Charo's in Charge: An Afternoon with the Queen of the Cuchi-Cuchi

Few other women have had a career as prolific and expansive as Charo's: a flamenco guitar prodigy, a sex symbol, a Las Vegas comedy icon, and jewel of reality TV. We can't wait for what's next.

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Feb 7 2016, 9:55pm

Photos by Jason Altaan

The night I met Charo, she was preparing for a Burger King commercial she'd be shooting the next day. On her dining room table, where we sat, was bottle of wine she'd opened for us, and a handwritten copy of the lines she'd been memorizing. Behind us was her living room, which had high ceilings and wrought iron lighting fixtures. The walls were full of paintings of bright landscapes. There was a grand piano in the corner. This room was made for entertaining. Charo poured us some wine. She was conflicted about appearing in an ad for burgers because, she explained, "I have a bull."

"A bull," she repeated, off my confused look, this time using her fingers to indicate bull ears. "He used to live here," she gestured out to her backyard, with its classic Beverly Hills pool, where her pet cow had wandered freely until recently. "The city made me get rid of him," she rolled her eyes, "He lives in Agoura now."

"Nobody understands me. I am not normal," Charo said. "I think something went broke when I was born." Early in life, she explained, her father made it clear that he wished his second child had been a boy. "I told him," she scrunched her face up into childlike defiance, "I am going to show you something when I grow up! I have been doing it ever since."

Charo catapulted to superstardom soon after being brought to the United States in the late 1960s by bandleader Xavier Cugat, who had discovered her on Spanish TV. After a brief stint playing with Cugat's band in Las Vegas, she went on to headline her own show at the Conga Room in the Sahara. Here, to packed houses in the height of Las Vegas's night club era, she fired off one-liners, tore across the strings of her guitar, and let her hips hips catch the light as they swiveled in the sequined gowns that had been made by her sister and longtime stylist, Carmen.

"If my sister was less talented, I would not have this luxury," Charo told me, as we thumbed through some of her many handmade costumes. The costume room in Charo's house is a young girl's day dream come true. The walls and carpet are bubble gum pink. There is a mannequin wearing a bejeweled bra top and skirt, and shelves of hats, some of which look like actual fruit baskets. When I visited, wardrobe racks had been rolled against each wall, filled with pieces Carmen had made her: gowns and tuxedos in electric turquoise; candy apple red; nude; swishing taffeta; beads with weight; fabric that is delicate where there were slits measured to elongate her legs. "The problem with these," she said, lovingly holding one against her body, "is that they are too beautiful. You cannot wear them all the time."

Throughout the 1970s, Charo had plenty of television stages on which to wear her beautiful things. On shows like Carson and Ed Sullivan, she danced her way through parted curtains before pouring herself into her guitar. On the couch, she dropped double entendres by feigning ignorance, pretending, for example, that she didn't realize "success" sounded like "suck-sex," when she said it. She expertly fed set-ups to hosts like Don Rickles and Dean Martin, who used her confusion as a hook on which to hang their punchlines.

When I asked Charo why she thought some people didn't realize how intelligent she was, she replied matter-of-factly, "Because I play the role of the idiot." Charo has a musician's analytic understanding of comedy. "You have to be picky about when you say 'shit,'" she told me, "'Shit' will only get a laugh the first time. The second time will be meh. The third time will be nothing. 'Shit' is only funny that first time, when it's an accident."

On TV, she dropped double entendres by feigning ignorance, pretending, for example, that she didn't realize "success" sounded like "suck-sex," when she said it. She expertly fed set-ups to hosts like Don Rickles and Dean Martin, who used her confusion as a hook on which to hang their punchlines.

Her natural timing, along with her decision to lean into her role as a foreigner, made her a key thread in the fabric of American pop culture. She did the Tonight Show 45 times. She was a guest star on "The Love Boat" more than any other actor. She did, among many shows, "The Carol Burnett Show," "The Dinah Shore Show," and "Sonny and Cher." Almost all of these appearances were punctuated with the suggestive catch-phrase-and-hip-thrust combo that remains synonymous with Charo, "Cuchi-cuchi!"

Like the best dirty words, "Cuchi-cuchi" is versatile. It can be used as a noun, adjective, and verb. It is a personality trait; a way to describe stilettos; something you've done with a lover and maybe an enemy too. For all the playful eroticism that "Cuchi-cuchi" has grown to represent, however, its origin is unrelated to sex.

"Cuchi-cuchi" began in the Moorish castle where, as a young child, Charo lived by candle light with her family. The matriarch of this pastoral property was Charo's grandmother, from whom she seems to have inherited her love of rescuing animals. One of the many abandoned dogs that her grandmother took in had a spinal injury. His name was Cuchillo, the Spanish word for knife, because, Charo said, "when he bites you he don't let you go...But he was my friend." Much younger than her cousins and sister, a lonely Charo used to play with Cuchillo, and observed the way his injury made him move his hips back and forth instead of side to side. At three years old, she began mimicking his movements, calling the dog "Cuchi" for short because she couldn't pronounce "Cuchillo."

"Every time I walked like Cuchillio, the people laughed. Including the nuns, including the teachers. Anything that I did wrong, I can fix it by saying 'Cuchi' and moving like the dog. It was my security blanket," she said.

When she got older, Charo brought her security blanket over to to the states and onto her first appearance on The Tonight Show. "They told me, 'If (Johnny Carson) likes you, you're going to become somebody in America' ...I did not speak a word of English. So every time that he asked me questions, I didn't understand him. I said 'Cuchi-cuchi!' It became like a trademark, but to me, it was a way out."

Still, her relationship with "Cuchi-cuchi" is bitter-sweet. "I do get frustrated. The image of 'Cuchi-cuchi,' is so powerful, that it's all people see," she told me. "I really want people to know that the great passion of my life is guitar."

Charo soon learned she could use "Cuchi-cuchi" to show her fellow comedians a way out as well. "If the host—Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin or whoever it was—gets in trouble, I would stand up and go 'Oh! Cuchi-cuchi!' and everybody laughs, and it changes immediately the air. That's why I was constantly invited (onto late night shows) and why I was labeled as unpredictable...That movement made me a lot of money."

Still, her relationship with "Cuchi-cuchi" is bitter-sweet. "I do get frustrated. The image of 'Cuchi-cuchi,' is so powerful, that it's all people see," she told me. "I really want people to know that the great passion of my life is guitar."

Exposed skin made her a celebrity, but Charo reveals herself most when she plays the guitar. She gives her body to the music, biting her lip on climatic notes. Her fingers run across the strings in precise strokes that can be dizzying in their speed, or so drawn out they make you ache. Here, finally, is Charo understood.

Guitar Player Magazine has twice named Charo "The Best Classical Flamenco Guitarist in the World." Within classical circles, she is revered for her impeccable form. Charo's playing is equal parts raw spirit and religious discipline. She first learned the instrument from the Gypsies her grandparents used to allow to camp out on their property.

"They were missing teeth, but full of life," Charo said, of the people with whom she sat nightly by the fire, and by the age of seven, had learned their of guitar. "I lived with them, practically," she said, "until my mother called me in to sleep."

When Charo was nine years old, her idyllic family life was blown apart by the Franco dictatorship. Her father, who was an outspoken advocate for democracy and equality, fled to Morocco after became a target of Franco's. The rest of her family was ousted from their land without compensation.

Charo's mother brought her to Madrid to see if she was talented enough to study with Andres Segovia, a man who is still regarded as one of the best flamenco guitarists of all time. Charo stood before Segovia, in pigtails, and told him she was going to play something for him. He laughed at her. She picked up her cracked guitar, which had been given to her by one of the Gypsies, and dove into the classic "Fandango." Segovia was so taken aback by her skill that he gasped. "Then I told him, 'I'm going to be a professional.' He laughed again." Later, Charo would tell me about herself, "When someone tells me 'No,' really, they are doing me a favor."

Charo knows her way around the front end of a camera lens. With great focus, she flashed spontaneous smiles for hours. She rolled around uninhibited first, and asked second if "the pussy showed." Whenever Charo was posing, Carmen was nearby keeping an eye on her. "Charo! The tit! The tit!" She called out to her sister, as she leaned forward in a precariously busty dress. Then, off Charo's lack of acknowledgement, she rolled her eyes, "Tomorrow she will ask why I let her show her tits."

"We are a team," Charo said, as the sisters worked together to patch up a tear they'd just discovered on one of Charo's high heels. "We are survivors, because we are so well trained. Carmen will always be able to get a job in design. I will always be able to get a job playing guitar. If there are no jobs playing guitar, I can work as a performer. If there are no jobs for performers, then I'm sure we can wash windows."

Charo's relationship with her sister is an integral part of her upcoming reality show, "Charo in Charge," which will follow Carmen and Charo; their sons Shell and Marco; and Charo's husband Kjell. The show, says Charo, will be a mixed bag of music performance, design ideas, and humor generated from the family's naturally heightened emotions. This is the key to humor in reality TV, explained Charo, who credited the success of her season on "The Surreal Life" with the fact that everyone in the cast knew how far they could prod one another before any of them actually became upset. "As soon as someone is really angry, then it stops being funny."

Charo's comedy, while at times acerbic, is always directed towards herself. "My greatest fun is attacking me," she said, of the jokes she writes for her stage shows. "I make fun of my fat ass, whatever...I don't like to write jokes where you are actually offending people."

"We are survivors," Charo says of she and her sister, "because we are so well trained. Carmen will always be able to get a job in design. I will always be able to get a job playing guitar. If there are no jobs playing guitar, I can work as a performer. If there are no jobs for performers, then I'm sure we can wash windows."

Empathy permeates even her love of gambling, something that she says she enjoys because, "it's a challenge." When I asked Charo what she would do if she won the lottery, she replied, "first of all, I would get drunk." Then, she said, she would disperse the money among various causes she's passionate about, including education and St. Jude Children's Hospital. "I help many people. I take care of animals. I would save many animals. Listen, I'm doing it anyway. Definitely, I would still play the guitar with high heels on."

Charo is a family woman first, and an international sex symbol second. "I have no scandals. This is my affair," she said, gesturing to Kjell. The two met the night she was presenting with Chevy Chase at the 1977 Golden Globes, which Kjell was a producer on.

"I thought he was the most handsome man in a tuxedo I ever saw in my entire life," Charo said, of her first impression of her husband. "That was the best award I had from the Golden Globes. We are still having fun and planning to be together for hopefully a long, long time on this planet."

There is, of course, another mate, for whom Charo is fated: her guitar. She structures her live concerts so that they can have a long dance at the end. Charo likes to say that there are two surprises in her shows: the first is the comedy. She uses the opening half hour to fire off self-deprecating and topical jokes, which she writes the day before the show. "For my Morongo show on February 13th, I will be looking at the paper on the 12th." She doesn't hang on to old jokes. She's only interested in what's new.

There are no jokes in the second half of a Charo show. Midway through the performance, she changes into a tuxedo. Alone with her guitar, she offers up pieces like "Concierto de Aranjuez," composed by one of her former teachers, Joaquin Rodrigo. Citing Rodrigo's lifelong blindness as the reason for the heightened sensitivity that allowed him to paint musically, this image of a Spanish garden at nightfall, Charo clutched her hands to her chest and called it, "So deep, when you hear it, you stop breathing...When I play that, you don't hear a pin drop."

This is the second surprise.

"They say, 'oh my God!'" She dropped her jaw, imitating the aghast audience as they watch her soulful playing, "'and I thought she was a stupid bitch.'"