There’s a good possibility – if you’re under 30 – you might not know who Charo is. She’s been around as a musical artist, comedian, actress and personality since the 1960s when she came to the United States from Murcia, Spain.
Charo is a survivor. And if you’re one of those people who doesn’t know who she is, you should. It’s nearly impossible to remember a time when there wasn’t a Charo. In all honesty, it seems as though she’s always been there and for much of that time she has been a strong ally to the LGBTQ community.
Take note: she’s coming to North Carolina. On October 21 she will perform in concert at the Bradshaw Performing Arts Center in Pinehurst, North Carolina and she will teach a master class in flamenco guitar at Pinehurst’s Sandhills Community College. The following day she makes an appearance at historic Thalian Hall in Wilmington.
Now back to her story: for the over 40 crowd, it should be fairly familiar. She was born Maria Del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza, although her grandmother reportedly dubbed her with the nickname Charo.
As the story goes, Charo married a former Big Band Director Named Xavier Cugat in 1966. According to Charo and various media reports, she was 16 and Cugat was 66, making the age difference between the two of them 50 years. She was frequently referred to as Cugat’s “young protégé” and Charo has purportedly said the marriage was a business arrangement so that Cugat could help her gain entrée to America and the entertainment market.
But Cugat didn’t have to work very hard to establish Charo. It quickly became clear she was talented: as a child she had learned to sing, dance and play classical flamenco guitar. Cugat was well-connected, and that did help Charo got early spots booked on television variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show with relative ease. In the years that followed she became a regular guest on the Johnny Carson Show, captured the title of record holder for the most “special guest star appearances” on “The Love Boat,” playing a character known as April Lopez, snagged a network television special and even appeared in films like “Airport ’79.”
In the late 70s Charo and Cugat divorced. She later married the man she called the love of her life, Kjell Rasten. They were married for 30 years and had one son together, Shel Rasten, who is now 40 and works as a professional musician.
More success was still to come. In 1994 Charo recorded the CD “Guitar Passion.” It went platinum and she received a Latin Grammy award for best female album of the year. During that same time Guitar Player Magazine’s reader’s poll listed Charo as the best flamenco guitarist for two years in a row.
But tragedy struck in February 2019 when Kjell Rasten, at the age of 79, took his own life. Charo has talked about it in the media since and during an appearance on the television show “The Talk” in July 2019. “He was Swedish, she said. “Such a beautiful man and the love of my life.” During her appearance on the program she told show hosts that she had performed in California two nights before his death. “It was a special night and my husband was so proud. When he went to go to sleep he looked at me very strange like he wanted to talk to me,” she recalled.
But he didn’t.
The following day at nine o’clock, Rasten committed suicide. Charo was devastated, and said she had no clue he had even considered such a thing. She confirmed that he suffered from a skin condition that caused tremendous pain and left him continually depressed.
In September 2019 she talked with the San Franscisco-based El Teco Lote website prior to a performance in the city. It was her first show since her husband’s death and she dedicated it to him. “I’m going [to perform] for everyone to have a good time, and I want, with a little bit of comedy, to pass on the most important message of all, that life is beautiful, and if you’re going through a hard time in your life, please ask for help.”
That was three years ago. Forever upbeat and exhuberant, Charo returned to performing seven months later. Now, she’s taking her performance just about anywhere she can.
These days, with a hefty dose of talent added, Charo’s living life in the 21st century and keeps busy with regular clips on social media like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. She also has her own homepage which keeps fans up to date about her upcoming performances.
In 2018 she appeared on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” Season 24 and dazzled America audiences with her rendition of Malagüeña during the season finale. More recently, she has appeared on The CW’s “Jane The Virgin,” entertained audiences as the Queen of England in SyFy’s “Sharknado 5” and introduced millions of viewers to her crazy family and her Beverly Hills estate in a hilarious episode of ABC’s “Celebrity Wife Swap.” Coming up in the near future, she’ll appear in an episode of MTV’s “Cribs.”
But let’s back up a little bit. It’s important to note that it was during the popularity of dance music in the late 1970s that Charo and what was then known as just the plain ol’ Lesbian and Gay Community formed a bond through songs like “Dance A Little Bit Closer,” “Stay with Me” and “Ole, Ole.” She’s been our ally ever since.
Although she hasn’t fully divulged her performance plans, it’s expected she’ll be sticking to flamenco guitar, though a message to her via social media might convince her otherwise.
David Aaron Moore: I know you had a long-running show in Hawaii and in Las Vegas as well. But I haven’t heard very much about you performing on the East Coast. Have you been to this region before?
Charo: I’m very excited to be coming to North Carolina, and I think I may have been there once before years ago. Back when my cuchi-cuchi was a kechi-kechi (laughs). In my mind and in my heart this visit will be like my first time because I have grown up. It’s very difficult because of my personality, but yes, now I am a grown up person. You know for a long time, for me it was always like everything is beautiful! But over the past few years I’ve learned that not so much is always what is going on and I’ve had some rough times.
DAM: What did you do during the pandemic?
CHARO: That was a difficult time, but I am very excited because there are so many wonderful and beautiful people now that I’m back out in the world. It is a very exciting time in my life and I have been like a cuccarachi during the COVID. I have been away from the people and I am happy when I am around other people and meeting new people and I am busy and doing things. I am at my happiest when I’m performing. People and music are like oxygen to me. And this terrible Corona thing, it had me locked in the house and it had me thinking what the hell am I going to do? So I decided that I was going to make music and I could dream of a day again when I would be able to perform it for the audience. So I’m very excited and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.
DAM: You know, I’ve gotta’ tell you – I used to DJ a bit in Atlanta – and I still have my hot pink vinyl copy of “Olé Olé” with you on the cover wearing nothing but a guitar!
CHARO: (Laughs) Yes. I was naked! But I want you to know that was a message. It was a message that music is pure. Music has no complications, music has no enemy, music has no controversy. Music is the most beautiful thing that we get for our times. Now I know you’re going to laugh. My family loves music and my grandpa died singing in bed!
DAM: You and your family left Spain when you were a teenager, right?
CHARO: Yes. I grew up in a family that had been aggravated by political problems. But I come from beautiful parents and beautiful grandparents that teach my sister and me, no discrimination everybody is equal and respect all human beings. My sister and me we became survivors.
DAM: What has this year been like for you so far?
CHARO: This has been a good year. Especially to get out of this house! I’ve worried for my friends and I’ve worried for people that have suffered so much. I’ve been trying to take care of all my friends who are dancers that lost their jobs. It was a very sad time for me. And my resuscitation, my comeback to life time was last March 5. I opened a new show at the Mohegan Sun in Hartford, Connecticut. For me it was like I am born again. I’m free, I’m free! I am here with people. I am not afraid of diseases. I was free, and I was lucky because when they announced my name my heart beat was stroking like a drum beat cuz I had to face a lot of people and they were very happy and waiting for entertainment and I have a lot of new material and I put my foot on the stage and I looked up and I could see it was full up to the balcony and they applauded so much I felt like I was born again. I can’t tell you how powerful that was and I knew I needed to do the best job in my life. And I can’t wait to put my feet on the stage at the Pinehurst Theater and do the best job that I can.
DAM: How did that show in Hartford make you feel?
CHARO: There is no other word in any language to explain it how you feel, the feeling to be welcome with a beautiful audience. They wanted entertainment because we had lived through such dark times. And I remember dark times from when I was a little girl living in Spain and a little town called Murcia. I have been down so many times that I have found, my sister and me we have found, the way to find our way up. The audience has so much power with me. And I have no more to tell them [but] thank you, thank you, thank you, I say to them. They lift me up!
DAM: Where else are planning to perform in the near future?
CHARO: I have my invite to go back to Mohegan Sun, I will go back to the Morongo [Casino and Resort] here in Palm Springs, it’s a casino I do here and I will be doing two shows in Las Vegas, which I love it because everybody is happy and drunk. [At conventions] the majority of what is going on is business cards, talking business, making appointments for the next day and talking more business and I talk to people and say hello. I will also be performing in Miami and Orlando. I love it there, and I will be performing in Atlanta and San Francisco.
DAM: Tell me something. You’ve been in the business for many years. You don’t have to work anymore. Why the hectic schedule?
CHARO: There was a time for me that I really worked for money. But now, I need it for the audience, the applause, friendliness, the friends – we become friends forever and we keep in contact, with videos on TikTok and the videos on Instagram and Facebook. There was a time three years ago that I was so down that only God was able to give me the energy, a cure for life and to start all over again. This kind of stuff – the people, the performances – it truly saved my life, I tell you.
DAM: Give me a word that describes Charo.
CHARO: Bitch! I can be a bitch (cackles). I am a bitch with an accent. You never know but inside of you may be a bitch and I like to be a bitch. This is a gift. We are gifted when we are bitches! Trust me it’s good to be a bitch, but it’s good to be a good bitch! You know you’ve got to be a little bitchy, you’ve got to be a little edgy or otherwise you become boring.
DAM: Tell me about the master class you’re teaching?
CHARO: At the class show, for the students I have a surprise for them. I have an extra guitar and I am going to take it with me. And I am going to try and introduce certain information for the students that they will love that is salsa and flamenco related. I will make these kids study love of music and the passion of the music. And I have made a music technique of flamenco music that will distinguish it. We will give a guitar to whoever shows the most interest. And then through the YouTube, which I am going to start pretty soon, I will teach how to play guitar, not for the pick though, but with fingers. God give us five fingers and it really pissed me off to see beautiful young brains spending so much time getting hooked on the pick. That’s the only way I can do it, it’s the only way that I want to do it. We have five fingers and every one has a mission to do on the acoustic guitar. I love young people, and the one who shows the most interest will be my prodigy. And then eventually everyone will be my prodigy through my YouTube show.
DAM: Where did the pharse “cuchi-cuchi” come from?
CHARO: You know when I first came to America you couldn’t say shit. You couldn’t even say poo poo. (laughs). There was a time when I didn’t know what cuchi meant and I was talking to a friend of mine in Hawaii and he said, ‘oh my god, you were running around saying cuchi cuchi? And I said, “yeah, that was the nickname of my dog when I was little.” And they say “No! This is the name we call in America the pussy! I almost had a heart attack. I almost have a heart attack I swear on God. That cuchi cuchi I say it when I was three years old and the nuns and the convent laugh. I say cuchi cuchi to president. I did not know that it meant something else!
DAM: What made you decide to come to North Carolina?
CHARO: That’s a good question. Because friends and fans, when I was in the jailhouse, that’s what I called my house during the COVID, that for me was a jail, but I had the Instagram and I got lots of messages from many nice people. A lot of them were from North Carolina and they had watched my videos. They were so nice I felt like I knew them. I’ve got some special material for this show in North Carolina and I’m going to introduce it there. I feel certain, I hope that the people will really like it because I worked hard to make it class. Class all the way. There are lots of pieces that when they hear it from my heart with the guitar, you can hear a pin and nobody make a sound. It’s like silent. Everybody is so deep into the music.
DAM: Considering everything that’s been going on politically towards the LGBTQ community lately, are there any particular words you’d like to share?
CHARO: Of course I have a special message for them: Viva la vida loca! They are gay, they are lesbian, they should be happy. They should have equal rights. Most of my best friends are lesbians and gays and what I tell them is always be happy with yourself. Be honest with yourself. Open your heart and know that people now are changing and people will adore you and respect you because you are born this way and you deserve the respect. Everybody was born with that right. Everyone deserves to be equal. Everyone deserves happiness and love.
If you’re interested in going here are more details:
Charo will perform at Bradshaw Performing Arts Center/ Owens Auditorium on Friday, October 21 at 7 p.m. It’s located at 3395 Airport Road (a two hour drive from Charlotte) in Pinehurst, North Carolina and tickets can be purchased here. She’ll follow up that appearance with another Saturday evening at Historic Thalian Hall, located at 310 Chestnut Street in Wilmington. Tickets for this performance can be purchased here.