SHE HAS been cast as a knowing Lolita who could unseat a prime minister. In keeping with her reputation, Karima El Mahroug, the teenage exotic dancer of Moroccan extraction at the heart of the scandal that continues to dog Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, will probably be best remembered by her stage name, Ruby the Heart Stealer.
It's a year since she first entered the public domain, but "Ruby" continues to enthral Italy. A nation labouring under financial crisis and punishing austerity measures remains gripped by the travails of its tycoon leader and this young dancer. Could the country's richest and most powerful man be finally toppled by his entanglement with a beautiful, young immigrant girl?
In February 2010, when she was just 17, El Mahroug allegedly received hefty payouts from Berlusconi in exchange for sexual favours. This places her squarely at the centre of a scandal in which it is claimed that associates of Berlusconi operated an elaborate prostitution ring to satisfy the prime minister's appetites.
Were it not for the problematic matter of her age, Karima El Mahroug could have become just one of a long line of beautiful women recruited to entertain Berlusconi, another girl with dubious sexual and financial links to Italy's number one, contributing to his rather seedy reputation. Before El Mahroug, the matter of whether or not Berlusconi regularly paid for sex was treated surprisingly indulgently by the Italian public. To the delight of Berlusconi's political enemies, however, when Karima met him she was just 17. Hiring her as a prostitute at that age would have been illegal. Despite his attempts to laugh off the matter with the justification "it's better to be passionate about a beautiful woman than gay", Berlusconi must now face court.
Perhaps even more damaging for an administration dogged by corruption allegations is the serious charge of abuse of office the Italian premier also faces in relation to El Mahroug. He has already admitted that when El Mahroug was arrested for theft, he intervened on her behalf, placing a personal telephone call to the police station where she was being held in order to secure her release.
Berlusconi has become synonymous with his appreciation of women, and El Mahroug perfectly fits his taste. Her looks are voluptuous and exotic. A belly- and pole- dancer, she comes, by her own account from a troubled background. Her parents immigrated to Sicily from Morocco when she was seven. There, her father worked as a hawker, while her mother took care of the home. At 14, Karima ran away, and on one occasion, in desperation, toyed with the idea of prostitution, going so far to solicit a client but backing out at the last minute.
These details are important because, during his trial, Berlusconi will claim that he gave her money not in exchange for sexual services, but because he was moved to pity by her life story. Their friendship, he has always said, was an avuncular one. The payments he made to her simply an expression of his compassion and generosity.
Instead of falling into prostitution, El Mahroug found work as a dancer at a bar, were she might have stayed in obscurity had she not been spotted by one of Berlusconi's cronies, invited to Berlusconi's villa in Acore, and to the infamous bunga bunga parties that the premier hosted in his basement nightclub. Lurid details of the alleged goings-on there have been leaking out to the public for many months. During the trial, the issue of whether they were orgies, or more innocent gatherings at which girls danced and "ate fruit" will be in bitter contention.
As the scandal (even the word seems fatigued, inadequate now to describe Berlusconi's many run-ins with the law) rumbles on, El Mahroug has come to encapsulate the Italian premier's appetite and folly. Despite his self- confidence and his seemingly Teflon qualities, Berlusconi and his administration are in big trouble. To a country on the verge of financial ruin and struggling to swallow severe austerity measures, his self-indulgent excesses seem wildly out of step with the mood of the nation. His approval ratings are at an all-time low. In the wake of the widely publicised trial of Amanda Knox, Italy's justice system has not fared well under intense international scrutiny. Neither, it has to be said, has the conduct of the country's leader.
Even Berlusconi's long- suffering wife has withdrawn her support. Veronica Lario left her husband last year after Rubygate first hit the news, announcing her decision with the words, "he is unwell. I will not condone a man who consorts with minors".
Lario had herself once been the main focus of Berlusconi's lavish romantic attentions, but had long since fallen into a background role. He had fallen in love with her at first sight having, according to legend, watched her bare her breasts on stage during a play. She was a B-movie actress at the time, he was a young business man on the up. To complicate matters, he was married at the time with two young children. Ever impetuous when faced with an object of desire, Berlusconi abandoned his first wife and promptly married Veronica. "Veronica has always been a total passion," he has said. "When we met, I lost my head for her. And she has been a marvellous mother."
For 27 years, she stood loyally by as he built himself into Italy's richest person, parlaying his wealth and his ownership of the lion's share of the country's media into the highest political office in the land. Meanwhile Veronica played a supporting role, raising the couple's three children.
In one rare interview, before things began to unravel completely between the couple, Veronica explained how she kept her marriage together. "I think I am the perfect kind of wife for the kind of man Silvio is," she said. "He can concentrate on himself and his work knowing his wife won't create a fuss if he's away from his family." Eventually, however, she was pushed too far. In the end, she decided that creating a fuss was of no real benefit, and decided to vote with her feet instead.
The mythology of Berlusconi's ascent from the lower-middle classes to the top of society is powerful -- his father was a bank official and
his mother worked at a tyre factory. He paid his own way through university working as a cruise-ship crooner. In the Sixties, he laid down the first of his fortune in construction by building an apartment block in Milan.
Earlier this month, an Italian court ruled that after an extended period of postponements and moratoriums, Berlusconi will face trial for his involvement with Ruby the Heart Stealer. He has dodged similar bullets several times before. Berlusconi, who has faced 105 legal probes and trials in his time, is an old hand in the courtroom. But with his political reputation now hanging by a thread, it's looking likely that regardless of the outcome of this case, Berlusconi's entanglements with women will be his undoing.
Before even reaching court, the two opposing cases have been aired almost exhaustively in public. The prosecution has hours and hours of taped transcripts which they claim will demonstrate that the goings-on between Berlusconi and his women were anything but innocent. In one, Nicole Minetti, a cabinet minister who is accused of acting as a madam for Berlusconi, tells a friend before a party, "You are going to mind your own business and I mine. You're going to see all sorts of stuff. There are different categories: the whore, the South American who comes from the favelas... and then there is me. I do what I do, got it? Don't be shy -- just go with it."
So far, however, Ruby the Heart Stealer has repeatedly backed up Berlusconi's version of events, strenuously denying any accusation of impropriety between them.
"The prime minister didn't put a finger on me," Ruby concurs. "I don't understand why you have to see ugliness where there is no ugliness." Wire taps placed on behalf of the prosecution however, hint at a slightly darker version of events. During a recorded phone conversation, Ruby explained to a friend that Berlusconi told her, "Ruby, I'll give you as much money as you want, I'll pay you, I'll cover you in gold, but the important thing is that you hide everything; don't tell anyone anything."
In an apparent bid for normality, Ruby has since settled down with a 41-year-old bar manager named Luca Rizzo and this summer, announced her first pregnancy and her intention to leave Italy.
Though Ruby's ambitions seem to be relatively simple -- guileless even -- there have been no shortage of more strategic minds among the prime minister's women who have been more than willing to exploit Berlusconi's tendency to mix the personal and the political. Some of the harshest criticism the Italian premier has faced, relates to his decision to populate his cabinet with former show girls and TV stars.
In 2009 he nominated four candidates to become MEPs. In contrast to the "smelly, badly dressed" politicians on the left, Berlusconi's top choices were fragrant, voluptuous young women. Among their number was a soap actress, a beauty queen, and a reality television star, none of whom had any political experience. His own cabinet is similarly well decorated. Minetti, a dental nurse and showgirl, was hired by the PM after she treated his teeth and appointed as regional counsellor to Lombardy. Berlusconi's equal opportunities minister Mara Carfagna topped Maxim's list of "the world's hottest politicians" in 2008. She's a former topless model, and Berlusconi introduced her to the world in 2007 with the words, "If I was not already married, I would have married her immediately."
Press photographs of Carfagna these days demonstrate her intention to curry an image of seriousness, her lustrous hair has been chopped into a business-like bob, her figure concealed beneath tailored jackets. Politically, she seems to be faring well, despite the heavy irony behind her appointment to a role in which she is duty bound to represent the interests of women and minorities. She has, however, already alienated the gay vote by opposing same-sex marriage, and has attracted criticism from women's groups, ironically, for crimininalising prostitutes.
If Ruby was the straw that broke the camel's back for Lario, Carfagna helped pave the way. Lario had gone public with her dissatisfaction within her marriage on one earlier occasion in 2007, following Berlusconi's lusty mock marriage proposal to Carfagna. She took her husband's leering in public as a grave humiliation, and she became determined to have her say, resorting to public channels with her private anguish. "I demand a public apology," she said, in a letter to a national newspaper, "since I haven't received any privately. I have faced the inevitable contrasts and the more painful moments that a long conjugal relation entails with respect and discretion."
On that occasion, Berlusconi was able to smooth over the fracas in his characteristically silver-tongued way, counter-publishing a declaration of devotion to his wife, but the effects of papering over the cracks was temporary, and it seems the same principle may yet apply to his political career.
Internationally, Berlusconi has become a figure of ridicule. By virtue of the women he surrounds himself; from those who have attended his bunga bunga parties to those who populate his cabinet, the prime minister's need to garland his life with female beauty has played into an image of him as an priapic clown running a Caligulan administration.
Though Berlusconi won a vote of confidence in parliament on Friday, among the Italian electorate, patience is also wearing thin. It seems a little ironic that though Berlusconi's passion for the fairer sex continues undim-med, the feeling is not mutual. This February, a million-strong crowd, mostly women, gathered in cities across Italy to protest against his rule. Regardless of the outcome of his trial, Italy's women are turning in full force against him. For this reason, the PM has good cause to be worried. Though the Italian culture is macho, there is no more powerful lobby there that the united force of le donne.