Actress Sofia Villani Scicolone was born on September 20, 1934 in Rome, Italy. Her father, Riccardo Scicolone, considered himself a "construction engineer," but in fact he spent most of his time hanging around the fringes of show business, hoping to romance young actresses. Sophia Loren's mother, Romilda Villani, was one of them. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Greta Garbo, Villani had once been offered a trip to the United States to play Garbo's body double, but her mother refused to let her go.
After Sophia Loren's birth, her mother took her back to her hometown of Pozzuoli on the Bay of Naples, which one travel book described as "perhaps the most squalid city in Italy." Although Riccardo Scicolone fathered another child by Villani, they never married. As Loren's mother put it, "That pig was free to marry me, but instead he dumped me and married another woman."
Although she would go on to be considered one of the most beautiful women in history, Sophia Loren's wet nurse remembered her as "the ugliest child I ever saw in my life." A quiet and reserved child, Loren grew up in extreme poverty, living with her mother and many other relatives at her grandparents' home, where she shared a bedroom with eight people. Things got worse when World War II ravaged the already struggling city of Pozzuoli.
The resulting famine was so great that Loren's mother occasionally had to siphon off a cup of water from the car radiator to ration between her daughters by the spoonful. During one aerial bombardment, Loren was knocked to the ground and split open her chin, leaving a scar that has remained ever since.
Nicknamed "little stick" by her classmates for her sickly physique, at the age of 14 Loren blossomed, seemingly overnight, from a frail child into a beautiful and voluptuous woman. "It became a pleasure just to stroll down the street," she remembered of her sudden physical transformation. That same year, Loren won second place in a beauty competition, receiving as her prize a small sum of cash and free wallpaper for her grandparents' living room.
Loren at the Miss Italy contest in 1950In 1950, when she was 15 years old, Loren and her mother set off for Rome to try to make their living as actresses.
Loren landed her first role as an extra in the 1951 Mervyn LeRoy film Quo Vadis. She also landed work as a model for various fumetti, Italian publications that resemble comic books but with real photographs instead of illustrations.
After various bit parts and a small role in the 1952 film La Favorita, the first for which she adopted the stage name "Loren," she delivered her breakthrough performance as the title character in the 1953 film Aida.
Another leading role in The Gold of Naples (1954) established Loren as one of the up-and-coming stars of Italian cinema.