Mark Villanella, born in New Jersey, cannot run for President in his adopted home of Peru, but he just might be the hottest property in the final weeks of Peru's hard-fought presidential campaign.
Villanella, 35, is married to Peruvian Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, who is ahead in the polls two weeks before the June 5 votes. With her lead at 3 to 5 points over the leftist Ollanta Humala in most surveys, Villanella's chances of becoming the first First Gentleman of Peru and the first American man anywhere to be the consort of a female President in office are looking good. (He would actually be Peru's third consecutive foreign-born First Spouse, coming after the widely disliked Eliane Karp, a Belgian married to former President Alejandro Toledo, and the extremely private Pilar Nores, an Argentine who is separated from, but still married to, current President Alan García.)
If women at campaign rallies are any gauge, Villanella rivals his wife in popularity. He may be the biggest draw of the election so far. "The most applause I get is when Mark joins me after I finish talking," Fujimori told TIME after a rally last Sunday in the jungle town of Yurimaguas. "The women all find him so handsome."
At that rally, the two waved, and he gave his now trademark thumbs-up to the crowd. The couple also danced to local tunes: both sultry jungle music and the melancholy sounds of highland ballads.
The two clearly work well in tandem. While Fujimori wraps up her meetings with the required press conference, Villanella strikes out alone and continues to work the crowd. He is constantly mobbed. Given the reactions, he could easily be mistaken for a rock star or one of Latin America's telenovela actors. He has been Fujimori's secret weapon in a race that has been controversial and even poisonous. Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's only Nobel laureate and a presidential candidate himself 20 years ago, famously compared a Fujimori-Humala matchup to a choice between "terminal cancer and AIDS."
The only experience in Villanella's past as rough-and-tumble as a Peruvian political rally may have been on the wresting mat in high school in Martinsville, N.J., and later at Vanderbilt University. Fujimori and Villanella met by chance in a stairwell at Columbia University in 2004. He was completing an M.B.A. there, while she was visiting to check out the school's programs. They say it was love at first sight. "After I talked to him, I gave him my sister's phone number, because I was not living in New York. We always have strict security when we meet people, and my sister called me on it, asking how I could give the number to some guy I didn't know," Fujimori told TIME.
They married shortly after meeting and moved to Peru, where they raise their two daughters. Villanella was working as a consultant for IBM before his wife decided to run for the presidency. "I am on a leave of absence right now," he says. "But I will go back to work as a consultant once the election is over." He adds, "My work is not in Peru, so it is not a problem," referring to potential conflicts of interest. "I am not interested in titles or position. My principal role is to support my wife as a husband, as a friend and as a father."
"Mark will hold his down his job and in the afternoons and weekends help out with social programs. He loves Peru and cares about people," Fujimori says. But Villanella says he was never very interested in politics. "I am just a guy who fell in love, which is what brought me here."
He may need more than love to withstand Peruvian politics. Fujimori ran for and won a seat in Congress in 2006 in part, she explains, to serve Peru, but also to help restore the image of her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, who was President from 1990 to 2000. Once tremendously popular, the elder Fujimori is serving concurrent sentences for abuse of power and corruption, with the longest sentence, 25 years without parole, for being the intellectual author of a military death squad that operated in the 1980s. That last sentence, handed down in April 2009, is now under appeal, and a final ruling from the country's highest court is expected in the coming months.
When Keiko Fujimori began the campaign, she declared that her hand "would not shake" when signing a writ to pardon her father. Now, however, she says it is up to the courts to decide. "My father's attorneys are confident the Constitutional Tribunal will side with him, and we have faith in them. I will respect the court's decision," she says.
While there is pressure now, the criticisms and investigations of the Fujimori family will be ratcheted up considerably if Keiko wins on June 5. If so, Villanella will also be in focus. This week, the Univisíon network dug up a 2000 story about tax-evasion charges to which Villanella's father and other relatives pleaded guilty. The report went on to note that Villanella did not include information on his parents in his application for Peruvian citizenship in 2009. Humala immediately pounced on the report, linking the financial problems of the Villanella family to similar allegations against the Fujimori clan.
Peru's immigration department, for its part, took issue with any hint of impropriety, at least regarding Villanella's paperwork. The only requirements for naturalization for a foreigner marrying a Peruvian citizen are a marriage certificate and proof of living in the country full time for a minimum of two years. Said a department spokesperson: "There is no investigation in immigration, because there is no issue with the process."