American 'ideal' preferred in Italy Entertainment: Women who are tall, blond and Californian are a hit on Italian television, especially if they fracture the language and are paired with tiny bald men.


ROME -- When Heather Parisi fainted at the end of a dance number on a popular Italian variety show, it was reported on the front pages of Italy's leading newspapers. Wendy Windham, a blond and buxom sidekick on yet another popular variety show, was mobbed by paparazzi as she went Christmas shopping in the Piazza Navona. Justine Mattera, who does a pale impersonation of Marilyn Monroe on a talk show, is a household name in Italy. So is Randi Ingerman, who recently got her own sitcom, "Men Are All Alike."

In Italy it is the American women on television who have a lot in common. Like almost every other country in the world, Italy imports a large number of U.S. television shows.

But Italian television's fondness for Americana goes a bit further than most. Almost every variety show -- and there are dozens -- features what Italians call a "soubrette," borrowing an old French term for a nubile maid in a theatrical comedy. On Italian television, the ideal soubrette does not necessarily sing or dance, but she is almost always tall, blond and Californian, and speaks fractured Italian.

"They don't want me to speak Italian well," Windham said, explaining her job description on "I Cervelloni," a popular variety show centered around inventors and their gadgets. The other requirements are that she wear sparkling gowns with slits and plunging decollete, and smile while the host, Giancarlo Magalli -- who is plump, balding and a full head shorter than she -- leers up at her and mocks the way she talks.

American accents are funny to Italians. But Italian audiences also seem to delight in the pairing of tiny balding men with towering blond women -- "Regis and Kathie Lee" as seen by Fellini.

"It's Beauty and the Beast -- the fantasy that even the monster can have the beauty," explained Gianluca Nicoletti, a radio talk show host and television critic. "On Italian television, you never have handsome men -- it's short ugly guys and big, beautiful dumb women."

But some sociologists see deeper reasons rooted in the Italian fascination with American culture -- as well as tiny pangs of subconscious resentment.

"We no longer look to the United States for economic help or political direction," said Franco Ferrarotti, a well-known Italian sociologist.

"Now we are fixated on America for its youth. Europeans, and especially Italians, perceive themselves as old. And we are old -- 60 percent of us are retirement age. We have a new cultural ideal, which is a youthful, healthy-looking American girl."

Offstage, Windham, 31, a Californian who has lived in Italy for nine years, speaks fluent Italian and sometimes has difficulty recalling English ("How do you say in English, 'furba?' " she asked mid-sentence. It means clever.) On television, however, she is not supposed to seem furba.

But she readily admitted that she has a career and celebrity in Italy that she could never hope to duplicate at home.

So did Carol Alt, 38, a tall, blue-eyed former supermodel who has starred in several Italian mini-series and now, with the help of dubbing, plays a heart specialist on "Under the African Sky," a new Italian television drama -- perhaps an exception to the dumb beauty rule.

"I think Italians find foreigners -- how do you say? -- affascinante, exciting and different," Alt said.

That may explain the sudden popularity of Lisa Molten, a member of an international chorus of "soubrettes" on the game show "The Wolf's Mouth."

Audience members select the woman they want to spin the wheel, and Molton, 20, is picked so often that each time, the host, Carlo Conti, ritually sighs, "Lisa again?"

Molton, a ballet dancer from Easthampton, Mass., arrived in Italy only three months ago and was cast as soon as she opened her mouth and failed to say anything correctly except "pasta."

To some, this is a uniquely Italian phenomenon.

"These shows reveal a mix of unconscious rascality and also self-mockery," explained Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of the Rome daily Il Foglio. "We really don't take ourselves seriously."

Ferrara, who is married to a tall, blond Californian, added, "It's a playful fantasy that even men like us can get a tall, beautiful American girl."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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