"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.

Zsa Zsa Gabor makes more to-do about the age question than just about anyone else. From the moment she touched American soil she began losing years, culminating in a news conference at which she passed out copies of a document in Hungarian, supposedly her birth certificate, dated Feb. 6, 1928. We're asked to believe Zsa Zsa was Miss Hungary runner-up at 5, a bride at about 10, and married for the second time--to Conrad Hilton--at 14. Most diggers have settled on 1919 as the real birth year of the Zsa, although a woman who says she sat next to Zsa Zsa in a Budapest grade school insists the year is 1914. So is she 67 or 72? Don't ask, dahling .

The tale about Cary Grant is told so often that it probably isn't true, but it's a great story anyway. It seems a nosy British publicist cabled Grant's studio: "HOW OLD CARY GRANT?" The star himself replied: "OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?" Today, old Cary Grant is 82 and doesn't mind saying so.

Three-and-a-half years ago, Mary Beth Hurt told US magazine that she was 33. Schoolmates wrote to say they found that fascinating, since they were all 36 and 37. Her classmates now are about 40, but Hurt lately has been calling herself 37, which, says her press agent, is "only off by a year or so." Will she ever catch up to her friends?

Last year, Sally Kellerman claimed she was 43--four or five off the mark. Why would someone say she was 43 a few months before her 30th high school reunion?

In her autobiography and elsewhere, Hedy Lamarr says she was born in Austria in 1915. But back when she filed court papers to change her name (from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) she listed 1914. Still other sources give 1913. And according to one observer, "Hedy Lamarr was 52 for five years."

Cyndi Lauper just wants to have fun. That's why she'll say only that she's "around 30." After all, she argues, she isn't a car, so why should it matter? Most likely a 1953 model.

When Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme married in 1957, they were--so their publicity said--a couple of 22-year-old singers. Actually, Steve was 22 all right, but Eydie had a good three or four years on him. Still does.

Nancy Reagan has been keeping two years behind for a long time, although lately the press has been catching her at it. "Nancy Reagan, 62, celebrated her 60th birthday," read one magazine caption a few years ago. What about it, Nancy? Were you born in '21 or '23? Her best reply: "I haven't decided yet."

Can we talk? Not about age, if you're Joan Rivers. Her "Who's Who in America" entry says she was born in 1937 and was graduated from Barnard College in 1958. Barnard is under strict orders to say nothing about her, but she's in the school's '54 yearbook; as for her birth, Newsweek dug up early school records that date the great event to June 8, 1933. The funny lady herself, in her just-published life story, indirectly concedes Newsweek's accuracy when she says she was 31 on her first appearance on "The Tonight Show" early in 1965. Still, she recently told a "Tonight" audience: "I'm 50 . . . I don't feel 50." No wonder.

Loretta Swit doesn't like to discuss her age. But she was graduated from high school in 1955, so she couldn't possibly be 40 or 42, as some press reports have it. She could be "over 21," her manager concedes. Or 48.

Tiny Tim pipes that he's "ageless." Or, "I always feel 19." Just before his marriage on "The Tonight Show" in 1969, he said he was born in 1932. But give him nine more years--Tiny was 63 on April 12. Happy birthday, Tiny Tim.

And happy birthday, everyone!

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