MILAN — Nicole Minetti, an elected representative to the state legislature of Lombardy, Italy’s largest region, showed up to work dressed for a yacht party. The 26-year-old member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s political party complemented her glossy brown hair, high cheekbones and bee-and-maybe-Botox-stung lips with a revealing white blouse, tight skirt and heels.
For all her bombshell looks, Minetti’s detractors consider her the face of all that is unattractive about Berlusconi’s Italy. They see Minetti as emblematic of a country where sex appeal and blind loyalty to Berlusconi are rewarded with government positions, where criminal accusations are shrugged off as political witch-hunts, and where visibility is an absolute value.
In October, those issues will be examined when a Milan court decides whether Minetti, a dental hygienist by training, should face trial on charges of organizing prostitutes, including an underage woman, for Berlusconi.
The court date will bring back the specter of Berlusconi’s so-called Bunga Bunga bashes, which Minetti herself attended, and promises to remind frustrated Italians that the prime minister, now busy fending off economic disaster, has often diverted his energies to more personal affairs.
In the meantime, Minetti, now a veteran of Italian politics, television, media, the justice system and celebrity, would like to shed the harem madam image.
“It’s not that people know you because you are a famous actress or a famous model; or a famous politician,” said Minetti, who displays in her office a picture of Berlusconi with her bare arm draped over his shoulders. “What I would love to do is try and change this. One of the things that Berlusconi really believes in is that from a big bad thing can come about a big good thing.”
Minetti grew up in the seaside town of Rimini. She put fashion posters on her bedroom wall and danced in her mother’s ballet workshop. Her grandmother suggested that she seek financial stability as a notary public.
“Obviously,” Minetti said. “I didn’t do that.”
Instead she studied dentistry at San Raffaele, a university hospital in Milan. “I’ve always been fascinated by teeth,” she said.
As a student, she met some television producers at a coffee bar under her apartment and landed a breakthrough gig. “We didn’t do nothing, we just sort of stood on a —” she paused to look at her father, Antonio, who is acting as her manager and sat with her jittery publicist and a legislative assistant across the room. “How do you say altalena?”
“Swing,” her father assisted.
Minetti acknowledges that dancing isn’t her strong suit, but executives at Berlusconi’s television company Mediaset saw something in her. In 2009 she danced on a show called Colorado Cafe, for which she wore a provocative schoolgirl outfit.
In December 2009, a mentally ill man wielding a statue of the Milan cathedral attacked Berlusconi and broke his teeth. The prime minister had his smile fixed in San Raffaele, where Minetti studied. She insisted that she never treated the prime minister, saying “I never ever have even looked at the prime minister’s mouth.” Instead she says she met him in the hospital’s dermatology wing, where Berlusconi was visiting for surgery. (“Dermatology and teeth work is very connected,” she explained.)
“I obviously went on to him. I mean, it’s Berlusconi,” she said. “I went there and I said, ‘Hello!’ ”
Soon after, Berlusconi called and invited her to a political breakfast at his villa in Arcore. Then he invited her to dinner.
“You get into a relationship, you get to have dinner,” she explained. She described her “caring relationship” with Berlusconi as somewhere between a friendship and a romance.
Their friendship had benefits. In February 2010, Berlusconi chose Minetti to represent his party in regional elections, essentially an appointment because Italians cast votes for party, not individual candidates, and Lombardy is the prime minister’s stronghold.
She dismissed accusations of patrimony and depictions of the Bunga Bunga parties as bacchanals, though there was “some really good wine.” Occasionally, somebody would get up and dance, she said, clarifying that Berlusconi didn’t. “He just sits,” she said.
On May 27, 2010, Berlusconi leapt into action when police picked up Karima El Mahroug, better known as Ruby Rubacuore (Ruby the Heart Stealer), a teenager who had attended his parties. He dispatched Minetti, by then a public servant, who knew the girl from Berlusconi’s place, to help spring her from the Milan police station.
Minetti, like Berlusconi, denies any wrongdoing and puts any blame for possible errors in judgment on her tender age, which she cites incessantly. (“Especially being so young,” she said at one point. “I was, I mean I am, very young,” she said at another.) The unflattering wiretapped conversations leaked to the Italian media, she said, are taken out of context. The expensive parting gifts and cash Berlusconi gave some of the girls, she said, are reflective only of his generosity and encouragement of young people.
“He likes young people,” she said, before correcting herself. “No. He likes believing in young people.”
Berlusconi, 74, has always had a thing for pretty young things, and them for him, according to Fedele Confalonieri, Berlusconi’s oldest friend, and the president of his television empire. Since Berlusconi’s close friendship with an 18-year-old Neapolitan girl resulted in his separation from his second wife in 2009, he has suffered from “solitude,” according to Confalonieri. The prime minister needed something to keep him distracted. “His main hobby, let’s say, is this.”
Minetti professes not to feel exploited. If anything, she feels Berlusconi’s company has opened doors. She is now an Italian tabloid celebrity and a VIP at discos and has been romantically linked to Christian Vieri, a famous soccer player.
“It’s true now you get to meet all these people,” she said, referring to her new celebrity milieu. “But when I was just Nicole Minetti before, I got to meet Silvio Berlusconi.”
“She went to the top of the tree,” rejoined her father. Throughout the day, he made no objection to any topic of discussion related to his daughter’s alleged illegal activities or lifestyle. Only when she left the room to vote on local park policy amendments did the event planner make one appeal for discretion. “Can we leave the name of my client out of the article?” he asked.
At 6 p.m., Minetti emerged from the chamber. Colleagues pinched her arm in passing but mostly ignored her.
“Despite how she got the job,” said Renzo Bossi, a colleague and the son of Umberto Bossi, Berlusconi’s coalition partner and another powerhouse in Italian politics, “She’s always been punctual and that’s important.”
As Minetti described the prime minister’s only flaw as being “too busy and he never calls you back!” the head of Berlusconi’s party in the legislature informed her that they would pursue another round of votes.
“Noooo,” she pouted. “I have to go.”