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Sophia Loren: From Rags To Riches

Stories

| LAST UPDATE 10/17/2021

By Genevieve Scott

Sophia Loren overcame many odds in her youth. She looked to her mother as a role model, and taught herself to become a strong force in the Hollywood scene. Read on for her greatest secrets to success!

A Star Is Born

Born Sofia Villani Siciolone in 1934 Rome, her life was not always as glamorous as it was made out to be. Her earlier years were full of nontraditional circumstances. Sofia's father, a construction engineer, was known to spend much of his time seducing young actresses.

Sofia Villani Siciolone childhood Romilda VillaniSofia Villani Siciolone childhood Romilda Villani
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One of those actresses was Loren’s mother, Romilda Villani. With a rocky childhood, Sofia soon learned the tricks of the trade from her mother and her own intuition. Her parents had no idea Sofia would grow up to have such an explosive career, with many famous men swooning her for affection.

Complex Family Life

After Sofia was born, Romilda became pregnant with a second child. Romilda then moved back to her hometown of Pozzuoli. It was a far less affluent city on the Gulf of Naples, Italy. She took her children, and Sofia's father, Riccardo Scicolone, stayed in Rome. From that move on, Romilda knew she had to do right by her family.

Sofia Villani Siciolone childhood ItalySofia Villani Siciolone childhood Italy
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Romilda carried Riccardo's second child, although the two were never married. "That pig was free to marry me, but instead, he dumped me and married another woman," she said. The resilient young Sofia would go on to learn life's important lessons amidst overcoming some of the most challenging years of her life.

In Mom's Footsteps

Sofia’s mother set the bar high for being a glamorous woman. She was said to resemble the famous American actress, Greta Garbo. Romilda was once offered a paid gig in the United States in her youth, as Garbo’s body double. This was an opportunity that seemed incredible to any young actress, but especially to her.

Sofia Villani Siciolone Romilda VillaniSofia Villani Siciolone Romilda Villani
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Romilda's strict Italian parents disapproved of the traditional mindset and claimed she was too young to be sent away to Hollywood. But still, young Villani never gave up on her dream, nor would she let her star-born daughter pass up on similar opportunities in later years.

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A Unique Child

Throughout the years, Sofia matured into one of the most iconic actresses in the world. Today, her name is associated by many with the image of someone unique in every way. However, she wasn’t always idolized or respected as the graceful talent she is now recognized to be.

Sofia Villani SicioloneSofia Villani Siciolone
Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images

When she was a young child, Loren was said to be very unusual in nature. This was something her nanny constantly reminded her of. In fact, while living in Pozzuoli with her mother, no one in the community would have imagined that she'd become one of the most well-known stars in history.

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Before The Red Carpet

Sofia grew up experiencing drastic poverty in Pozzuoli, which was not easy for the young girl. She shared a bedroom with eight people at her grandparents’ home and was housemates with other relatives. Riccardo was completely out of the picture by then, leaving Sofia without a father figure and the three without child support.

Sofia Villani Siciolone Romilda Villani Sister Sofia Villani Siciolone Romilda Villani Sister
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Things soon grew from bad to worse. Resources were so scarce that sometimes Romilda had no other choice but to take water from the car radiator to feed her daughters. Helpless to the world events that came next, their lives were further changed forever. However, Sofia learned to overcome every obstacle, one step at a time.

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A Scary WWII Injury

The poverty-stricken yet adaptable single mother and her daughters faced the wrath of World War II when chaos reached Pozzuoli. Located on the Bay of Naples, unfortunately, the city was a frequent bombing target during the war. Even at her young age, Sofia quickly understood what was happening when she became a victim.

Sofia Villani Siciolone WW2 chin injurySofia Villani Siciolone WW2 chin injury
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During one aerial raid, Sofia was knocked to the ground and struck by shrapnel, splitting open her chin. To this day, she has a scar from the horrible wound. However, traumatic life experiences nor injury would hold Loren back from achieving her dreams in the end.

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She Completely Transformed

Sofia's nanny wasn't the only one to dismiss her natural potential throughout her youth. Classmates began to call Loren “toothpick” due to her figure at the time. The effects of poverty had stricken her in ways that were obvious to the eye. With her integrity still intact, everything began to change, this time, for the better.

Sofia Villani Siciolone transformationSofia Villani Siciolone transformation
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From the age of fourteen to fifteen, Loren completely transformed into a mature and graceful young woman. "It became a pleasure just to stroll down the street," she recalled. It took no more than a year for Sofia to utilize the new version of herself as ammunition for her first big move in the game of life.

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Destination: The Big City

In 1950, at fifteen years old, Sofia and her mother decided to leave Pozzuoli to return to Rome. While the third member of their small family remained in Pozzuoli, the two planned to make a living off of acting. This later proved to be the turning point for young Loren, while her mother witnessed proudly from her side.

Sofia Villani Siciolone Miss Italia ItalySofia Villani Siciolone Miss Italia Italy
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Months later, Sofia competed for the Miss Italia title, beginning her career in show business. A year later, she landed her first role as an extra in the movie Quo Vadis. Loren was thrilled with the opportunity and soon learned she had just opened Pandora’s box. This realization shined brightly in the following years. 

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A Shy But Resilient Girl

Sofia landed acting gigs here and there and modeled for Fumetti, Italian comic books that used real photos instead of drawings. To Loren, this felt like another step in the right direction. The journey of getting her name out into the world that put some cash in her pocket and food on the table was in motion!

Sofia Villani Siciolone photoshootSofia Villani Siciolone photoshoot
REPORTERS ASSOCIES via Getty Images

During her first photoshoot, Sofia received negative and disheartening feedback. Although she was a shy and quiet girl, Loren was resilient and did not let the negativity discourage her. Nothing, not injury nor negative opinions, would prevent her from becoming one of the world’s most iconic names.

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The Birth of Sophia Loren

After playing many roles as extras while modeling on the side, by 1952, Sofia landed a small role in the film La Favorita. This small but mighty role helped the young actress evolve into a star. This was the first film that the Italian born icon, Sofia Villani Scicolone, adopted her signature stage name, “Sophia Loren.”

New Birth of Sophia Loren La FavoritaNew Birth of Sophia Loren La Favorita
John Springer Collection via Getty Images

Her new name quickly proved to be a good luck charm. Not long after she adopted it, she landed a gig that up-and-coming stars only dreamt of. Soon enough, all of the hard work Sophia put in began to pay off, finally. It was time to kick into high-gear, as she knew there was much more work to be done.

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A Star On The Rise

Only three short years after she moved to the big city, Sophia Loren delivered the performance of a lifetime. She starred as the main character in the Italian film Aida. It was then that casting directors and almost everyone else in the industry couldn’t help but notice her brilliant and captivating work.

Sophia Loren Aida rising starSophia Loren Aida rising star
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This film marked a new beginning for the blossoming actress. She proved to be incredibly talented and landed another role shortly after in The Gold of Naples. This role cemented her name as a star in Italian film. Although Italy had finally begun to work wonders for her, Sophia wouldn’t stay for long.

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Star of The Show

It took almost no time at all for Sophia Loren to make a name for herself in Italy. Once she did, the big-wig directors and producers in Hollywood sent their attention Rome-bound. They knew that Loren was a talent that they, without a doubt, couldn’t afford to pass up.

Sophia Loren Italy United States HollywoodSophia Loren Italy United States Hollywood
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Sophia headed to the United States in 1957 to star in her first English Hollywood film. Eek! This was a massive career move for the young star. It led to many great things, one of which included Loren catching the eye of one of her costars prior to her state-side landing.

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Cary Grant's Infatuation

In the Hollywood film, The Pride and the Passion, Sophia Loren starred alongside Cary Grant and the one and only Frank Sinatra. Many would guess that Loren caught the eyes of the handsome Sinatra, but surprisingly, it was Grant. He later began to assert dominance over their work relationship, despite the interest being one-way.

Sophia Loren Cary GrantSophia Loren Cary Grant
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The fifty-two-year-old Hollywood hunk instantly took a liking to twenty-two-year-old Sophia Loren. He began to pursue her with unwavering passion, eventually falling in love with her. What he hadn’t realized or taken the time to acknowledge was that she was already in a serious relationship with someone else.

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Who Was The Other Man?

By the time Sophia met Cary on set, she was already romantically involved with another older man that she met in Italy at the age of fifteen. That man was big-shot Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who happened to be twenty-two years older than the young Loren. The up and coming starlet certainly had all eyes on her.

Sophia Loren Carlo PontiSophia Loren Carlo Ponti
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Rewind! Loren and Ponti met while still acting in Italy but weren’t officially married yet due to Italy’s strict Catholic divorce laws. This made it very difficult for Ponti to divorce his first wife. Meanwhile, Cary Grant remained undoubtedly charming and was much closer geographically. Who would she choose?

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Seduced By Grant

Sophia Loren became absolutely infatuated with the seductive Cary Grant as they spent more time together. After all, he was one of Hollywood's biggest stars. He was a prime example of success for every actor and actress in the world! Not to mention, Cary was remarkably handsome and interested in her to boot.

Sophia Loren Cary GrantSophia Loren Cary Grant
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But being the confident woman she was, Loren stuck to her guns. She continued to hold a strong value in family. With Ponti, Sophia saw something that Grant couldn’t offer her. She saw the kind of life for her future children that she had always longed for as a young girl. The dreamer never gave up hope.

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A True Italian At Heart

As successful as Sophia Loren was becoming, she said that she never saw herself as someone who would become truly settled into the Hollywood world. After all, she was Italian, and she wouldn’t fit into Cary Grant’s life the way she’d imagined fitting into a man’s life. The focus needed to be on family first, not fame.

Sophia Loren Italian dreamSophia Loren Italian dream
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On the other hand, when it came to Carlo Ponti, Loren saw security and stability. She had always felt safe around Ponti since the first time she met him. "He gave me confidence. He taught me many things," she fondly recalled of their relationship. But Grant was very persistent, and did we mention he was on the same continent?

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Proposal: Rejected

Not entirely getting the memo, the charming Cary Grant courted Sophia Loren with persistence, buying her intimate dinners for two, showering her with compliments, and delivering her flowers. All of this while she was still seeing and envisioning a future with Ponti. The man really couldn't take a hint; what was a girl to do?

Sophia Loren Cary Grant Rejected ProposalSophia Loren Cary Grant Rejected Proposal
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Eventually, Grant decided he had waited long enough. He got down on one knee and proposed to the young actress despite her situation. She recalled the moment as a tough decision to make, but confident in her gut feeling, she rejected Grant’s proposal. Soon after, something happened that made Loren second guess her decision.

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Roses and Jealousy

The botched proposal didn't deter Grant. Wanting to celebrate the end of shooting Houseboat in 1958, Grant sent Sophia Loren a bouquet of yellow roses. He thought it would be a nice way to celebrate their second film together. While leaving the set with Ponti that day, she told him about the gift, but with a plan up her sleeve.

Sophia Loren Cary Grant RosesSophia Loren Cary Grant Roses
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She thought that if Ponti got jealous, she would feel confident that he loved her. And, as you could probably guess, he did get jealous, very much so. From that moment on, Loren confidently only had eyes for Ponti. That's not to say more issues wouldn't arise. One, a near-death experience that would change her life forever.

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A Nearly Fatal Night

Loren was largely multitasking the year she filmed her first movie with Grant. The hard worker was also filming Legend of the Lost with John Wayne and Rossano Brazzi. She would soon feel that she owed her life to Brazzi, who found her before it was too late. One evening, she awoke before dawn extremely dizzy and lightheaded.

Sophia Loren Rossabo Brazzi Legend of the Lost John Wayne gas leak Sophia Loren Rossabo Brazzi Legend of the Lost John Wayne gas leak
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As it turned out, Sophia was asphyxiating on fumes leaking from the gas stove in her hotel room. She collapsed to the ground in front of the door, opened it, and passed out. Luckily, Brazzi happened to be in the hall and saved her! Loren felt forever grateful for him. Who knows what would've happened if he wasn't there.

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The Jayne Mansfield Incident

Though this incident had less to do with health, it remained something that also followed Loren throughout the years. Upon her arrival to the states, Paramount organized a party for her. There, she was photographed doing something unlike herself. "All of cinema was there," she recalled to ABC News. It was a magnificent party.

Sophia Loren Jayne Mansfield IncidentSophia Loren Jayne Mansfield Incident
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Naturally, when celebrities gather for important parties, so does the media. At some point in the night, the glamorous Jayne Mansfield walked up to Loren’s table wearing something particularly revealing. When Sophia realized the view she was looking at, she shot a side-eye at the actress and gave the press a perfect photo op.

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"In My Face, You Can See The Fear"

In recent years, Loren reminisced on the glamorous party and explained why she was so concerned when Mansfield leaned over beside her. "And now, she was barely...Listen. Look at the picture. Where are my eyes? I'm staring at her nipples because I am afraid they are about to come onto my plate..."

Sophia Loren Jayne Mansfield IncidentSophia Loren Jayne Mansfield Incident
API via Getty Images

"...In my face, you can see the fear. I'm so frightened that everything in her dress is going to blow — BOOM! — and spill all over the table." Mystery solved, the look wasn't meant to be rude, just full of concern. The incident was remembered as one of Loren's more humorous moments. But maybe America wasn't the place for Sophia.

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Home Sweet Italy

In 1960, Sophia Loren returned home to Italy, where she once again immersed herself in her first love, Italian film. She soon made Oscar history starring in the World War II movie Two Women. The film was heart-wrenching, opening with a brutal air raid, a scene extremely close to home for the young actress.

Sophia Loren Italy Two Women WW2Sophia Loren Italy Two Women WW2
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Resembling her own childhood in many ways, Loren played a mother desperately and single-handedly, trying to raise her daughter in war-torn Rome. She won an Oscar for her performance, becoming the first actress ever to win the award for a non-English-language film. But this was far from the end of the success train for Sophia.

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International Stardom

By the 1960s, Sophia Loren became one of the biggest international movie stars in the world. She continued to star in Italian, American, and even French films. Sophia won praise while dazzling diverse audiences across continents. Being back in Italy felt right for the homebody, as she could put her full focus on her goals.

Sophia Loren International movie starSophia Loren International movie star
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One of Sophia's films was called Married, Italian Style. She performed so well that in 1964, she earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Unlike other stars of her time, however, Loren did not let the fame get to her head. This was something that would set her apart from the high-life in the following years.

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Priorities Over Fame

With her fame climbing locally and internationally, Loren never forgot where she came from. She held the goals she began her career with close to her heart. Sophia had always wanted a family, which became the most important factor when she decided to settle down to marry and begin life with Carlo Ponti instead of Cary Grant.

Sophia Loren family priority Carlo Ponti son Sophia Loren family priority Carlo Ponti son
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As fellow actors and actresses of her generation were engulfed in one scandal after another, Loren was happily living married life with her husband, Ponti. In December 1968, the two had a child together, their first son. The family usually comes first in Italian culture. This soon led to a drastic turn in Loren’s Hollywood career.

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Not-So-Typical Housewife

For many creating a career in Hollywood, it meant allowing the industry to become your life until the roles dry up. Loren, however, decided on a different path. The star moved back to Italy during the 1970s, and in 1973, she gave birth to the couple’s second son. The family focus was proving to be good for the Ponti's.

Sophia Loren Carlo Ponti birth HollywoodSophia Loren Carlo Ponti birth Hollywood
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Time focused on her family didn’t mean becoming a full-time housewife in Sophia’s eyes. With two children, she continued acting in Italy, though she had something else hidden up her sleeve. As you’ll soon understand, Loren was about to make history yet again, this time, off the big screen.

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A Different Kind of Plan

In the 1980s, Loren took a step back from her demanding film schedule to spend more time raising her sons with her husband. Seeing this route come to life, many said Sophia was right to assume that she’d never completely adapt to the Hollywood lifestyle. She would never allow her career to come before those closest to her.

Sophia Loren Carlo Ponti familySophia Loren Carlo Ponti family
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During this more relaxed period of life, she gained clarity of mind, which led her to the next important step. Loren utilized her break from the big screen to develop her best idea yet. Sophia was about to take the first step of revolutionizing opportunities for women in the entertainment world.

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A Natural Business Woman

Crushing barriers left and right, the film legend Sophia Loren decided she needed to break out from the mold in 1981. She found a knack for business, which was just the new beginning she needed. It was then that she became the first female celebrity ever to release her own perfume. Soon after, she debuted her own eyewear line.

Sophia Loren Business woman eyewear line perfumeSophia Loren Business woman eyewear line perfume
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Loren got herself into a groove, one that didn’t look like it was stopping or slowing down anytime soon. While she explored these newly found talents, Loren leaned further into another gift, one that came to her later in life. The renowned movie star was surprisingly a fantastic writer. This was just the thing she needed.

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Women and Beauty

In 1994, mother, actress, and entrepreneur Sophia Loren published a book titled Women and Beauty. Though this love became public post-screen fame, it turned out she'd been secretly writing in a diary her entire life. She once told The Telegraph she used to read it over, tearing out pages she didn’t want anyone to read or see.

Sophia Loren Women In Beauty bookSophia Loren Women In Beauty book
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Loren believed that some things should remain private forever. Eventually, to gain more security, Sophia began a yearly tradition of burning the throw-away pages. It's believed by many that maintaining this degree of secrecy is a factor that helped her keep the most intimate details of her life healthy and out of the spotlight.

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Sophia's Secret To Success

The iconic Sophia Loren continues to feature in films and make public appearances to this day. However, many believe that the most remarkable aspect of her career was her marriage to Carlo Ponti. The two built a beautiful family together and remained a faithful unit until his death in 2007, another uncommon feat in the industry.

Sophia Loren Carlo Ponti family success marriage Sophia Loren Carlo Ponti family success marriage
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The secret to a happy marriage, according to Loren, is staying low-key and remembering that work isn't everything. "Show business is what we do, not what we are," she noted. Her advice is probably a valuable lesson for anyone in any industry to consider, but that's not all Sophia wanted us to remember.

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Find Love and Eat Spaghetti

Many people viewed Sophia as a trailblazing woman. Years ago, Loren was interviewed by a newspaper reporter who asked how she maintained her great physique. According to the paper, her answer quickly became one of the most iconic quotes in showbiz history.

Sophia Loren spaghetti secretSophia Loren spaghetti secret
REPORTERS ASSOCIES via Getty Images

It was said that Sophia credited her figure to eating a lot of spaghetti. This was received as huge news, convincing many that this was her secret to beauty. Loren later clarified the quote. "I never said that. I think the quote was, 'Everything I am I owe to spaghetti.' How rude," she lightheartedly joked with The Telegraph.

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