Estate agent to wed the world's most beautiful woman, 79

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The actress once known as the most beautiful woman in the world (the title of one of her films) is to marry again - at the age of 79, to a man of 45 whom she claims to have been dating for 22 years.

She is the legendary Gina Lollobrigida - "La Lollo" to her Italian fans - who in the 1950s along with Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot restored Europe's reputation for producing the world's most glamorous actresses.

Lollobrigida, whose only previous marriage, to a Yugoslavian doctor, ended 35 years ago, is to marry Javier Rigau Rafols, an obscure but not bad-looking Barcelona estate agent, in a church ceremony before the end of the year. She will dress Spanish style, in his honour.

In an age when no one blinks at Botoxed oldsters like Donald Trump and Michael Douglas and even unrepentant wrinklies like Rupert Murdoch leading young damsels down the aisle, it remains a matter of some surprise when a lad the right side of 50 proposes to a woman who was eligible for her bus pass nearly two decades ago.

But this is no crazy caprice. As the actress told Hola! magazine, her relationship with the Spaniard has already lasted longer than many marriages. "We first met at a party in Monte Carlo in 1984 with his family," she said. "Events took their course and we met in Monaco, in Barcelona, on the Costa Brava where Javier has a house, in the US, in Africa and practically all over Europe."

Javier explained the chemistry. "Gina was dazzling," he said of their first meetings. "Don't forget, this was 22 years ago and she was an irresistible woman, and logically, I was dazzled. We didn't allow ourselves to look at each other. It was I who finally approached her."

Lollobrigida was raised in the mountains of central Italy and was a model and beauty queen before breaking into films, where she quickly set a new gold standard for fresh-faced, earthy Mediterranean sensuality.

In 1954, her comedy Bread, Love and Dreams won the Silver Bear at Berlin's Film Festival and propelled her to Hollywood where she starred with the likes of Burt Lancaster (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1956), Frank Sinatra (Never So Few) and Humphrey Bogart (Beat the Devil). Bogart was unpleasant to her, but she accumulated a string of conquests including Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. One man who failed to win her heart was Howard Hughes, the film mogul who first took her to America. "I said 'no' to him for 13 years," she claimed. "That was how long he chased me for. He was a man who wouldn't give up when he had set his heart on something. But he was ugly, and anyway I was married. I was also very young and naïve, a catastrophe of naïvety."

After the movie parts dried up she made herself a new career as a photographer and sculptor. In 1999 she dabbled in politics,standing unsuccessfully for election to the European Parliament on Romano Prodi's list.

Despite her great beauty and fame, Lollobrigida said, "Unfortunately I have been alone practically all my life. As a result I have missed a lot.

"My great popularity did not help me to encounter real love, because in all my experiences with men that were more famous than me, they ended up getting scared of my popularity. No man refused me at the moment of passion. But when the relationship developed and began to change into love, they all ran away."

Explaining how she fell for Javier, she said, "I have always had a weakness for younger men, because they are generous and don't have complexes. Javier is intelligent and has a great sense of humour which for me is very important. We laugh a lot, we have a lot of fun together."

Javier was not, however, one of La Lollo's fans before becoming her lover. "I'd heard of her, of course," he said. "But to be honest, my favourite was a great friend of Gina's called Marilyn Monroe."