If Silvio Berlusconi were anyone else, he'd surely be in rehab by now. But the viral leader of Italy somehow uses what appears to be blatant sexual addiction to his advantage. And as long as Italians are wondering who the prime minister is bedding down at his "bunga-bunga" parties, they aren't paying attention to serious issues like the trash trouble in Naples or the country's economy—both issues that should be more important.
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But unlike the spate of Berlusconi behaving badly scandals that have gripped Italy and hijacked the headlines for the last few years, this one seems somehow more serious. His strongest allies are suddenly silent and those who have, for years, stood up for him are calling for him to step down. Two of his coalition allies have warned him that his bedroom antics are no longer cute. On Sunday, Gianfranco Fini told his supporter sthat, for the good of Italy, Berlusconi "should hand in his resignation." And for the first time, even the Vatican is speaking out. "In Roman times, we called this panem et circenses," Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan said last week, referring to the ancient metaphor for distracting the public from serious problems by feeding them and dazzling them with entertainment.
And what a spectacle the prime minister's sex life is. Last week, revelations that Berlusconi made a late-night phone call to a Milan prosecutor to get an underage Moroccan belly dancer out of jail opened up the latest chapter in a spicy sex scandal that has dogged Berlusconi for the last three years. "Ruby Rubicuore" or Ruby the Heartbreaker, whose real name is Karima Keyek, had been at an orgiastic Valentine's Day party at the prime minister's Villa Arcore outside of Milan last year, where she reportedly bragged that she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (Never mind that Keyek is Moroccan.) So it seemed logical to the prime minister that he'd help out the Egyptian president's niece, saving Mubarak potential embarrassment, when he was told that Ruby was in jail for allegedly stealing €3,000 from a belly dancing colleague. "I have a big heart," Berlusconi told reporters after the incident. "I take action whenever there is someone in need."
But Ruby was not the niece of Mubarak, and it now seems apparent that Berlusconi was actually also trying to avoid his own embarrassing situation. After all, Ruby attended at least three parties at Villa Arcore, all of which ended with an erotic ritual known as "bunga-bunga," which is said to be a sort of underwater orgy where nude young women allegedly encircled the nude prime minister and/or his friends in his swimming pool. Bunga-bunga has become a popular catchphrase in Italy, even inspiring a song to the tune of Shakira's Waka Waka world cup tribute song. "Silvio—I call him Silvio and not daddy as he would like to be called—told me he'd copied that expression, bunga-bunga, from Gaddafi," Ruby told a reporter for La Repubblica newspaper referring to the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. "It's a rite of his African harem."
Ruby, who aspires to be a showgirl on one of Berlusconi's television channels, claims she never slept with the prime minister, but others who attended these sex fests say they did. Nadia Macri, 27, who worked as an escort until last year, also attended a bunga-bunga party where she says Ruby was among a bevy of underage women—seemingly a particular weakness for the 74-year-old Berlusconi. Macri testified to police that she was paid a total of €10,000 for having sex twice with Berlusconi. Once she was flown to his Sardinian villa with around 25 other women. Each woman had her own bedroom and after dinner, she says, many of them had sex with either Berlusconi or his cronies. She says there was marijuana available for all of them, echoing similar claims made by other women during his " skinny dip scandal" that dominated headlines for much of 2009 with claims from other escorts that the prime minister paid them for sex.
The second time Macri says she was paid was at a bunga-bunga party at Arcore where she had sex with Berlusconi in the swimming pool. That encounter also involved a girl who was "very, very young," said Macri, who is giving states evidence in a prostitution probe, according to court testimony leaked to the press last week. "I was there only for the money, not because I am a fan of Berlusconi."
In fact, it seems that many of the women kept at Berlusconi's disposal to feed his voracious sexual appetite have ulterior motives of their own, either for financial or professional gain. Most of the young women interviewed in the Italian press in the past week claim that they were promised television careers in addition to payments and gifts. But Berlusconi didn't seem to take any precautions by asking them to keep quiet in exchange. Since the details of the bunga-bunga parties hit the headlines, hoards of young women have come forward, selling photos, videos, and stories of similar experiences with the prime minister. Like Ruby, the girls say they made between €7,000 and €10,000 for attending the parties, but what's most bizarre is that many took pictures intending to one day use them against their sugar daddy. "All the girls at Arcore took photos," Ruby told the Milanese police. "We all thought one day they might be useful."
Bersluconi is not under investigation for anything illegal, but he is taking a political beating. Both of his chief allies have warned him to start behaving. Fini said he should step down if these allegations are proven true, and nationalistic xenophobic Umberto Bossi criticized him for stepping in when Ruby was arrested. And Berlusconi was supposed to open a conference on the family in Milan on Monday, but pulled out, claiming he doesn't want to risk being attacked for what he calls the "trash" and lies being spread about him. He also angered gay rights activists when he quipped, "Isn't it better to like beautiful women than to be gay?"
Berlusconi's sex scandal hit its peak last spring when he attended an 18th birthday party for Noemi Letizia, the underwear model, which prompted his wife Veronica Lario to file for divorce. Lario has always maintained that her husband had a sex addiction problem. In her biography, The Veronica Tendency, she urges him to get help to try to save their marriage, but he insisted that his libido is purely that of any red-blooded Italian man.
"I'm a playful person, full of life," he said to reporters recently. "I love life. I love women."
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.