Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg (29 September 1931 – 11 January 2015) was a Swedish actress, model, and sex symbol. She is best known for her role as Sylvia in the Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life, 1960), which features a scene of her cavorting in Rome’s Trevi Fountain alongside Marcello Mastroianni.
Ekberg was born on 29 September 1931, in Malmö, Skåne, the eldest girl and the sixth of eight children. In her teens, she worked as a fashion model. In 1950, Ekberg entered the Miss Malmö competition at her mother’s urging, leading to the Miss Sweden contest that she won. She consequently went to the United States to compete for the Miss Universe 1951 title (an unofficial pageant at that time, the pageant became official in 1952) despite speaking little English.
Though she did not win Miss Universe, as one of six finalists she did earn a starlet’s contract with Universal Studios, as was the rule at the time. In America, Ekberg met Howard Hughes, who at the time was producing films and wanted her to change her nose, teeth and name (Hughes said “Ekberg” was too difficult to pronounce). She refused to change her name, saying that if she became famous people would learn to pronounce it, and if she did not become famous it would not matter.
As a starlet at Universal, Ekberg received lessons in drama, elocution, dancing, horse riding and fencing. She appeared briefly in the 1953 Universal films, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars and The Golden Blade. Ekberg skipped many of her drama lessons, restricting herself to horse riding in the Hollywood Hills. She later admitted she was spoiled by the studio system and played instead of pursuing bigger film roles.
The combination of a colorful private life and a striking physique gave her appeal to gossip magazines such as Confidential and to the new type of men’s magazine that proliferated in the 1950s. She soon became a major 1950s pin-up. In addition, Ekberg participated in publicity stunts. Famously, she admitted that an incident where her dress burst open in the lobby of London’s Berkeley Hotel was prearranged with a photographer.
By the mid-1950s, after several modelling jobs, Ekberg finally broke into the film industry. She guest-starred in the short-lived TV series Casablanca (1955) and Private Secretary. She had a small part in the film Blood Alley (1955) starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall. She appeared alongside the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy act in Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956) both for Paramount Pictures. For a while she was publicized as “Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe.”
Paramount cast her in War and Peace (1956) that was shot in Rome, alongside Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn. Meanwhile, RKO gave the actress her first leading role in Back from Eternity (also 1956). Ekberg featured in five films released during 1956, the last two being Man in the Vault and Zarak. These other productions were minor and had a limited impact on her career. In 1957, she starred in the British drama Interpol with Victor Mature, and Valerie, also in 1957 with Sterling Hayden.
In 1958, she appeared in two high-profile movies, where she co-starred with Bob Hope in Paris Holiday and starred with Philip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee in Screaming Mimi. A European film, Sheba and the Gladiator (1959), followed.
Federico Fellini gave Ekberg her greatest role in La Dolce Vita (1960), in which she played the unattainable “dream woman” of the character played by Marcello Mastroianni. The film has been released in English, French, German and Italian. After this, she accepted a fairly good role in The Dam of the Yellow River in 1960.
She then appeared in Boccaccio ’70 (1962), a film that also featured Sophia Loren and Romy Schneider. Soon thereafter, Ekberg was being considered to play the first Bond girl, Honey Ryder in Dr. No, but the role went to an unknown Ursula Andress. In 1963, Ekberg would go on to costar with Andress, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin in the western-comedy, 4 for Texas. Fellini would call her back for two more films: I clowns (1972), and Intervista (1987), where she played herself in a reunion scene with Mastroianni.
Both Ekberg’s marriages were to actors. She was married to Anthony Steel from 1956 to 1959, and to Rik Van Nutter from 1963 until their divorce in 1975. In an interview, she said she wished she’D had a child, but stated the opposite on another occasion.
Ekberg was often outspoken in interviews, naming famous people she couldn’t bear. And she was frequently quoted as saying it was Fellini who owed his success to her, not the other way around. “They would like to keep up the story that Fellini made me famous, Fellini discovered me,” she said in a 1999 interview with The New York Times.
Ekberg did not live in Sweden after the early 1950s and rarely visited the country. However, she welcomed Swedish journalists into her house outside Rome, and in 2005 appeared in the popular radio program Sommar (“Summer”), where she talked about her life. She stated in an interview that she would not move back to Sweden before her death since she would be buried there. Ekberg said the Swedish people and media had not appreciated her sufficiently. Nevertheless, her personal and radio appearances were popular in Sweden.
On 19 July 2009, she was admitted to the San Giovanni Hospital in Rome after falling ill in her home in Genzano according to a medical official in its neurosurgery department. She had been living in Italy for many years. Despite her condition not being serious, Ekberg was put under observation in the facility.[
In December 2011, it was reported that the 80-year-old Ekberg was “destitute” following three months in a hospital with a broken thigh in Rimini, during which her home was robbed and badly damaged in a fire. Ekberg applied for help from the Fellini Foundation, itself in difficult financial straits.
Ekberg died on 11 January 2015 at the age of 83 at the clinic San Raffaele in Rocca di Papa, in Castelli Romani, Italy. Her death was caused by complications from a longtime illness.