What do Silvio Berlusconi and a communist transvestite have in common? That may sound like the set-up to a bad joke, but the search for a serious answer could just bring some focus to the bizarre spectacle of Italian public life.
On Nov. 24, millions of Italians tuned into the ever-popular local version of Celebrity Survivor, or Isola dei Famosi ("Island of the Famous"). The show was wrapping up its sixth season with the coronation of the latest champion, Vladimir Luxuria, a former cabaret performer and Refounded Communist party member. In 2006, the unlikely politician became the first transvestite to be elected to Italy's parliament.
Luxuria's participation had already ensured record high ratings for the 10-week-long show. Interest centered not only on how a communist politician would interact with two-bit stars and showgirls, but curiosity about what Luxuria would look like without her makeup. (See pictures of Milan's 2008 fashion week.)
What was not anticipated was the 43-year-old dominating the show in more traditional sorts of way: cracking jokes, endearing herself to the public, and occasionally stabbing rival contestants in the back. Most sensationally, Luxuria alleged a tryst between an Argentinian model and Italian showboy. Both repeatedly denied any dirty deeds.
In the end, the biggest shock was Luxuria's victory last week. In a run-off against Rodriguez, the politician won the support of 56% of viewers. In a country where the Catholic Church still weighs heavily in public life, and which boasts some of Europe's most restrictive policies against gay unions and assisted fertility, Luxuria hailed her victory as a sign that "Italians are far ahead of their politicians."
The chief of the Refounded Communist party, which lost all its parliamentary seats in the April poll that saw Berlusconi sweep to power, quickly offered Luxuria a slot to run for the European Parliament. "Vladimir has an elevated degree of solidarity and brotherhood and at the same time is very sensitive and aware of others and their dynamics," said the ever-somber Communist leader Paolo Ferrero. "She is a very positive anthropological model, in my view." A columnist in the Communist party newspaper likened Luxuria's victory to Barack Obama's.
And thus, what may have been a fun, if revealing, episode of lowbrow television quickly became the latest example of Italy mistaking silliness for something far more serious. Often, of course, it's been the other way around. This is the country whose prime minister himself cracks bad jokes, comments such as his recent quip that Barack Obama is "young, handsome and suntanned." Two weeks' ago, Berlusconi even played a "peek-a-boo" prank on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hiding behind a monument as Merkel arrived in the Italian city of Trieste for an economic summit and discussions on the global downturn.
Such antics are routinely broadcast into millions of Italian homes, many of them tuned to the three biggest private stations, which are owned by Berlusconi himself. For years Italians have debated the potential conflict of interest involved in the prime minister owning so much of Italy's media. But questioning his current influence might miss the point. Berlusconi's most lasting influence might well have been made before he entered politics: namely, the transformation of Italian television from a gray source of information and family programming into a feast of commercial, and often trashy, entertainment. Isola dei Famosi is broadcast on the state RAI network and follows the success of the local version of Big Brother shown on Berlusconi's Mediaset network. In a sense, Luxuria's victory brings the process full circle. Berlusconi's leftist opponents, often so critical of the lowbrow entertainment that the Prime Minister has championed, now have a lowbrow champion of their own.
To explore the ironies further, I turned to Andrea Tesseri, an Italian astrophysicist and longtime fan of Isola dei Famosi. Tesseri doesn't buy the hype. "So we aren't so intolerant. We like to get along. But comparing [Luxuria's victory] to Obama is depressing," Tesseri told me. "Being in the [political?] minority, all we are left with is this."