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Sophia Loren’s first words when she took the stage in Indianapolis Tuesday night: “Bumpity, bumpity, bump.” She was clutching one hand over her heart to convey that most universal of human emotions—fear of public speaking. Whaaaat? Sophia Loren suffers from stage fright?

She appeared in Indianapolis as part of a multi-city tour to promote her new memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life. The moment I heard she was coming, I nabbed two tickets—one for me, the other for a friend. We landed in the second row of the Palladium, the better to ogle our lifelong idol. Now 81, Sophia can still take your breath away. I found myself as weepy as a teenage Beatle fan the minute she came into view.

Her exotic beauty is accentuated by a humility that seems no less remarkable, considering her circumstances. “It’s really exhilarating to win an Oscar, especially when you don’t expect it,” she says of her 1960 Academy Award-winning performance in Two Women. Loren was so dubious about her chances for an Oscar that she didn’t attend the ceremony and only learned of her win by phone through her lifelong friend Cary Grant.

From what we could tell, a lifetime of adulation by fans like us hasn’t ruined Sophia Loren. Her answer to most questions walked us back to something that’s hard to find these days: authenticity. Want to know how to be a better actor? Be sincere, really feel what you’re doing, work hard, learn your lines. Her beauty secret? Be yourself, find something you love to do, be 100 percent positive. When the Q&A facilitator tried to lure her into amending her answer to include happiness, she demurred. “It is not always possible.”

The Oscar was a thrill, but being a good mother is the legacy she seems to care about most. Living in Geneva, Switzerland, she agonizes over the distance that keeps her from enjoying four American-born grandchildren more often. Skyping to keep in touch doesn’t satisfy Loren’s need to touch and smell her grandbabies. “The smell of a baby is the most beautiful perfume ever,” she said.

After a 90-minute Q&A session, she stood and unfolded herself, revealing the stiffness that everyone over a certain age has when they sit too long. The once voluptuous body, seen in movies like It Started in Naples with Clark Gable and Scandal in Sorrento, is graceful and lithe.

Watching her movie clips, we couldn’t help but wonder if today’s definition of a femme fetale body would have permitted her stardom. Even by the standards of a bygone era, Sophia Loren was an outlier. In a 1962 cover story of Time magazine, writer John McPhee said this about Sophia:

“Her feet are too big. Her nose is too long. Her teeth are uneven. She has the neck, as one of her rivals has put it, of ‘a Neapolitan giraffe.’ Her waist seems to begin in the middle of her thighs, and she has big, half-bushel hips. She runs like a fullback. Her hands are huge. Her forehead is low. Her mouth is too large. And, mamma mia, she is absolutely gorgeous.”

Due to her unusual features, Loren failed her first screen test and was encouraged to have plastic surgery to correct her too full lips and too long nose. She resisted, a great reminder for mere mortals to embrace what we’re born with.

What’s your favorite Sophia Loren movie? Her grandchildren love her most as the voice of Mama Topolino in Cars 2.

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.