The Ancient and Esoteric Order of the Jackalope

Charo

Nothing But A Number

how old is Charo, really?

On November 2, 1977 María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza walked into a courtroom in Las Vegas, Nevada. A short time later she walked out, only now she was an American citizen.

“So what? “you say. “Happens all the time.” Well, what if I told you María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza also walked out of that courtroom ten years younger?

Or that you might know her better by her stage name…

Charo.

God I Feel Old

I left a pregnant pause there for that fact to sink in, and during it I realized that if you are under the age of fifty you probably don’t know who Charo is. That makes me feel old, but I guess that’s just how pop culture rolls. One minute you’re so ubiquitous that you need no explanation, the next minute you’re so obscure you require half a dozen footnotes to explain.

So let me explain.

Charo was born March 13, 19-something-or-other in Murcia, Spain.

Even as a child she showed great musical talent. Supposedly, she was drawn to an old gypsy farmhand who used to play flamenco on his guitar at moonrise. He gave Charo her first guitar and her first music lessons. It’s a romantic story, but also so convenient and romantic and cliché-ridden that I very much doubt it ever happened.

In any case, when Charo was nine she auditioned for famed guitar player Andrés Segovia’s music academy in Madrid. She was admitted and moved to to the city, along with her mother and sister, who was studying design. At age sixteen she graduated from the academy.

In 1964 Charo was playing in a small club when she was discovered by Xavier Cugat, who made her the front woman for his big band.

In 1966 Cugat and Charo got married. The contemporary entertainment press made a big deal about their age difference but also presented the couple as genuine lovebirds, with Charo cooing over her “darling Cugie” and claiming that they only reason they had put off their nuptials for so long was that they were waiting for the approval of either the Catholic Church or Cugat’s ex-wife Abbe Lane.

After their honeymoon they went on a whirlwind tour of the United States. Their act was a hit. The Latin sound was having a bit of a moment, Cugat had the chops and the history, and Charo was a pretty good singer. Americans also loved her larger-than-life stage persona, which combined dumb foreigner and dumb blonde stereotypes into the character of the “cuchi-cuchi girl,” a genial sexy idiot who bounced up and down a lot and wiggled her torso around. It didn’t hurt that she wore low-cut tops with a lot of spangles and fringe to accentuate the effect.

Charo quickly became a fixture of American talk shows and variety shows. She was on Late Night with Johnny Carson, the Tony Orlando and Dawn Show, The Captain and Tennille Show, and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. Eventually she even branched out into actual acting, appearing on The Jeffersons, Fantasy Island, Chico and the Man, and also taking a cruise on the Love Boat‘s Pacific Princess an astounding eleven times.

While all that was going on she ditched Cugat, headlined the Vegas strip, and switched her sound from Latin to disco. She had a few small hits like “Dance a Little Bit Closer” and the noxious yuletide earworm “Mamacita, ¿dónde está Santa Claus?.”

All That Matters Is How Young You Feel

In 1977 Charo became an American citizen.

During the naturalization process you are given a chance to address any issues with your documentation. It’s all perfectly normal. Most of the time.

In Charo’s case, she said her Spanish birth certificate and passport listed the wrong birthday. They said it was March 13, 1941. She maintained it was March 13, 1951.

That’s a difference of ten years.

The only explanation she gave for the discrepancy was that the government back in Murcia kept exceptionally poor records. Well, okay, to be fair, she also provided affadavits from her parents, but it is the official opinion of this podcast that affadavits aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Now, Charo’s age had been shifting for some time. Entertainers love knocking a few years off to flatter themselves, and the tabloid press loves to uncritically publish every factoid they’re given. At the time of her 1966 debut she was purportedly twenty, which would be consistent with a 1946 birthdate. Over the next decade that birthdate kept creeping forward, first to 1947, then to 1949, before finally settling for good on 1951.

This creates some serious problems with Charo’s biography. Most notably, she has always maintained that she graduated at sixteen and had never performed professionally before then. However, if she was born in 1951, she only turned sixteen in 1967, three years after being discovered playing in a club by Xavier Cugat. She has never addressed this discrepancy.

It also makes that marriage a lot ickier. Even at the time many people were grossed out by the forty-six year age difference between Cugat and Charo. I can’t imagine they’d be more grossed out by a fifty-six year age difference, but they would be grossed out by an underage bride.

Charo’s only defense is that the marriage was a sham, purely a business arrangement, and the easiest way for Cugat to get her a visa that would allow her to tour the United States. That I believe. It certainly fits with Cugat’s M.O.; he married several singers as a way of exercising control over their their careers.

Of course, Charo also says that her parents lied about her age on official documents to make her seem older, so they could procure a marriage certificate. How this jibes with the previous excuse of “poor record keeping in Murcia” has also never been addressed.

Other people noted that she certainly didn’t look fifteen at the time of her debut, and pointed to contemporary photographs as proof. If you remember the whole Doug Hutchison/Courtney Stodden thing from a few years back, though, you know that the right makeup and styling can make someone look way older than they actually are.

I Don’t Actually Care

Now, here’s where I derail everything: I don’t think it matters how old Charo is.

When I first stumbled across this story, I sure did. I went in to my research with a sort of righteous indignation that Charo thought she could put one over on the American public. The more I found out, though, the less I really cared.

The entertainment industries lies about everything all the time, and as far as those lies go Charo’s age is pretty inconsequential. It’s not something she makes a big deal of, and it’s not like she’s using the controversy to sell some age-defying face cream or a diet and exercise program gauranteed to make you look ten years younger. Who cares?

But let’s just say for the sake of argument that Charo really did lop a decade off her age. Who, I ask, did she hurt?

Uncle Sam didn’t care.

The general public really did’t care.

The entertainment press really didn’t care.

While I’m sure there were Hollywood types who did care because they couldn’t get a chub from a 40-year-old woman, Charo’s career was already on the down slope before her age change. (Seriously — one attempt to quantify her Q rating discovered that the more audiences saw and recognized her, the less they liked her. If you’re talented and careful like Jude Law, you can recover from overexposure like that. If you’re not, like Shia LeBoeuf… tread carefully.)

If Charo hurt anyone by lying about her age it was Charo, by pushing back the date she could collect Social Security and enroll in Medicare. And frankly, she was making enough money that shouldn’t have been a huge deal.

If I have to be pinned down on Charo’s actual birthdate, I’d probably go with 1947. A handwritten one and a handwritten seven are easy to mix up. It also has the benefit of making everything in her chronology work out just about right, even if everything is really really tight. In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter what you or I think. The only person whose opinion mattered in this case was U.S. District Court Judge Roger Foley, and he was convinced. On November 2, 1977 he made Charo’s new birthday official.

As for Charo, whether she’s 73 or 83, she’s certainly had a remarkable life. Her late ’70s heyday is almost fifty years ago now, but she’s worked steadily since then. She’s still acting, with guest spots on That ’70s Show, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, Jane The Virgin, and Sharknado: Global Swarming. She’s made multiple appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race and was even a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. (Though her performance there is probably the best argument I’ve ever seen that she’s actually 83.) She’s sporadically released new albums, and continues to tour.

So, hats off to Charo. Whatever age she is, whe would all be so lucky to look so good when we reach it. Though hopefully we’d have found a better plastic surgeon than she did.

Hey, I said I didn’t care what age she was. I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna be catty about it.

Sources

  • “Age fabrication”. Wikiwand. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Age_fabrication Accessed 08/13/2019.
  • “Charo.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charo Accessed 08/13/2019.
  • “Q Score.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_Score Accessed 5/1/2024.
  • Pixa, Bea. “Charo gets her years pierced.” San Francisco Examiner, 9 Nov 1977.
  • “Charo, Sister Younger.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10 Nov 1977.
  • Thomey, Ted. “Table Talk.” Long Beach Independent, 11 Nov 1977.
  • Carlinsky, Dan. “These stars keep tight rein on real ages.” Los Angeles Times, 9 Aug 1986.
  • Brown, Joe. “Playful and ageless, Charo a sultry sensation still.” Las Vegas Sun, 20 Jul 2009.
  • “Charo: She’s more than just miss ‘Cuchi, Cuchi.” Napa Valley Register, 8 Sep 2010.
  • Lupu, Benjamin. “Finding the Fountain of Youth through ‘age reassignment.'” New York Daily News, 4 Sep 2016.

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Presented by #13 (David White)

Artist. Lover. Social Media Unfluencer. Acknowledged authority on lucrative bogs. Dave "The Knave" White is all this and more. But most days he's a web developer, graphic designer, and cartoonist. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, his two cats, and his crippling obsession with strange trivia.

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