herald

Monday 11 December 2017

What Katie Did Next: In which I praise a woman worth praising

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

I had a conversation with a fascinating massage therapist the other day.

We talked about sororities and sisterhoods, mother-daughter relationships and female friendships. "You know," she said as she pummelled by shoulders, "I think women platonically fall in love with other women."

I'd never considered it like that, but soon I was thinking back to the rows I've had with female friends, and the civil wars I've had with my mother, and the pain and trauma of it all.

I'm heterosexual and yet I can remember break-ups with female friends better than I can remember break-ups with boyfriends. Yes, we do fall in love with one another. Deeply.

It really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, though: I've been in love with a woman since my teens. It would be irreverent to call it a 'girl crush'. 'Girl' suggests juvenility and frivolity. 'Crush' suggests a passing fad. No, this is enduring, unlike a 'girl crush' which has all the depth of a diet cola drink.

This is a life-long love affair built on the foundations of admiration and respect. How do I know the difference? Well, I had a short-lived crush on Kelly Kapowski in Saved by the Bell when I was teenager and it lasted about as long as my crush on Zach Morris. We must compare like with like. To call this a girl crush would be to compare Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High with Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

I was 13 when I first saw her. The first thing I noticed was the hypnotic feline eyes. Then the strong jaw. Then the awesome breasts. "Who is that?" I asked my mother as I leafed through a magazine. "An Italian actress," she answered, "Sophia Loren." I detected a note of pride in her tone. She was glad that her daughter had developed what she considered to be good taste.

I stared at that photo for what seemed like hours, lost in the profundity of her features. Buddhists suggest staring at a flower during meditation to connect to the source and discover the wonder of creation. I suggest people stare at a photograph of Sophia Loren to get closer to the essence of a real woman.

It's a face that makes time slow down. I dare say it's the most evocative face in the world. Full of contradictions, it is humble and regal, serene and exuberant - the perfect mix of strength and vulnerability. There is both light and dark, Goddess and demon. Richard Burton described her face as "marvellously vulpine, almost satanic".

Her eyes tell her story. They have the haughty gaze of a bold child and the come-hither invitation of a siren (but not too close or you'll get a slap!). There's sadness there, too. "If you haven't cried your eyes cannot be beautiful," she once said. Sophia must have cried for Italy.

It's the impenetrability, though, the feeling that you'll never really get the measure of her. Like most icons, she makes sure to keep plenty in reserve.

These contradictions inform her craft. She has savage wit and brooding melancholy. She gaily sang Bing! Bang! Bong! in Houseboat just as she showed the world that nothing inspires more fear than a fearless woman in Two Women.

This is beginning to sound like an obituary, isn't it? I hasten to add that Sophia is very much alive and kicking. She's 80 now, and recently released her memoirs. I've made a note to buy a copy for a friend who is as captivated by her as I am.

This friend has a Sophia Loren coffee table book, the pages of which we spent the better part of our schooldays poring over. She never brought it in to school - perish the thought that something would happen to it - but every so often I'd get the invitation to visit the cultural treasure. "Do you want to come to my house after school and look at the Sophia Loren book?" she would ask. I didn't have to be asked twice.

We practised our makeup to look like her: White pencil along the tear line; black pencil, Cleopatra-style, along the lash line. We created eyebrows that travelled all the way to our temples, and cheekbones that started somewhere around our chins.

We brought photographs of her to the hairdressers and planned homages to her style when we went to Wesley disco. I once bathed in olive oil because Sophia said it was cool.

I deconstructed her makeup with a more forensic eye when I got older. I discovered that the eyebrows we so desperately tried to recreate were in fact drawn on, one pencil flick at a time. Her real brows were shaved off. Looking more closely at old photographs of her, I discovered that she lined out past the border of her top lip while emphasising the plumpness of her bottom lip. It was an optical illusion to balance the size of her nose. She was a mathematical genius

Sophia says that studio executives in Hollywood initially told her that she was unphotogenic. "People thought my mouth was too big, they wanted me to make my nose shorter, to have straighter teeth." I wonder if her distinct makeup look was created to harmonise her irregularities, like an artist chiselling away at a sculpture.

Kim Kardashian's contouring has recently sparked a beauty craze but if you want a real masterclass, check out Sophia Loren. At least you'll be taking advice from a woman who recognises that "Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical."

Studio executives also told Sophia to lose weight but she maintained her womanly hips and heaving bosom. Her voluptuousness is provocative, in the truest sense of the word. 'Got a problem?' she seems to be saying as she arches her back and thrusts her impressive chest forward. Young women with body image issues need to be shown photographs of Sophia Loren.

Older women with weight issues can learn from her too. Whenever I put on a few pounds I think of Sophia. She reminds me to put a wiggle in my walk, a cincher belt around my waist and to eat pasta with impunity.

I think of her too when I make big decisions. Sophia has always taken the road less travelled. She chose Carlo Ponti - short, bald and 22 years her senior - over Cary Grant. She spurned the advances of Marlon Brando when he grabbed her. "Like a cat whose fur has been stroked backwards, I twisted round and hissed in his face: 'Don't you dare! Don't you ever do that again.'" Oh Sophia, let me count the ways...

This is a dame that commands respect with the raise of an eyebrow. She is a paragon of the full potential of femininity. You can't have a girl crush on someone who's all-woman. No, this one is the real deal.

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