Sunni Welles, actress, musician, and performer who bravely joined around 60 women in accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault, died Monday after living with lung cancer. Her son, writer and film producer Shaun O’Banion, confirmed the news to Variety. She was 72. Born Nancy Kay Rihl in Caracas, Venezuela, Welles started acting at 10 years old, appearing in Leave It to Beaver. She took her stage name Sunni as a teenager, inspired by her nickname “Sunshine” and the last name of TV writer Halsted Welles, who was like a father to her. Welles toured as a singer and dancer, becoming friends with Elvis Presley and later marrying musician and actor John O’Banion. They had one son before divorcing.
Welles became one of around 60 women who came forward with allegations of sexual assault, rape, drugging, and other sexual misconduct against Bill Cosby. Hers was one of the earliest, accusing him of sexually assaulting her in the 1960s when she was 17. According to a statement through her lawyer, Gloria Allred, Welles claimed Cosby took her to a jazz club where she ordered a Coke and woke up naked in an apartment, alone, with no memory of leaving the club or having sex. When she asked Cosby what happened, she claimed he said she drank champagne and he took her there to sleep it off. Another time, she claimed Cosby took her to the Magic Castle, where the same events took place. Welles said she never heard from him again.
Welles continued her career as a principal dancer at a musical variety show in Las Vegas, then performed as a jazz soloist with her band Shiver. She settled down in California, working as a spiritual medium and author until she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Welles is survived by her son, his partner, and a grandson, as well as her brother and half-siblings, who encourage loved ones to make a donation to RAINN in lieu of funeral services.