It is, Raquel Welch would have you know, never an easy time to be a much-observed, much-chronicled sex symbol. "There was a portion of the media that was very supportive when I began," she says. "But the media can be very destructive, too. There's a lot of power there, and you can ride on that power. But it can change, like waves in the sea, and things can be quite different suddenly. It happens over and over, especially to women. Women are admired and revered and put on a pedestal until a given point, then, whack! Then it's 'We always knew she was just another pretty face!' Or 'My god, we're so tired of this goodie-two-shoes act. Why doesn't she get down and dirty!' Or 'We loved her when she was being a diva, didn't we! Oh, at first, we did, we loved her. But, really, can't she do anything else?' "

Aha, but it is, Raquel Welch would also have you know, a time of renewal in her life. Not that the petite woman who opens the door of the suite on the 29th floor of the Parker Meridien Hotel looks anything but in the pink of condition. The celebrated torso is covered by a bulky knit tunic, perhaps, but the thigh-hugging knit slacks are the sort that only the confidently toned dare sport. And the angular face, graced only with pale lip gloss and black liner that accentuates the famous almond-brown eyes, could still stop a marathon dead in its tracks.

"I'm optimistic about whatever is going to happen," says the 41-year-old woman whose cantilevered anatomy has been prominently featured in more than 30 mostly forgettable films from "100 Rifles" to "The Biggest Bundle of Them All." The optimism seems to color her voice, which registers more musically than it does on a sound track. "In the past I sometimes felt that I overstepped my limits, or that I was ready to swim in the deep waters, but I was still dabbling in the shallows. This time, the fit seems right."

On Dec. 1, Welch will be taking over the lead in the Broadway musical "Woman of the Year," while its original star Lauren Bacall trots off for a short vacation. The engagement is for two weeks only, half the time Welch will have spent preparing for it in a grubby rehearsal hall in the West 40s. Still, Broadway's Broadway. Will Bo Derek be able to boast as much in 20 years?

"This play is not Chekhov, okay?," Welch says, curling up, her off-white outfit a complement to the tan armchair, which complements the beige curtains, which complements the brown rug, which complements the pale walls -- a vision of infinity built on some interior decorator's quiet principles of good taste. "I wouldn't choose Chekhov as my first venture in New York City. Oh, I could do it, but would anyone care? I'm still a professional actress and I do want to have some people sitting out front. And they have certain expectations I don't want to disappoint.

"When I walk down the street in this city, people come out of the shops and say, 'See ya on Broadway, Raquel.' Do you know how that makes me feel? Like a million bucks. It's so different from Rodeo Drive. There everyone has his dialogue pre-written, they're all in costume, and you get the feeling that someone is going to call out, 'It's a wrap,' and the whole place will just fold up."

"Woman of the Year" was tailor-made for Bacall, who won a Tony for her performance as a hard-driving TV superstar similar to Barbara Walters. Not exactly Raquel's image, you say? "I may have more guts than brains to try to follow Lauren in this show. But I'm not stupid enough to try to copy her," Welch retorts. "When I saw her do it, I thought she was wonderful, but I also saw that there were other ways to play it without changing a word. I have a different energy level, different movements, a different personality. And I can tell you I don't intend to walk through the role.

"When I first got the script, I remember sitting up in bed one night, reading it. There's this one lyric the character sings, 'I'm right. I'm perfectly right. My instincts are valid and strong. I'm right. That's right. It's remarkably rare that I'm wrong.' I turned to my husband and I said, 'Andre', listen to this. This woman is a perfect bitch. Do you think I can play her?' And he said, 'Darling, you'll be wonderful.' " (Nonetheless, free tickets will not be distributed to the New York critics, who, if they wish to comment on Welch's performance, will have to pay for the privilege like everyone else.)

Andre' is Andre' Weinfeld, a 34-year-old Frenchman, who has been on the phone all morning, arranging for photo sessions, fittings, interviews -- the endless details that attend a Broadway opening. Welch met him several years ago while filming "L'Animal" with Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris. "When I was introduced, I was so intimidated, I was arrogant. That's my way of being shy," he says. "I liked him right away," says Welch. "I couldn't take my eyes off his face -- his mouth, his eyes, the whole thing. You know, there are faces that exist only in certain cities. Andre''s is a French face."

"A Russian-Polish-Jewish-French face," corrects Weinfeld, who actually bears a startling resemblance to the French comic Fernandel. "At least I didn't have to go to a shrink for 10 years to learn to love this face. I just met a few people along the way who said, 'You know, Andre', you're not beautiful, but you're interesting.' I accept that. 'Interesting' is better than 'beautiful.' "

They do make a curiously contrasting couple -- she, with her flawless Hollywood skin, her delicate nose (a concession to plastic surgery), her dazzling teeth and only the finest of lines around her eyes to indicate the passage of time; he with his rumpled features, a huge brow, and a wide mouth that could make short order of a quiche Lorraine. When they started appearing together, a Paris scandal sheet printed a photo of them both -- Weinfeld looking, he says, "like a monkey" -- and asked incredulously in the headline: "What Does He Have That All The Others Don't?" For three years, Welch and Weinfeld kept house together in her Beverly Hills mansion; in July 1980, they decided to make it official.

"Raquel had already been married once in the town hall of Paris," says Weinfeld. "Las Vegas was out . . ."

"Oh God, I got married there once, too," adds Welch. "It's the pits."

"And Los Angeles is so boring," continues Weinfeld.

"God is it boring!" echoes Welch.

So they settled on the Mexican seaside resort of Coba San Lucas. "We decided it was going to be a terrific, wonderful day," says Welch.

"A marriage has to be very happy the day of the wedding," muses Weinfeld. "Not the day before, not the day after."

Weinfeld doesn't consider himself Welch's manager, but rather her "guardian angel." His background is in film and television news, and while his English is "good enough to write a love letter," he feels up against a language barrier in the United States. "So I do what anyone who speaks the language poorly can pretend to do -- be a producer," he explains. He produced Welch's 1980 TV special, "From Raquel With Love," has helped pave the way for her Broadway debut, and is developing some movie projects with her in mind.

"One would be a very commercial movie-movie, very glamorous, but very funny," says Welch.

"Something she'd do with Dudley Moore, because that's a funny couple -- Beauty and the Beast or whatever," says Weinfeld.

"Don't talk specifics, mon ange," interrupts Welch. "You get ripped off too easily in this business."

"Let's just say the other would be a much smaller movie, hard-hitting, maybe black and white . . ."

"Darling!"

As Weinfeld forges ahead, Welch suddenly grows hot under the cowl collar.

"I wish you wouldn't say that! How can you f------ well say that?"

"Okay, okay, off the record," says Weinfeld.

"You don't want to say that. Jeeeezuz! You know how people are in this business."

"Anyway, it's an interesting project," adds Weinfeld, beating a retreat. "It's something we could do on a very small budget . . . It doesn't have to be avant-garde at all . . . It could be big screen."

Welch lapses into an irritated silence, while her husband struggles to get off the subject without divulging any more trade secrets. "Well," he says, "the idea is to rent a camera, buy the film and do it ourselves. Because that's really all it takes. Somebody behind a piece of equipment. You don't need all those studios, those buildings, those agents, that whole Hollywood bureaucracy!"

One thing Welch and Weinfeld most definitely agree upon these days, however, is that L.A. is anathema. They have been looking for a home to buy in New York or the nearby countryside and plan to move East permanently. Ironically, the movie star who may be the ultimate Hollywood product wants no more of Lotusland. Born Raquel Tejada in Chicago -- her father was a Bolivian engineer -- she was raised among the palm trees of San Diego, a childhood she has repeatedly described as "grim." From her first marriage at 16 to James Welch came her two children and the now-celebrated surname. But her lightning rise in the hierarchy of the world's sex symbols is generally credited to Patrick Curtis, a precocious child actor turned PR man, who parlayed her presence in such minor epics as "The Fantastic Voyage" and "One Million Years B.C." into reams of international copy. Subsequently, he became her second husband.

Although at the time Welch was unknown both here and abroad, Curtis brashly sold her to the Europeans as America's response to Ursula Andress. When the European press lapped it up, he promptly turned around and peddled her to the American press as the bombshell who was rocking Europe. However, it was a poster of Welch in her fur bikini from "One Million Years B.C." that planted her defiantly voluptuous image in the world's consciousness. By 1969, she had moved on to what is probably her best known film, "Myra Breckinridge," and Time magazine was gushing in its cover story on her, "Raquel is raw, unconquerable, antediluvian woman. She dwells on the dark side of every man's Mittyesque moon. She is the nubile savage, crying out to be bashed on the skull and dragged to some lair . . ."

Welch now tends to sniff at such ripe prose, useful as it once was. She prefers to underline more professional credentials -- the years of classical ballet lessons, the training in theater arts before she dropped out of college, the TV specials that show her off as an entertainer. "Oh, there are things I like about southern California," she says. "But it was always a kind of forced tenure for me. Basically, it bored the pants off me. I think that's why I became an actress. I had all these people and things inside of me. I wanted to go and do."

The momentary pique has lifted and she is opening up again. "At the time I was discovered in 'One Million Years B.C.,' and everyone was shouting 'My god, what a bod!' and all that stuff, I was living in London. When I came back to Hollywood, I was kind of shocked. I guess I had become nouveau European. My eyes had been opened. If it hadn't been for my two children and their schooling and not disrupting their lives, I would have stayed on abroad. But they're grown up now, and I'm married to a French guy who will not live in Beverly Hills on Rodeo Drive."

Weinfeld, apparently, has reinforced her belief that she's far happier "in an urbane atmosphere" -- although she may just mean "urban" -- where "I feel part of the human race." The consummate Parisian, he offers no apologies for the culture shock he experienced west of the Rockies. "I tried to be very positive about California for three years. I really tried," he says, lighting up a Gitane. "But finally, I said, 'We have to get out.' There is no communication there. No relationships. You're always waiting for someone to get back to you. So you sit and you sit. People exist in trances. In New York, so many people smile at you, or talk to you in the elevator, and I think, my god there's hope for humanity, after all. I think this is a good move, a great move for Raquel. She can feel responsible for her destiny here."

Welch looks reflective. She takes off her suede boots, her white socks and wiggles her toes, the ruby-red toenail polish somehow suggesting that she hasn't entirely forsaken Hollywood. Then, tossing back her auburn hair, she volunteers, "I don't know if the goal is to be in control. I think the goal is to enjoy yourself. That sounds simplistic, but it's very complicated, too. That first moment, when fame hits you and the furnace opens up, you're caught in the heat. It's almost paralyzing. When I look back, all I know is that I was terrified for a very long time. I got lost in the requirements of the position I found myself in. It's a little like being on the front lines. You don't have time to think. You just have time to shoot. And as long as you're breathing, you know it must be okay.

"But at one point, you say, 'I've got to have some R & R,' because you don't know who is the enemy and who is the ally. So you drop down and say, 'What do I want to do?' And you don't know!!! You feel so stupid, like such a . . . a . . . de'bile French for idiot . But eventually you live through it and little sprouts start to grow, and you discover a few things about yourself.

"I know that being successful money-wise isn't the answer. And being successful in the eyes of a lot of other people isn't the answer either. I guess what I'm concerned with now, as an artist, is finding some kind of spontaneity in my life and work."

Hence the self-confessed glee with which she is readying for her Broadway opening. For two weeks, she will be singing and dancing and exulting in the kind of high-spirited energy that she claims makes for her best performances. "It's hard for me to do passive, static roles. That's why I chose to do 'Kansas City Bomber' in which she played a roller derby queen or why the two 'Musketeer' films worked so well for me. It's movement. Going with a flow. I don't want to have to hedge my bets anymore. I don't want to have to calculate. I want to do something because it feels like a good idea, not because it's the right career decision. Jesus, I just want to have a little fun."

"We got a telephone call from this superagent in Hollywood the other night," says Weinfeld. "She sounded like she was calling from another planet where hysteria is the rule. She has this tactic of crushing and pressuring everyone into doing her bidding. We just hung up on her. And do you know, she called us back later to apologize. Never in her life has she done that!"

Welch lets out a pearly laugh and kicks her feet girlishly. "Everybody has to make peace with himself. Sometimes it bothers me that I can't sell out more easily. I get right to the door and then I say, 'Godammit, I just can't.' But the funny thing about selling out is that at the time you don't always know that's what you're doing. I mean sometimes you only find out in retrospect. So I guess you have to do your best, because you want to do your best. That has to be the only reason. Because even then, you can take a big rap in the teeth for it."

Welch, of course, hasn't the slightest intention of falling flat on her fabled image in "Woman of the Year." As she points out, when she makes her entrance, Weinfeld will be there to whisper "merde" -- the French equivalent of "break a leg," among other things.