• World

How Silvio Berlusconi Uses Women on TV

12 minute read

Standing in their uniform miniskirts and stilettos, three young women bend over ironing boards, pressing men’s shirts before a live studio audience. They’re competing to be schedine, young women who dance a little, wear little and say little on Quelli Che … Il Calcio (Football Fans), a popular Sunday afternoon show on Italian state TV. “Schedine have to be beautiful, but they’ve also got to be practical,” grins the show’s presenter. “Let’s see how they do!” An ex-footballer descends to judge the ironing contest, awarding the prize to a lissom blonde.

There’s nothing new about breasts, thighs and silliness on Italian TV. They have bedazzled viewers since the 1980s, when the television stations of Silvio Berlusconi, a mere media mogul before entering politics, revolutionized the airwaves by putting Italians on a diet of American soap operas, football and sex all over his Mediaset empire. But the formula was about more than TV ratings; it also boosted Berlusconi’s political fortunes.

(See pictures of Berlusconi and the politics of sex.)

More than 20 years after he transformed Italian TV, Berlusconi is Prime Minister for the third time; he has already served longer in the office than anyone since 1946. Of late, to be sure, he’s taken some lumps. Italy’s Constitutional Court overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office, clearing obstructions to trials in which he is accused of bribery and illicit accounting at Mediaset. But even were he to be turfed out tomorrow, Berlusconi would leave a lasting legacy. His TV shows have seen to that. “Berlusconi changed the culture of Italy before he changed the politics of it,” says Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome, a book on Berlusconi’s power tactics. “He introduced a culture of luxury and sex, one entirely different from the traditions of austerity promoted by Catholicism and the communists. His control of commercial television meant that he is the only politician in the world who helped create and shape his own electorate before it elected him.”

At the heart of Berlusconi’s culture is the velina, or showgirl, who is served up to Italians every day, like pasta. Some veline merely stand mute while male presenters talk. Some give on-air lap dances to chat-show guests, as did one earlier this year to Inter Milan coach José Mourinho. Others play the funny little games producers devise, posing as table legs, or braving cold showers in tight dresses. Some simply strip: Mediaset’s homepage recently featured a clip of a blonde clad in a black garbage bag, slowly lowering it to reveal her breasts. Degrading? Undoubtedly. But there’s no denying the status of the showgirl in Berlusconi’s Italy. “We used to get 10 or 15 applications a week,” notes Gabriele Bertone, an agent at a Milan talent agency. “Now we get hundreds.” A recent poll among young girls in Milan showed their top choice of profession was to be a velina. “Sure, everyone wants to be [one],” shrugs Anna Depoli, a Milanese secretary waiting to take her seat in Quelli Che … Il Calcio’s audience. “If you’re a velina, then you have the chance to get to know football players, and if you marry them, you could end up with a lot of money.”

(See Berlusconi’s top 10 worst gaffes.)

The velina has become more than a mainstay of Italian television; she is the rock on which Berlusconi built his political career. In the 15 years since he began dominating Italian politics, Berlusconi has created a seamless weave of entertainment and power. The Taliban may use the virtue of their country’s women as a rallying cry; Berlusconi has used Italian women’s beauty. Americans should invest in Italy, he once told a Wall Street audience, because it had the comeliest secretaries.

(Read “Photos of Nude Partygoers Add to Berlusconi’s Woes.”)

Playing the Game
Increasingly, the velina is a political player as well as a sexual one. Though just 18, Noemi Letizia — whose relationship with Berlusconi spurred feverish speculation in the Italian press this summer — knows how the game works. “[I want to be] a showgirl,” she told an Italian newspaper. “I am interested in politics, too … I’d rather be a candidate for the Chamber of Parliament. Papi Silvio would take care of that.” Last year, Berlusconi formalized the politics-showgirls link, appointing Mara Carfagna, 32, a former velina and topless model, as his Minister for Equal Opportunities. This summer his party nominated four young starlets as candidates for the European parliamentary elections. “The idea was to make the party younger,” says Elisa Alloro, a 33-year-old television presenter who was initially proposed as a candidate, and is the author of We, Silvio’s Girls. “It was the first time in Italy that people were interested in the European elections — just because we were veline! ” Berlusconi’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Veronica Lario, was less impressed, decrying the tactic as “entertainment for the emperor.”

See pictures of Berlusconi’s women on LIFE.com.

Read “What Berlusconi’s Obama ‘Jokes’ Say About Italy.”

Entertainment is central to the political genius of a man who started off as a crooner on a cruise line, and who christened his party Forza Italia after a national football chant. He’s anything but gray. “When [former Prime Minister Romano] Prodi was on TV, I had to turn the sound way up,” snorts one middle-aged Berlusconi supporter. “Prodi speaks like a priest.” Ask an Italian what they think of their current leader, and chances are they’ll chuckle — but most go on to say they voted for him. For many of his countrymen, Berlusconi’s appetites are central to his appeal: “He is a real Italian,” shrugs Alessio de Mitri, a youth coordinator for Berlusconi’s party, now called Il Popolo della Libertà (PDL). “He likes to eat. He likes parties. He’s going through a divorce, like a lot of people. He’s going through company problems. He’s really normal.”

Sort of a normal superman — at least as his story is told on his own stations. Mediaset shows will tell you Berlusconi has boosted the economy, brokered peace in Georgia and built new houses for the victims of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, whereas the opposition would, as one Milanese Mediaset viewer quipped, “still be arguing about the density of the cement.” When the Prime Minister handed out the keys of new homes to quake victims in September, two popular shows were bumped from other channels to avoid a clash. Italy is now the only country in Europe whose leader owns the media: Berlusconi’s Mediaset stations, and his government’s control of the state-owned RAI, means he has cornered 90% of the television market, in a country where an estimated 80% of the population gets its news from television. Criticizing Berlusconi can be costly. Since the stories about Letizia and alleged dalliances with prostitutes broke this summer, the newspaper La Repubblica has been covering them aggressively. The paper faces a libel suit from Berlusconi, as have foreign magazines and journalists who have criticized him in the past. “There are newspapers which have gone past the limits, have been too invasive of the Prime Minister’s private life,” says Carfagna.

(Read “How Has Berlusconi Survived His Sex Scandal?”)

Berlusconi’s media empire began with the local TV station for Milano 2, a subdivision Berlusconi built outside of Milan when he was a young construction entrepreneur in the 1960s. A pioneer of private commercial television in Europe, he then sidestepped Italy’s antimonopoly laws banning national private television by buying up scores of local stations. With assets spanning Italy’s largest publishing company, an ad agency and the AC Milan football team, Berlusconi built up his Fininvest empire to become Italy’s richest man. In 1993 he entered politics, declaring his newly launched party to be a “pole of liberty” — though for many, his sudden political awakening was a transparent effort to protect his own business interests.

There’s little doubt of Berlusconi’s appeal. In a country weary of political wrangling — it’s on its 62nd government since the war — Berlusconi has successfully “tapped into nonpolitical sentiments,” says Fabrizio Tonello, a political scientist at the University of Padua. Against the backdrop of the aspirational consumption shown on his television stations, Berlusconi’s blend of ordinary Italian guyhood with the image of fabulously wealthy Don Juan is a potent one: “It’s an entertainment culture,” says Tonello, “the direct opposite of a political culture, in which only politicians who are celebrities can compete in the political market.”

(See pictures of Italy.)

New Faces! New Ideas!
After Berlusconi, Mara Carfagna is Italy’s biggest politico-celebrity. At a September conference in Cortina of Berlusconi’s party, fans thronged to pose with the Equal Opportunities Minister as their friends clicked away furiously on digital cameras. “There is only one person in Italy who has had the courage to put young people and women in politics,” said Carfagna. “Thank you, Berlusconi!” Where his opponents sneer at Carfagna’s appointment as a crude appeal to Italy’s libido, Berlusconiani see it as a democratizing act in a country that’s been run by old men. “Carfagna is a strong sign that the PDL wants to change something,” says Franco Vendramin, a silver-haired ad executive at the conference. “New people means new brains, new faces, who’ll bring new approaches and new ideas.” Carfagna herself, he grins, “is very nice.” “He’s just like Berlusconi,” sighs his wife Daniela fondly.

See pictures of Berlusconi’s women on LIFE.com.

Read “What Berlusconi’s Obama ‘Jokes’ Say About Italy.”

Carfagna is keen to emphasize her ministry’s accomplishments: a law on stalking, for example, “has made Italian women feel more secure.” The government is committed to tackling domestic violence, she says, and to helping women achieve equal opportunities in the workplace. She has her work cut out for her: Italy has the lowest percentage of working women in Europe. Only 2% of top management positions in Italy are held by women, less than in Kuwait. In last year’s Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum, Italy ranked 67th out of 130 countries. Such figures are particularly shocking for women like Elisa Manna, who is old enough to remember Italy’s muscular feminist movement of the 1970s. “Back then, young women wanted to become doctors, lawyers — professional people,” says Manna, director of the Department of Cultural Policies Centre for Social Studies and Policies (CENSIS) in Rome. “It was terrible to get ahead in your profession because you are beautiful. Now, it’s absolutely the reverse: if you use your body, your beauty, you’re clever. You’re pragmatic.”

Quite so. For Elisa Alloro, a former Mediaset presenter who was tapped for the E.U. election, “Silvio’s” suggestion that she go into politics was a welcome attempt to close the age and gender gap in government. She’d met the Prime Minister back in 2005, when she was 28, and was interviewing him for a Mediaset program. Alloro missed her plane; he offered her a ride on his jet. As they flew, she recalls, he quizzed her on his policies, on that morning’s newspapers. By the end of the afternoon — some of which was spent strolling in the natural museum section of his Sardinian villa, looking at olive trees that were a gift from the Israeli Prime Minister — he had asked her to join his new task force on Europe. “He chose people who already work in TV, because they are usually better than others at talking in public situations,” Alloro says. “Because politics is a show.”

(See pictures of Italy.)

Will the velinization of Italy continue? There are some signs of a backlash against it — and Berlusconi. Earlier this year, two women parliamentarians argued that he had breached the European Convention of Human Rights for his “repeated statements that offend female dignity.” Lorella Zanardo, a management consultant and former Unilever executive, grew so disgusted with the scenes of degradation on Italian television that she made her own video to raise awareness of the problem, splicing together clips from shows. The closing shot, from a show called Joking Apart, shows a woman in a thong hung on a hook in a meat locker, next to the bloody carcasses. “Women come up to me and say, ‘Listen, I’ve been watching television for a long time, but I didn’t realize,'” she says, her eyes welling with tears. Zanardo says that some Italians have opted out of their society. “People like me are guilty,” she says. “We’re well educated, so we traveled, or worked abroad. Italy was left completely in the hands of [Berlusconi’s] media.” And after Berlusconi snapped on national television at Rosy Bindi, 58, a gray-haired, opposition politician, that she was “always more beautiful than intelligent,” La Repubblica launched a petition declaring that his use of women’s bodies undermines democracy. “This man offends us,” it reads. “Stop him.” More than 100,000 have signed.

(See Berlusconi’s top 10 worst gaffes.)

But it will take more than that to challenge Berlusconi. Italy’s center-left opposition is in disarray, as usual, having just elected its second new leader in six months. And for most Italians fed Mediaset fare for 30 years, Berlusconi’s cultural outlook runs deep. Midway through the ironing contest on Quelli Che … , the would-be schedine look up from their ironing boards to watch a comedy clip, in which three fat, old women compete in a beauty contest. The audience laughs, as do the presenters and the schedine.

Imagine: women who are not young and not beautiful, daring to show their faces on Italian TV. In Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, that really is a new idea.

See pictures of Berlusconi’s women on LIFE.com.

Read “What Berlusconi’s Obama ‘Jokes’ Say About Italy.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com