Sophia Loren at 15 at a pageant in Naples and at 74 at an event in London
Sophia Loren (88), the super diva from Italy. Famous all the way to Hollywood, in show business for more than 60 years. Yet her childhood in Naples was tough: little or nothing to eat, born out of wedlock. The story of a poor girl from Naples who becomes a world star.
"When I think back on my life, I am sometimes surprised that everything is actually true," Loren writes in her memoirs. Her childhood was a "hard struggle". Perhaps that is also why Loren later never gives up, no matter how much headwind there is. How a skinny girl from Naples becomes the darling of Hollywood...
Birth in a social care unit
Sophia is born on 20 September 1934 as the Sofia Villani Scicolone born in a charity ward for unwed mothers in Rome.
Her father is still married to another woman. Loren and her younger sister grow up in extreme poverty. They are raised by their mother, Romilda Villani, her grandparents and extended family outside Naples in the town of Pozzuoli. From the Second World War, Loren is left with memories of the bombing raids, during which they hide in a railway tunnel. Money is so scarce that sometimes there is nothing to eat. That's why the skinny Sofia is called "toothpick" at school.
It all starts with beauty contests
In the teenage years comes the turning point: The "toothpick" becomes a curvy swan with a super slim waist and a voluptuous bust. In 1949, Sofia was 14 years old at the time, and an advertisement was placed in the "Corriere di Napoli" seeking candidates for a beauty contest. The "Princess of the Seas" is to be chosen in the local "Press Club".
Overnight, mother, grandma and aunts sew a sensational evening dress from curtains. A first appearance with consequences. When Sofia Scicolone "only" came second, the audience was so outraged that dishes flew - and in the end even the police had to come. "From that day on, something changed in me," Loren later recalled.
The mother as manager
At 16, Sofia becomes "Miss Eleganza", a sign for her mother: "From that moment on, I knew she would realise my dream." As a young woman, Romilda Villani had come second in a Greta Gabor lookalike competition, won a trip to Hollywood. But her boyfriend at the time and later father of her daughters gave her a choice.
The mother, as manager, plans the career in general terms. Not an isolated case at the time. "It's the mothers who make careers," writes Swiss journalist Edith Gloor about the phenomenon. In order not to leave Sophia to the dangers of the film industry, the mother moves to Rome with her two daughters.
The path to the film industry is difficult. Such small extra roles that Sofia is not even mentioned by name. At first Sofia appears under her real surname Scicolone, then under the stage name "Lazzaro". Life in Rome is hard, money is always tight, the family always has to move to another boarding house.
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At that time, photo novels were very fashionable, especially among women. To make ends meet, the manager's mother advises her daughter to try her hand at the "Fumetti". It works right away. Sophia Lazzaro, her stage name at the time, appears in all the major publishing houses. At the same time, Sophia repeatedly approached directors.
Breakthrough with an underwater documentary
The persistence is successful. The leap into the limelight comes with the next film, a documentary of all things. The young woman from Naples gets an engagement for "Africa under Water" in 1953. In fact, contrary to her casting statements, Sophia cannot swim at all. She learns in a fortnight.
Because the name "Sofia Lazzaro" is already compromised by the photo novels, the production company quickly invents a Norwegian grandfather: the name Sophia Loren is born.
A thin feature film plot is embedded in the documentary material at the time: The spoilt daughter of the expedition's financier falls in love with the boat's dashing captain (Steve Barclay), who saves her life. The banal plot doesn't matter: after the premiere of "Africa Under Water" in 1953, Loren is famous. More is written about her bathing costume than about all the underwater pictures.
Thanks to intensive speech studies, Sophia Loren is allowed to speak her roles herself. In Italy at the time, almost all beauty queens spoke only their regional dialect, which was usually difficult to understand, so they had to be dubbed in the film.
...and then Hollywood calls!
Offers are now coming in from all over Europe, even Hollywood. Her mother proves (once again) to be an ingenious PR strategist and fee negotiator: in order not to put too much strain on her health, her daughter will only shoot three films a year in future. The beginning of a world career.
In 1957, Sophia Loren appeared in front of the camera for the first time in Hollywood. She went on to shoot alongside screen heroes Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, John Wayne, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman and Gregory Peck.
In 1962, Loren was the only non-English speaking actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her role in the war drama "La ciociara". At the time, she was up against stars such as Audrey Hedburn and Natalie Wood. In 1991 she received her second Oscar for her life's work.
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written by Annie Kayser, first published 17 November 2022
Cover image - Collage: Immortal-truth at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons