Beauties in background garner fame

Italian TV makes stars of women who stand on sets during shows

September 10, 2002|By Frank Bruni | Frank Bruni,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TIVOLI, Italy -- Elisabetta Liberale had a bad knee, but she danced through it. She had slightly crooked teeth, but she smiled for all she was worth.

At the moment of decision, it all paid off. A crown of cardboard paper and gold paint was placed on her head, and Liberale cried tears as big and wet as any Miss America ever did.

She had won more -- much more -- than a mere beauty pageant. With her victory here on this starry summer night, Liberale, 24, advanced to the finals of a national star search for a role on Italian television as one of the showgirls who hovers almost wordlessly around everyone else, providing superfluous visual adornment, like a throw pillow.

It may not sound important. But in flesh-obsessed Italy, these women can expect fame and maybe even fortune, and more than 10,000 jittery wannabes signed up for the competition, which became its own summer television craze, broadcast six nights a week since June.

More than that, these women belong to one of Italy's most idiosyncratic pop-cultural phenomena: the placement and exaltation of beautiful, scantily clad extras in the background or foreground of just about every kind of television show.

"We are the Britney Spearses of Italy," said Elisabetta Canalis, 23, who had one of these roles for the last three years but left it to try her hand at other endeavors, including a movie career. Canalis' fame already encompasses a calendar pictorial and a Barbie in her likeness for the Italian market.

Canalis was a "velina," one of two showgirls on a popular news satire program called Striscia La Notizia, literally "Strip the News." The departure of Canalis and her comely partner at the end of the most recent season created the national competition, Veline, the plural of velina.

A velina is at the head of her peculiar class. But not far behind are the six "letterine" who grace the sidelines of Passaparola, an Italian sibling to Password. Or the five dancers who gyrate around an enormous metal globe on the set of Eredita, an Italian cousin to The Weakest Link.

Other like-minded programs feature similarly unlikely flourishes. Imagine a Playboy playmate draping herself around Alex Trebeck between segments of Jeopardy and you have some sense of how Italian game shows work.

Imagine a clutch of beauties punctuating football halftime commentary with squeals of delight and you have the gist of one Italian soccer show. In Italy, wherever there is a television studio, there is room for a cooing, incongruous chorus line.

It seems to improve ratings. It definitely inflames the Italian intelligentsia.

"This is very nasty television we're talking about," said Giovanna Melandri, who was Italy's culture minister under the previous, center-left government.

The current center-right government is led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Melandri partly blamed him for encouraging this trend. Several programs on the private channels that Berlusconi owns have long featured Italy's unusual type of showgirl. (In addition, one of Berlusconi's sons has been romantically linked to a letterina.)

Melandri said that there was nothing peculiarly Italian about all of this, noting that television everywhere traffics in pretty women.

That includes the United States, where Baywatch has little to do with aquatic safety, and someone less blond and svelte than Vanna White could surely turn over the letters on The Wheel of Fortune with equal aplomb.

Antonio Ricci, the Italian producer who created Striscia la Notizia in the late 1980s and Veline this summer, said he originally envisioned the velina as a parody of Italian publications' attempts to lure readers into serious fare with sexy pictures.

But the veline and her offspring have proven that in Italy, the line between chic and tongue-in-cheek is porous.

Liberale and 83 other women who showed up for the semifinals of Veline in Tivoli, near Rome, were dead serious, even if their outfits were not.

As they filed into an outdoor auditorium in knee-high boots, short skirts and tiny tops, they looked like a scene from the fringes of Times Square before Disney took a broom to it.

They were divided into groups of seven blondes or seven brunettes. Each group's auditions would make about a half-hour of television, and the winner of each group would go to the finals in mid-September, when one blonde and one brunette would be chosen as the new veline.

The first group of brunettes, wearing numbers like those on livestock at state fairs, took the stage to the applause of a local crowd. The male host, Teo Mammuccari, asked Contestant No. 2, Veronica Di Bella, 20, about her worst defect.

"I'm short," Di Bella said.

"In the small jug, there's the good wine," Mammuccari consoled her.

Then he told her to dance, and she did.

Liberale was Contestant No. 5, and she talked about her teeth. Mammuccari commiserated.

Then he told her to dance, and she did.

It was a slithery, sinuous number, and it did the trick, bringing Liberale one heady step closer to a possible future of constant appearances in the Italian gossip pages and dates with Italian soccer stars.

"It's been a dream of mine for three years," she said minutes later, then mentioned her bad knee, noting that she had persevered "despite personal injury."

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