VIENNA (Reuters) - The dancer in the eye of a political storm around Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Wednesday she hopes to put the scandal aside and enjoy her appearance as a star guest at Vienna's famous Opera Ball.
Karima el Mahroug -- an 18-year-old dancer known by her stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heartstealer) -- will be on the arm of 78-year-old Vienna construction magnate and social lion Richard Lugner at the ball on Thursday night.
Ruby has become a focus of an investigation into Berlusconi, who has been ordered to stand trial in April on charges of paying an underage girl for sex and abusing his position to get her out of police custody.
"I hope that people will be able to react to me as they find me and not as 'scandal' Ruby," she told a packed news conference, constantly sweeping back her long brown hair from her face.
"I can only belly-dance, I can't waltz but I will try and dance with the others -- you can learn a lot that way," she said.
Dressed in a black silk skirt and furry jacket which she later shed to reveal a low-cut white top, Ruby appeared confident and ready to tackle questions about Berlusconi and her past, saying she had not done anything wrong.
Ruby has told newspapers that she attended parties at Berlusconi's residence three times and said they were "normal dinners" with lots of food, laughter and jokes.
She denies she had sex with him, but says he gave her 7,000 euros ($9,685) since she was in financial trouble.
"I was unfortunate enough to grow up without a family to protect me. I had to grow up quickly," she said in Vienna.
Lugner, an eccentric member of Vienna's social scene, invites famous guests each year to accompany him to the opulent event, the highlight of Vienna's ball season.
Paris Hilton, Dita von Teese and Sophia Loren have all been his dates in the past, although Hollywood starlet Lindsay Lohan and actress Bo Derek snubbed him after failing to agree terms.
Lugner called Ruby a "very nice and beautiful girl" who was "punctual" and "easy to take care of." Dressed in a grey pinstripe suit, he kissed her hand in front of the cameras.
Austrian media have reported Lugner is paying her 40,000 euros for her appearance.
Asked about the similarities between Lugner and Berlusconi, Ruby said: "They are both wonderful men but I really don't want to compare them."
Not everyone is as delighted with Lugner's choice of guest as he is. Opera Ball organizer Desiree Treichl-Stuergkh said it was "the biggest embarrassment Mr Lugner has ever created."
"It is sad, shameful and impious," she told Austrian media, adding that she felt sorry for Ruby.
"She is a victim who has made the most of her tragic fate."
Editing by Paul Casciato