For W’s annual The Originals portfolio, we asked creatives—pioneers in the fields of art, design, fashion, comedy, activism, and more—to share their insights on staying true to themselves. See this year’s full class of creatives here.
Different generations of Americans know you from different things. To some, you are forever the “cuchi-cuchi” girl. Others know you from Dancing With the Stars and Instagram. As a child of the ’80s, I first saw you on The Love Boat and The Muppet Show. As long and varied as your career has been, a lot of people don’t know that you are an accomplished flamenco and classical guitarist. When did you start playing guitar?
I learned from the Romani who used to camp on my grandmother’s farm in Murcia, Spain, when I was about 8 years old. I was watching them play, and it was magic. The older one, probably the chief—he liked that my hair was almost red, like my mother’s, in two ponytails. He went, “You like this?” I said, “Sí, señor.” Eventually, he gave me the guitar. They called him el faraón, which is Spanish for “pharaoh.” I’d do a little thing with the guitar, pero my hand was little. He told me to put things between my fingers when I went to sleep—like a frog, to stretch the spaces.
When you were 9 years old, you auditioned to study with the master classical guitarist Andrés Segovia in Madrid, and you were accepted. What do you remember about Segovia?
He would show up always dressed in black. He probably thought, What does that girl want? What’s she trying to do in a world of men? He seemed very interested in my style—the way I hit the guitar was like a cat swatting its paw. And he’d say to me, “Who taught you that? Because you hit the guitar como un gato.”
Then, when you were a teenager, the Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat brought you to the United States.
I was 14, 15. Making a little money too. I was performing on Villa Alegre, a television show for children. Cugat contacted my mother through Villa Alegre. He said, “I would like to take your daughter to the United States to give it a try. For three months. She’s going to make you some money, and she will be protected with a chaperone.”
Then you go to the United States with Cugat. This is in 1965.
I was on a student visa. Johnny Carson heard about it and said, “Cugat discovered something new.”
How long were you in the States before you were on The Tonight Show?
Not quite two weeks. Because Johnny Carson wants to know: “What is the new?” My Cuban chaperone, Maria, told me, “Johnny Carson is the most ego person in America.”
Ego. Egomaniac. Maria said, “He can make you a star, or he can end your career and you’ll never come back. Tonight is your night.”
What did you do?
Maria said, “Feed his ego. Make him feel like he is the king. Try to be charming. Good luck.” So we arrive, and they were putting a lot of makeup on me. I remember thinking, Am I dreaming? We didn’t understand one word. Not one word. But I was trained by Maria. Johnny Carson didn’t want to see me in person before the show. I never met him in the dressing room or nothing. He said whatever he said...“Señor Cugat. Blah blah blah. Charo!” I come out. It’s nice. I like the applause. Now I’m less nervous. Oh, they applaud. This is it. Boom!
And you said your signature catchphrase, “cuchi-cuchi,” the first time you were on the show?
Yes! I performed. And then nobody asked me to sit down or nothing, but I sat down. And Carson laughed.
I noticed that when you played “La Cucaracha” on The Ed Sullivan Show that same year, you changed the lyrics. In your version, the cockroach can’t walk because he doesn’t have “cigarillos que fumar,” instead of “marijuana que fumar.”
Ed Sullivan asked for me. Maria told me, “This is another big shot. Behave.” Because by then, I’m a little cocky. Sullivan said, “Sing something for me.” And I said, “Okay,” and started singing “La Cucaracha.” Ed Sullivan said, “No, no, no, no! No marijuana! Somebody speak Spanish here? Somebody can tell me what she’s talking about right now?!” I said, “Mister Sullivan, I have an idea.” I changed that line, and I owned the show. Cugat called my mother and said, “She’s taking over America, but she’s crazy. I cannot control her. She was talking about marijuana to Mister Sullivan.” My mama said, “Who is Sullivan?”
In the early ’90s, you made a guitar album, Guitar Passion. What led to this decision?
They were so afraid to change my image. They’d tell me, “You’re going to make a big mistake. You are a great entertainer. You bring happiness to people. They forget their problems. You are like a therapy.” And I said, “But when I close my eyes or I look into the mirror, I see my mother working, my grandmom digging in the soil, my aunt doing embroidery. I reached a point that I think I’m a prostitute.” Because I feel so comfortable with this “cuchi-cuchi” image that I destroy what they want me to be when I studied under Mr. Segovia. I don’t want to lose respect for myself. So I make a deal with a company, Universal, to say, Okay, a little bit of the songs you wanted, and a lot of my guitar. And that was Guitar Passion. They told me very clearly, “You’re not going to sell nothing.” And then I make the joke: “If I fail, I am broke. I was broke many other times. I always can be an English teacher.” I said, “If not now, it’s never.” I concentrated. I practiced a lot. And Guitar Passion—thank you, god—became a hit overnight.
Guitar Player magazine has since declared you the best classical flamenco guitarist in the world, twice. Do you feel more recognized now as a musician?
Yes! I feel more recognized.
Do you still play guitar every day?
Minimum three hours.
Hair and makeup by Laura Bueno; lighting technician: Alex De La Higa; photo assistant: Fabio Dozzini.