Old is gold in beauty

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 20, 2013

A 79-year-old Sophia Loren continues to define beauty for my family, three generations after my grandfather first met her and raved about her charm.

I have never understood the global obsession with youth. Little is more beautiful than a woman who wears her wrinkles graciously, and grows in self-confidence with age.

However, many women have an unflattering idea of their own charm, which deteriorates further over time.

They buy into the insidious belief that they must retain the plump, taut features of their teens and 20s for the other three- quarters of their lives. It is a despicable fiat and one that cannot be fulfilled, but it still gets hundreds of women to obsessively pluck out grey hairs or pay obscene amounts for bird poop and animal secretions that just might obscure the fine lines near their eyes.

Soap-maker Dove launched on Monday an advertisment about self-image, Real Beauty Sketches, in which a police forensic artist with his back to female participants draws portraits of the women first as they describe themselves and then based on descriptions given of them by strangers.

The portraits based on self-description were flattened, hideous and gloomy, while the others were radiant and much more like the real-life participants.

Celluloid celebrities fight a particularly cruel battle between image and identity. Film immortalises actresses at the best they will ever look, each glimpse of oomph the product of a team of dressers and make-up artists working for solid hours. Even after that, the shots might have been touched up in editing.

Afraid of not looking their best all the time, some celebrities go to extremes and wind up looking even worse, as in the case of actress Melanie Griffith's misshapen lips post-plastic surgery.

With this in mind, I was morbidly curious about seeing the real Loren last week, when she stopped in Singapore for a day to launch Italian jeweller Damiani's new range.

After all, my family has romanticised her for three generations. My late grandfather and my dad raised me and my brother on her romantic Hollywood comedies such as The Millionairess (1960) with Peter Sellers - particularly memorable for the scene where the then 26-year-old shows off her hourglass figure in a black corset - and It Started In Naples (1960) with Clark Gable, best known for her sultry nightclub rendition of the Italian song Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano (You Want To Be Americano).

Even today her name makes people half or a third her age behave like rabid teens baying at a K-pop concert.

Relatives and colleagues aged 30 to 60 who heard about last week's assignment begged me to "send our love to Sophia" and document the 15 minutes of the projected interview in precise detail.

Waiting outside Damiani's Scotts Square boutique for the star to arrive, a nervous 20 something-year-old reporter confided to me that he had been gaga over Loren since her last visit here, in 2008, and wondered whether it would be unprofessional to take a photo with her.

When Loren appeared, leaning on the arm of a Damiani representative, I wondered whether her untamed orange- brown hair, lined face and slightly faltering steps would cast a pall on his devotion. But an hour later, after the interviews, the reporter's face glowed and he stuttered trying to describe the experience. "She's so warm and natural," he finally said.

"Natural" is a description one hears often. "This is a woman who has lived her life without artifice, despite the 93 films she has made," critic Richard Ouzounian wrote in Toronto's The Star last month, and reporter Sam Kashner wrote in last year's Vanity Fair magazine: "Men look at her in wonder. They still do."

Her acting career began because of a perfect face and figure, but even today she outshines younger models in nude celebrity calendars. Her performance as a director's mother in the 2009 musical Nine outshone that of male lead Daniel Day-Lewis.

What brings both male and female fans to their knees is her honesty in speech and appearance.

Up close, she wore no more make-up for the day than a dash of eye-liner and lipstick, both applied a little crookedly.

It mattered little compared to the spell of her voice and manner, for she hid nothing, not her past trials as a teen growing up in ravaged Naples during World War II nor the fact that she tires easily these days and would rather be at home with her four grandchildren.

Here was a woman comfortable in her own skin and this is a rare, captivating quality, more alluring than Botoxed prettiness packaged tight in designer clothing.

She left me with this unforgettable line, when pressed for tips on staying beautiful as we age. First, she made a moue of disgust and waved a disparaging hand. Next, she laughed and suggested prayer. When one of the most beautiful women in the world tells you that there are more important things to worry about than the lines on your face, it is a good idea to take her very seriously.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 20, 2013

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