Not just a pretty face

How Berlusconi’s hand-picked women have become political powers

Not just a pretty face

Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images; LUCA BRUNO/AP;

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may have survived another no-confidence vote on Dec. 14, but he did so with a razor-thin majority. And with many Italians openly contemptuous of their PM, the country looks ready to draw the curtain on the septuagenarian media mogul sooner rather than later. But as an era appears to be drawing to an end, at least one of the former showgirls the PM installed as eye-candy in public office seems set to survive him on the political stage.

Of the five female members of Berlusconi’s 23-strong cabinet, two are former beauty queens who largely owe their political ascent to a favourable nod by the Casanova-in-chief. Over the past years, the prime minister’s penchant for appointing busty twentysomethings as political candidates also landed Nicole Minetti, a 25-year-old dental hygienist and former TV performer, in a key regional council, and a Miss Italia contestant, Barbara Matera, 29, in the European Parliament. The practice, as well as his cavorting with young women, allegedly cost the prime minister his marriage, after his now ex-wife Veronica Lario, 54, herself a former actress who once appeared topless on stage, lashed out at the “shameless rubbish, all in the name of power.”

But to the surprise of many, one of the women has morphed into a political figure with a future. Ridiculed as a bimbo when she was appointed equal opportunities minister, Mara Carfagna, 35, a former TV topless model, has managed to carve out a niche for herself. She is now one of the most popular politicians in her native Campania, and is rumoured to be a credible candidate as the next mayor of Naples. “She’s unlikely to fade away should Berlusconi’s patronage come to an end,” said Marco Tarchi, a professor of political science at the University of Florence.

Carfagna, who holds a law degree, initially got off to an awkward start, referring to homosexuals as “constitutionally sterile” and sponsoring a draconian anti-prostitution draft law targeting street-workers, which critics said would only drive prostitution indoors. But soon she was getting parliament to approve a popular anti-stalking law, and won consensus with a vigorous campaign against domestic violence. And earlier this year, she left many Italians pleasantly surprised to see a politician apologizing in public, when she acknowledged her initial positions on gay issues had been “driven by prejudice.”

Most recently, she even picked some high-level fights with Berlusconi, and clashed with a key ally of the prime minister who is suspected of having ties with the Camorra crime syndicate. “In the PDL [Berlusconi’s People of Liberties party] they prevent me from fighting for lawfulness,” she said, and threatened to resign from the government and the party, though she later agreed to stay on.

To understand Carfagna’s successful trajectory, one needs to look at both form and substance, said Italian political marketing consultant Marco Cacciotto. On entering politics, Carfagna traded hiked-up miniskirts for long tailored suits, but she was also able to deliver political results, Cacciotto said. Voters will happily forget—or forgive—a risqué past if a candidate is willing to put up an image of conservative decency, study the issues and show up at public meetings to listen to the plight of the proverbial “man on the street,” Cacciotto added. From Hollywood to Bollywood, he said, a past in show business often offers illustrious outsiders a shot at the top jobs without the unpleasantness of having to rise through the ranks. And, as the example of former California über-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shows, even those who’ve previously exposed their bare buttocks to the public, as Carfagna did, might turn out to have what it takes.

In many ways, though, Carfagna is still struggling with the petty prejudice that has traditionally bogged down Italy’s women. If she succeeded in turning minds away from her pre-politics past, she hasn’t managed to make Italians forget that she’s beautiful—and beautiful women, local wisdom goes, rarely have brains. “It’s been two years now that people have been saying with surprise that she’s an intelligent woman,” said Italian TV talk-show host and public intellectual Gad Lerner. “It’s a form of near-racism.” The prejudice, it seems, crosses gender lines. “Minister Carfagna took out her speech and set out to read, very seriously,” said one female writer in the Corriere delle Sera—an example of how journalists of both sexes continue to refer to the minister more like a promising schoolgirl.

Carfagna also struggled to reconcile her past with the nature of her mandate, which includes promoting women’s issues. Despite her zeal and image management, the fact that she rose to power thanks to Berlusconi continues to be the elephant in the room when she criticizes the objectification of women on Italian TV. “Ms. Carfagna can’t afford to badmouth the TV star system five minutes after Berlusconi made her an emblem of it, by nominating her minister,” Lerner wrote in a 2008 article for Vanity Fair Italy.

With women making up only around 20 per cent of Italy’s parliament and cabinet, and a mere six per cent of the boards of publicly traded companies, it’s easy to see why Carfagna’s example might send the message that a scantily clad TV stint is an effective way to break through the glass ceiling. In fact, for many women, gaining recognition through talent and hard work looks discouragingly difficult. Italian banks are still reluctant to give credit to women entrepreneurs, even though they are more and more at the helm of the small, family-run businesses that are the backbone of the economy, said Laura Frati Gucci, president of Italy’s Association of Female Entrepreneurs and Company Managers.

Young, female job candidates often report being pressured to promise that they won’t have children—the “guarantee of the uterus,” as one Italian male employer allegedly called it in a book about young émigrés by journalist Claudia Cucchiarato. Disenchanted with what their country has to offer, said Cucchiarato, many young Italian women are kissing the Bel Paese good-bye. And in a sample of 25,000 25- to 37-year-old Italians living abroad, wanting to raise children in a society that cares more about women’s needs emerged “fairly frequently” as the main reason for female emigration, Cucchiarato said.

Indeed, patience is running out with the gender status quo—and the man who seems to exemplify it. Berlusconi’s political success among both men and women, said Lerner, was largely based on his image as a gallant Latin lover. But the recent sex scandals involving girls as young as 17 have revealed Berlusconi as a rich old man who gets his beauties with cash, not charm. “For the first time,” said Lerner, “Italian women have recognized in Berlusconi’s private life something degrading for their dignity.” Perhaps a post-Berlusconi Italy will usher in an era where intelligent women can be leaders, regardless of whether they’re ugly, average—or breathtakingly beautiful.

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