article

11.04.09

Berlusconi's Tranny Defense

As Italy’s leader tries to use a politician’s affair with a transsexual prostitute to deflect his own scandals, Barbie Latza Nadeau says his misogyny is finally catching up with him.

As if the visual image of Italy’s 73-year-old Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi bedding a call girl in “Putin’s bed” isn’t enough, Italians now have to contend with another politician’s porn-star lifestyle. And this latest scandal makes Berlusconi’s numerous affairs seem relatively quaint. Late last month, Piero Marrazzo, the governor of Lazio region, was caught on video in a cocaine-fueled tryst with a transsexual prostitute, a former Brazilian “Miss Transex International” known as Natalie.

Marrazzo’s initial denials quickly turned to a confession after revelations that the 51-year-old politician was a regular on Rome’s transsexual prostitution circuit, paying upward of €3,000 a visit. Marrazzo’s demise came on the eve of the opposition’s vote for a new party leader. Naturally, it was Berlusconi’s brother’s newspaper that broke the scandal. Marrazzo was never in the race, but headlines quickly turned from the polling stations to Rome’s seediest districts, where Natalie and other transsexuals and crossdressers work the streets.

Berlusconi tried to use the Marrazzo scandal as an opportunity to brag that his leftist opposition does not hold the moral high ground, sniffing to the press that, “at least I was with a real woman.”

In the days after Marrazzo was exposed, Brenda, another trans prostitute, told reporters that Marrazzo and other politicians were regulars in the area and that she had captured one of the encounters between Natalie and Marrazzo with a cellphone videocamera. Natalie broke her own silence about the details of her relationship with the former governor of Lazio this week. “Piero and I have known each other since 2001. We were in a shoe store and our eyes met,” she told the tabloid Novella 2000. “At first he thought I was a woman,” she claimed. Natalie also described how she even took his trans virginity. “He found me on a trans Web site, and during our first appointment it was apparent to me that this was the first time he had been with a transsexual,” Natalie explained. “But he was different than my other clients. He came to my house, he paid me and then liked to tell me about his life. The first five or six times we were together we didn’t even have sex. That came later. After we made love he held me and told me I was beautiful.”

Marrazzo, who will likely face criminal charges for cocaine use, resigned before slinking off to a nearby monastery to rehabilitate himself with his wife and three daughters. Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s own sex scandals with his paid escorts have been decidedly different and oddly more degrading. His encounters always included sex, often paid in advance by a business associate, and rarely ended with a post-coital snuggle. Escort Patrizia D’Addario, who claims she was paid €1,000 for her services to the prime minister, taped him after one encounter telling her that she should try masturbation to stimulate her libido. He also offered her a European Parliamentary seat for her services. Berlusconi, who will face his own criminal corruption charges in two separate cases this month after losing immunity in October, defiantly refuses to step down despite mounting pressure. In doing so, he has become an enemy of the foreign press; he is waging a war with the judiciary who he claims are out to get him; and he is easily the most gaffe-prone leader in the free world. But now he is losing favor where it hurts him the most—with women.

Berlusconi tried to use the Marrazzo scandal as an opportunity to brag that his leftist opposition does not hold the moral high ground, sniffing to the press that, “at least I was with a real woman.” But that attitude has hardly impressed Italy’s feminist class, which has little patience for “il Cavaliere’s” spate of mind-boggling gender faux pas. Two weeks ago, Berlusconi lashed out at 60-something political rival Rosy Bindi during a debate on national television. When Berlusconi couldn’t counter her political prowess, he called the graying matriarch of the opposition “more beautiful than you are intelligent,” meant to imply she was neither. She swiftly responded, “I am not a woman at your disposal,” which has become the catchphrase for a growing anti-Berlusconi women’s movement, showing up on T-shirts and protest posters across the country. In the first 11 days after the Bindi insult, over 100,000 women signed an online petition against the prime minister for his unrepentant sexist ways.

So far, the protesters form only a minority of Italian women, but there is optimism the petition may spark a nuovo-feminist movement, especially among younger women who feel that the time has come for intelligence to count more than décolletage. Earlier in the week, the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap report ranked Italy 72nd worldwide for gender equality, below Vietnam and Venezuela. The report highlights gender discrepancies in wage equality and workforce participation—two areas in which Italy ranks lower than all its European counterparts except the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Greece.

Berlusconi, who controls the vast bulk of Italy’s private and public Italian television networks, has done little to close the gender gap in the country. Instead, many argue, he has actively widened it over the years. According to feminist Lorella Zanardo, who created a viral video, Women’s Bodies, to showcase just how blatantly women are demoralized on Berlusconi’s networks, shows regularly feature half-naked young women as “dainty picture frames” around aging men to draw viewers to otherwise banal programming. Zanardo calls the prevalence of plastic surgery “an escape” for Italian women who have been conditioned and browbeaten into thinking their self worth is male-defined. “When I came back to Italy and I watched TV, I really couldn’t accept this humiliation and lack of dignity,” she told an international women’s conference in Italy last month. “It was something disturbing physically.”

Zanardo’s film follows the work of Erik Gandini in Videocracy, another startling docudrama about Berlusconi’s anti-feminist media control. In it, Gandini shows how Berlusconi first began conditioning the Italian TV audience through a 1976 quiz show that featured stripping housewives who removed an item of clothing each time a contestant answered a question correctly. Not only does Gandini show how Berlusconi’s early anti-feminist programming captivated Italy’s first private television audience through sexual innuendo, but it also conditioned these viewers to expect to see women only as bimbos and sex objects rather than people of substance. Videocracy won rave reviews at film festivals in Toronto, Venice, and Warsaw but, not surprisingly, advertisements for the film were banned from Berlusconi-controlled Italian television networks.

Even if Berlusconi is pushed out of power, it is unlikely he’ll ever lose control over his media empire, meaning little is likely to change on screen unless the viewers demand it. Zanardo repeatedly asks in her film, “Why aren’t all Italian women in the streets protesting the way they are represented?” With women making up 60 percent of the Italian television audience, change should be within reach—even if it’s just a click of the remote control.

Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine and Frommer's.