"How old are you?"
It's a simple enough question. But asked of the wrong person, it may bring forth stammering, embarrassed evasion or an outright lie. Ask it of celebrities and see what kind of response you get.
Over the years, Charo has managed not merely to look younger, but actually to cut a full decade off her age legally . As a green singer 20 years ago, she said she was born in 1947. No one really believed that, but with time, despite press skepticism, she pushed it to 1949.
Finally, in 1977, she dropped even more years--the hard way: Charo argued before a U.S. District Court in Las Vegas that her passport and naturalization papers, which listed her birthday as March 13, 1941, were off by 10 years; she even brought sworn statements from her parents. The judge bought the claim. So Charo was born, according to the court, in 1951--which means that when she married bandleader Xavier Cugat she was 15, and that this year she turned 35, not 45.
In her autobiography, Joan Collins says she was born "May 23, sometime between the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of the war." That's fair enough, if the Great Depression was over in Britain by May 23, 1933.
Roy Scheider and the studios he's worked for have given 1934 or '35 as his birth year. It was actually 1932.
When host Johnny Carson, 60, not long ago tried to talk with Bert Convy about his age, Convy changed the subject. It seems he's a sensitive 52 and would rather talk about anything but.
Hyper-sensitivity is what it's all about. Particularly from entertainers, who often imagine their careers sliding along a downward path with advancing age at the rate of one notch per wrinkle.
"We find actors and actresses misstating their ages all the time," says a biography reference editor. "Somehow, as they get older they tend to get younger."
Most of the press doesn't doublecheck the ages supplied by performers and their publicists, so the number after a celebrity's name is always suspect. Even the staffs of reference books take ages at face value. According to a spokesman for the "Who's Who" series, "Age is a touchy subject. We ask but we don't push."
As one Hollywood publicist puts it: "It's probably better than it used to be, but this is still a tough town for age. Actors all think some producer is going to say they're too old for the part."
Not all, apparently. Rita Moreno, for example, who's 54, says: "I never lied about my age. It's like fine wine--you get better with age." And from Ava Gardner, 63: "What's the point? My face, shall we say, looks lived in."
But many more aren't so forthcoming.
"The Golden Girls," the sitcom hit, shows us how vital women well past 50 can be. But NBC, following network custom, doesn't tell how old the show's stars are. Betty White, who's 64, does tell the truth but admits that for years she was made younger at the hands of a Hollywood wise man: "He took one look and said, 'Swell, but you've got to knock four years off your age.' Everybody did that sort of thing in those days."
And in these? Just ask co-star Bea Arthur, who in 1974 complained about attention being paid to Lucille Ball's years: "I'm very upset at the press attacking her about her age. What's wrong with being 62 and admitting it?" Today, Bea has just left 63 behind but doesn't mind if you think she's three years younger.
When June Allyson became a movie box-office draw in the 1940s, fan magazines and newspapers dutifully reported the studio version of her age: Born Oct. 7, 1924. It was only years later that she admitted publicly she'd been born in 1917. Today, June Allyson is 68.
Bob Barker, the TV game-show man, asks the questions but holds back on at least one answer. When were you born, Bob? "Dec. 12." BUZZ! Incomplete! Sorry, Bob, the full answer is Dec. 12, 1923. But thanks for being a swell contestant.
Barbara Carrera admits she lies about her age: "I am protecting myself in lying about my age because of all the negative connotations about age; it's a psychological thing I don't go along with. I do it for all women and men."
Thanks, Barbara. And how old is she? Oh, say on the far side of 40--until she persuades us otherwise.
Angie Dickinson, according to a few sources, turns The Big 5-0 this fall. According to a few more sources, she did that four years ago. According to the most sources of all, it was five years ago.
Barbara Eden has a ready answer when asked her age: "Never mind." (She's 51.)
Soapstress Andrea Evans says she's 25 this summer; her school files say 29. Why the discrepancy? A typo, she says.
The editors of at least one biographical reference book have received a request from Arlene Francis to please stop printing that she was born in 1908. Not that it isn't true, mind you. It's just that she'd rather not bring it up.