes. On an episode of “The Carol Burnett Show,” she played a Spanish actress who stomps hastily about in a sequined red jumpsuit — until Burnett emerges as Charo’s mother, wearing a plastic flower affixed to a gray wig, her breasts drooping in her matching sequined top. A New York Times summation of Charo’s 1976 ABC variety special described her as possessing “boundless energy, modest performing talents and a funny accent.”
And yet there was always something sneaky about Charo’s performances, even as the culture labored to box her in. Her double-entendre malapropisms — “don’t misconscrewme” — suggested a sophisticated command of the English language, and as she worked to build her own career, she resisted assimilating to American expectations. When she released “Cuchi-Cuchi,” a 1977 album of dance and pop songs she recorded with the Salsoul Orchestra, she fought with the producer to integrate Spanish lyrics throughout the record, which she was told would alienate American pop audiences. She won, and “that was the beginning of Spanglish,” Charo said. “I was a pioneer.” That same year, she divorced Cugat and petitioned a judge to officially recognize her legal birthday as Jan. 15, 1951. She won that battle, too.
WHEN CHARO TELLS the story of her career, it plays like a caper. The uncomfortable details about trauma, displacement, the power imbalance in her marriage, being celebrated as a spectacle — and that for years her rare and precious talent would be persistently overlooked in favor of this image — she dispenses all of this with a forgiving lightness. Never has Charo allowed any of it to weigh her down.
“It’s easy to underestimate Charo. She makes it easy — she gives that to you. That’s something we have in common,” said Paul Reubens, who befriended her after she performed “Feliz Navidad” on his “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” Christmas special in 1988. “But she’s such a surprise. If you only see the glitz, you’re getting just a fraction of who she is.”
In 1978, Charo married the love of her life, the Swedish music producer Kjell Rasten, and in 1981, they had a son, Shel. (Rasten died by suicide in 2019, after suffering from the rare skin disease bullous pemphigoid.) The experience transformed her, as if having a child of her own rekindled her own childhood dream. She looked at herself and said, “What are you doing? You sold out.”
She started booking gigs on her own terms: “I said to everybody, no more cuchi-cuchi. If you invite me, I will play my guitar.” She released her first guitar album, “Guitar Passion,” in 1994, and she has since been twice voted the greatest flamenco guitarist by the readers of Guitar Player magazine. The 1999 Magnetic Fields song “Acoustic Guitar” plays tribute to her power: “Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard/Well you could have belonged to Steve Earle or Charo or GWAR.”
Though Segovia’s classical influence is often proffered to explain her skill, Charo has a highly original style that weds intimate, lyrical classical melodies with the rhythmic flourishes of the flamenco tradition and spikes it all with a pop sensibility.
“She is a great guitar player,” said Kim Perlak, the chair of the guitar department at the Berklee College of Music. Citing her command of techniques like classical tremolo and flamenco scales, she added, “You have to practice that all the time to get to be that fluent, especially if you want it to be intuitive the way she does it.”
But beyond Charo’s technical skill, her performances convey a personal strength and a boundary-smashing courage that distinguish her — she is the rare musician capable of transporting classical guitar to even the most low-culture contexts, like the middle of the casino floor. “I’m not sure I know of anyone else who’s done that,” Perlak said. “It’s just genius.”
And yet this shift has not entirely stuck. The pull of the cuchi-cuchi persona — the Spanish spitfire stereotype to rule all others — still shadows her legacy. That new generations have questioned those stereotypes does not always lead to the redemption and celebration of figures like Charo, who were forced to contend with them her whole career. In later years, Charo was recruited for a new era of novelty TV, which lazily recycled those old tropes: In 2004, she bunked with Brigitte Nielsen and Flavor Flav on “The Surreal Life,” and producers punctuated her confessionals with mocking notes like “?????,” though later appearances — on “Don’t Trust the B—– in Apartment 23” and “Jane the Virgin” — proved that she indeed had something to say.
There is one performance tradition that has always seemed to get Charo — not just that she’s a wonderful guitar player, but that there is something intriguing about her whole package: her mixing of high and low culture; her virtuosic re-enactment of stereotype that nevertheless upends expectation; her over-the-top, star-spangled sensibility that manages to feel utterly genuine; the unserious gloss that disguises a very serious performer. In 2002, The Advocate called Charo “a template for drag queens everywhere.” She is a friend of RuPaul’s and a sometime guest on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” where, on the show’s 11th season, Jesus Martinez, performing as Shuga Cain, lovingly impersonated Charo “for my Latinos out there.”
Charo saw the video and invited Martinez over for a raucous dinner with her family. Watching her on television as a kid, “there was something about her that I just connected with,” Martinez told me, and when they met, “I felt like I was at home.” The Princeton University professor Brian Eugenio Herrera, one of the few academics to write Charo scholarship, remembers her as a fascinating and polarizing figure in his New Mexico community in the 1970s. “She’s like a Dolly Parton or a Joan Rivers — a woman who can make people uncomfortable” but who “was always hustling — even when mainstream entertainment didn’t care about her,” he said. “She’s a trouper.”
Throughout her career, Charo has felt underestimated “all the time, all the time,” she said. “But it never gave me a complex. I have fun. As long as people enjoy it, I don’t care. Because once I have that, I have the power of the stage.”
ONE NIGHT IN March, Charo took the stage for the first time in two years, in the center of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. The backdrop was styled as a sheer rock face, and a subdued audience of gamblers migrated from the slot machines and into the seats of the Wolf Den, a venue encircled by towering wooden poles topped with sculptures of howling wolves. The moment Charo emerged in a sequined rose gold mini dress and matching fingerless elbow-length gloves, shouting “Viva Espana!,” this slightly depressing artificial terrain felt suddenly alive.
Charo introduced Patrick Karst and three more tuxedo-clad band members with names she cheekily tweaked — Patricio, Paco, Mateo, Pablo — and executed a disco-infused routine, singing “Hot, Hot, Hot,” “Chiquitita” and “Fernando,” twirling her arms like an articulated Barbie doll and offering workout tips in between deep squats. A couple of numbers in, she descended to the audience, clutched a random man’s head into her chest, tried to scramble into another’s lap and then greeted yet another by peeling his Champion hoodie over his head. “You’re beautiful!” she told us when she returned to the stage. “Where is the naked guy? You’re so sexy!”
“Now that you know me very well, I will sit down and play my guitar,” Charo announced. She clipped on a floor-length tiered white-and-gold skirt, designed by Carmen, and perched on a stool. She began with “Caliente,” a track from “Guitar Passion,” then transitioned into “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” a notoriously difficult classical guitar solo piece that creates the illusory sound of falling water. It was an intensely personal song that, she would tell me later, “nobody with a brain would play in a gambling place,” but that she, after decades of practice, was finally ready to perform live, with zero accompaniment. As she played it, she was also playing the story of her career, from the flashy hustle to the sublime payoff.
Once again, she had used her irresistible showmanship to carve out a space where she could define herself on her own terms. “I want to go out gambling with you tonight! The machines are full and waiting for us,” she said. “But I don’t work for the Mohegan Sun. I work for you.” So she played one last song on the guitar, only because, she flattered us, “you are a very sophisticated audience.”
Source: NY Times