Oprah. Malala. Princess Diana. Michelle Kwan. Sophia Loren. It’s an eclectic list, but these powerful women all have one thing in common. They’ve been cruise ship godmothers.
While most people know about the ritual of christening a ship by breaking a champagne bottle on its bow, few people are aware of just how many traditions are involved in launching a cruise ship. And one of the most esteemed is the role of the godmother, who officiates at the inaugural ceremonies, bestowing her blessings upon the new vessel for good luck and safe travels.
Over the years, godmothers on cruise ships have included royals and celebrities, astronauts and athletes. Lately, some men have been asked, but the invitation is usually extended to a woman. However, no one in history — not even Queen Elizabeth II, who has an entire vessel named after her — has had the honor of being a cruise ship godmother more times than Hollywood legend Sophia Loren.
Appropriately for a woman who is making history, Loren recently christened her 14th ship with MSC Cruises — MSC Bellissima — this March, during the annual Women’s History Month. “It’s the fourteenth, but the emotion is always the same,” says Loren.
The 84-year-old actress was first asked to be a cruise ship godmother for the 2003 launch of MSC Lirica by the Aponte family, which owns the company. “It’s family,” says Loren, who is also a godmother to two humans. “I’ve known this family since they had children. We live in the same city. It’s a lifetime relationship.”
As the line continues to grow, the actress continues to be the godmother to each new ship. Loren is going to be a busy woman: MSC is the world’s fastest growing cruise line. MSC Bellissima was its fourth ship in less than two years, and another 13 vessels are due to join the fleet by 2027, including four mega-ships that can accommodate nearly 7,000 guests, as well as four smaller ultra-luxury ships.
Just like the Hollywood legend herself, Loren says that cruising has a timeless appeal. “Sailing the seas is maybe the oldest way to travel, and it has never lost its charm,” says Loren. “It’s like becoming kids again to the discovery of the world.”
The tradition of having a cruise ship godmother dates back to ancient times. The Babylonians, Greeks and Romans used to call upon deities to keep ships safe at sea. In the Middle Ages, women were considered bad luck and not allowed to sail, so men looked after the proceedings. But things changed in the 18th century when ships in France had both a godmother and godfather. In 1846, Philadelphia society member Lavinia Fanning Watson became the first solo woman to act as a “sponsor,” breaking water instead of champagne on the bow of a ship. With Queen Elizabeth II’s 1969 christening of her namesake, Queen Elizabeth 2 (also known as the QE2), royals took over. In 1989, Audrey Hepburn became the first actress to be a godmother, ushering in a new era of celebrities in the role.
Loren says she feels a sense of pride with each of the ships, just as she does with her own godchildren. “A godmother generates a wonderful title for a woman to take care of a child, to take care of things,” she says. “And in the same way, it’s also nice to be a godmother of a ship. You feel very proud of it.”
On the MSC Divina, which launched in 2012, Loren has a whole suite devoted to her that’s decorated in shades of red, including a crimson carpet that the actress personally selected. On the walls, there are vintage photos from Loren’s film career. And her favorite books line the shelves of the library in the MSC Yacht Club — a signature area on every MSC ship that includes around-the-clock butler service and dedicated spaces, from pools to restaurants.
Loren’s latest godchild, the 4,500-passenger MSC Bellissima is as glamorous as Loren herself, with staircases embedded with Swarovski crystals, a Champagne bar that serves up to 20 labels and duplex suites with sweeping views. There are more than 32 dining venues, bars and lounges, including a tapas bar by Michelin-starred chef Ramón Freixa and a chocolate shop and café from luminary pastry chef Jean-Philippe Maury. In addition, the ship has a dedicated venue for Cirque du Soleil at Sea, which is premiering two new shows, “Varelia” and “Syma.”
The Bellissima is also one of the most technologically advanced ships at sea, with a voice-enabled Artificial Intelligence device in each of the cabins called Zoe, which is the cruise version of Alexa. There’s also an app that can be used to book restaurants, spa treatments and shore excursions, as well as high-tech elements like a Formula 1 simulator and a program for passengers to create custom chocolate bars on electronic tablets. In the central promenade of the ship, the 262-foot-long LED-domed ceiling is the longest LED Sky Screen at sea.
After the christening in Southampton, England, the ship’s maiden voyage departed from Loren’s home country of Italy and will spend the inaugural season doing Western Mediterranean cruises, an area that the actress says she loves. In November 2019, MSC Bellissima will reposition to the Gulf, with weekly sailings out of Dubai, then will move to the East China Sea in April 2020. “You’re able to see the world,” Loren says. “It’s wonderful.”
So where is Loren headed next? “I don’t know,” she says. “I travel all the time, and I like to be surprised.”