Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Girl in the Video: “Billie Jean” and “Cuts Like a Knife” (1983)

Introduction to series “The Girl in the Video 2” (including list of interviewees).

The videos: “Billie Jean” and “Cuts Like a Knife” (1983).

The girl-now-woman: Raquel Pena.


You appeared in the videos for two songs released in January 1983: “Billie Jean” and “Cuts Like a Knife.” Did 1983 feel like a magical year for you?  

Yes…it was lucky!

[More on “Billie Jean” below.]

How old were you when you appeared in the “Cuts Like a Knife” video?


Where were you living at the time?

Los Angeles. 

What music videos, shows, or movies had you appeared in prior to that? 

It was my first music video, but before that, I had appeared in a few national commercials for Pepsi and Budweiser. I was signed with Mary Webb Davis for print and Cunningham for commercial and theatrical.

How were you cast? 

I was sent by Cunningham. There were women from several agencies at the audition and we were asked to wear swimsuits under our clothing (so we could easily undress and they could get a good look at us)…

Do you remember what your reaction was when you were cast?

Surprised! There were so many (beautiful) girls who tried out for the part.

Where was the video filmed?

At the old Hollywood Athletic Club, which later became the Berwin Entertainment Complex. At the time the video was filmed there, part of the building was being used for office space but most of it was vacant and felt as if it had been abandoned. Most of the scenes took place in the health club’s empty pool and changing rooms. The building has a really great history…the Jackson family supposedly owns it now. [MTN: Another connection!]

How long was the shoot?

All day and night. We started at 9 a.m. and wrapped at 2 a.m.

How did you feel making the video?

Super excited to be part of it…really talented director and producer team, and, of course, Bryan and his band were amazing. I had no idea what the concept/storyline of the video was until I arrived on the set, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I was cast in a very avant-garde piece of music video history. I hadn’t heard the song until that day, but it (and the entire album) soon became one of my favorites. :)

What was the hardest part of the shoot?

Not a thing was hard about it. It was one of my favorite film jobs. Even the dreaded waiting time between takes was okay since I got to watch Bryan and the band being filmed in all the other scenes and hear the song blaring repeatedly over the speakers! I never got tired of hearing it.

How was it to work with Bryan Adams? What was he like? Did he hit on you?

He was “down to earth” and friendly to everyone. It was a long day for all with repeated performances throughout the day and night and he maintained his sweet disposition the entire shoot. And no, he didn’t hit on me. He was a perfect gentleman as were all the guys in the band and film crew.

Any funny stories from the shoot? 

I didn’t know I’d be changing out of my bathing suit with the director filming me the entire time. He was right there with me in that little changing room from start to finish. I was a little self-conscious, not only because I had never done anything of the sort but also because I may have had a little crush on him.

Anything go wrong on the shoot?

During the last scene, I had to dunk myself in a big tub of water inside the empty pool’s edge and climb out drenched. The water was so cold and I must have gasped and opened my mouth underwater; as I came out, I had to hold back from coughing since the camera was rolling. I don’t think the director knew it, but there was only one take possible for that scene since makeup was pretty much finished after that dunk, so I had to hold that tickle in my throat for what seemed like an eternity!

What did you think of the video?

I loved it because I thought it was one of the more arty videos on MTV. Before its launch, everyone had only seen music performed on stage, but the “concept” video had people riveted! I mean, here were videos cast with the most attractive people, the latest fashions, dance moves, lots of big hair, exposed skin, close-ups of the music heartthrobs, and the lyrics acted out in real time…who didn’t love that! I remember hearing a song on the radio that I liked and then turning on MTV every chance I could, just to wait for the [video] to be played.

What did your parents think of it? 

They didn’t have cable in the early days so never saw it [then]. Eventually someone showed it to my mother and I don’t think she knew what to say…but I do remember something about the amount of eye make-up I was wearing!

What did your friends think of it? 

They all made me feel like a star.

Did the video ever affect your dating life in any way (i.e. when you first told boyfriends you were the woman in it)? 

I met a record executive from Bryan’s label (A&M Records) at the video launch party and started dating him soon after, which lasted six years, so I was off the market pretty much from the beginning.

Did you receive fan mail? If so, do you still have any of it?  

I did get some fan mail at the agency. No, I don’t have any of it.

Did the video generate any controversy that you know of? 

Not that I know of. I was literally undressing on camera, but the director, Steve Barron, knew how to shoot it and made it sexy…but not over the top…so it passed the censorship test.

What were you paid?

Rather not say.

Did you stay in touch with Bryan Adams after the shoot?

Not directly, but did get to see him several times after with my boyfriend, who was with Bryan’s label, A&M Records.

How did the “Billie Jean” shoot compare to “Cuts Like a Knife”? Was one more fun than the other?

Each had a completely different vibe. “Cuts Like a Knife” had an “indie” style and feel to it. “Billie Jean” was a major production, like being on a movie set. It was epic! And, of course, there was Michael! Singing and dancing and styling it up! It was surreal…music video history in the making. (FYI…both were directed by Steve Barron, which says a lot about his directorial talent.)

I can’t say one was more fun than the other, but from a performance perspective I had a bigger part in “Cuts Like a Knife,” which is always fun. But I have to say, just being on the “Billie Jean” set for a day, and playing even the small part that I did, was amazing.

How was it to work with Michael Jackson? What was he like? Did he hit on you?

He was fantastic! I have worked with a lot of celebrities, and he was hands down, without hesitation, the sweetest, kindest person I had ever met and worked with.

He had such a playful, kidlike spirit. There were several sets designed for the different vignettes and I remember Michael would do funny things…like he’d sort of disappear into the maze and then pop out of nowhere and “boo” whoever was walking by (he got me more than once). He was working and serious one minute and then goofing around and just having fun with everyone the next.

His brothers (all of them!) showed up on the set for a while, as did Quincy [Jones], and Michael went out of his way to introduce them to me. So nice. I had just met him that day, and he made me feel like we were good friends.

Did he hit on me? No…though he was flirtatious in a charming sort of way!

Any funny stories from the shoot?

Last scene of the video, I had to lie down in the bed (it was actually a wooden board with a sheet over it). They wanted to give the illusion that the body in the bed was Billie Jean. I remember looking up and Michael was staring down at me, and I was like, “OMG, Michael Jackson is jumping in under the sheet with me!”

Anything else you want to mention about working on “Billie Jean”?

Yes. At one point during the day, Michael pulled me aside and said, “You know you’re Billie Jean, right”—more as a statement than a question. He was trying to be serious, but he had that MJ grin…he was playing with me again. I found out later that he and his brothers used to call the zillions of groupies that were always after them a “billie jean” after an incident with one crazy groupie in particular who was really named Billie Jean.

I mentioned it to my boyfriend and some time later he found this explanation on the web:

Jackson himself has said the following about the “Billie Jean” video:

It’s kind of surreal and it’s different. I didn’t come up with that concept. It was, I think, a British fellow, Steve Barron, and I thought he had wonderful ideas but I let him go with it. The only part I wrote in the piece was, I said “I want a section. Give me a section here I could dance on.” ‘Cause he said no dancing in the whole piece, so the whole section where you see this long street and this billboard of these two girls, one of them Billie Jean and I’m dancing, that’s the only part I contributed.”

After reading this, I think he wanted someone to portray either a “billie jean” or “Billie Jean” in the video. Okay by me!

Were you ever recognized in public?

I would often have people come up to me in public and say “Don’t I know you?” but they couldn’t figure out from where. When I went to Europe to model about a year later, I was recognized a lot and they knew exactly where they had seen me. Bryan had a lot of fans everywhere.

Did you appear in other music videos after these?

Yes. [I did] some not-so-big hits for The Time and Rockwell and in 2005 was in a Richard Marx video.

Did you ever meet other women who were female leads in a mainstream ‘80s rock video?


If you went to college, where and what did you study?

I attended San Diego State University and studied communications and later Art Institute of Pittsburg for interior design.

What are you doing these days?

I’m a realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty.

Where do you live?

Southern California.

If you are/were married, what was your future husband’s reaction when he learned you were in this video? 

I was married to an NBA player. He actually said he was “in love” with the “Cuts Like a Knife” girl before he knew me…don’t know if I really believe it. :)


I have two teenagers: 15-year-old girl and 19-year-old boy.

What do they think of the video? 

They think it’s really great…and especially cool that I’m in “Billie Jean”!

What did you think when you first heard from me? 

Happy you reached out to me.

Has anyone else ever interviewed you about this? If so, who, when, and for what publication? 

Yes, Rob Tannenbaum for his book I Want My MTV.

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you?


How do you look back on these experiences? 

It was lucky. The channel was so novel and had virtually everyone’s attention, so it sort of memorialized the faces of those video girls, especially those first few years. Now they call them “MTV Classics,” which dates us all…but still cool to have been part of it.

Tweet about this interview to @michaeljackson @bryanadams!

Next: Mötley Crüe, “Looks That Kill” (1983).


Ribelin2000 said...

I could've sworn Raquel was also the main girl in the "Body Talk" video by Kix. Guess I was wrong.

Ed Suggs said...

I would of sworn that she was in the Coffee in Bed video from Squeeze!

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