ROME (Reuters) - When it comes to political satire, Italians like theirs hot -- with buxom women in mini-skirts and low-cut tops dancing as cameras zoom in on their breasts and long legs.
So much so that the auditions for two showgirls -- known as “veline” -- to spice up the country’s top satirical show are a summer-long television event in their own right, broadcast daily as prime-time family entertainment with top ratings.
More than 5,000 women in Italy applied for the two slots up for grabs -- one reserved for a blonde, the other a brunette -- with raucous auditions held in packed town squares across the country before throngs of beaming parents and onlookers.
The prize: a contract to spend the next year dancing in skimpy clothes and hopping on the desks of the male presenters of the “Striscia la Notizia” news satire on the Canale 5 network owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire.
Its portrayal of women aside, for critics the showgirl format is more worrying for what it says about Italian television. Program-makers say they are satirizing TV journalism, and some defend showgirls over violent shows.
In some other countries the format itself has been satirized out of fashion or lambasted by women’s rights campaigners, but in staunchly Catholic Italy, “Striscia La Notizia” -- whose title translates as “Hot off the Press” -- has featured veline for two decades.
Their seductive jigs are paired with investigative reports into scams and spoofs of both right- and left-wing politicians and celebrities.
A top primetime show itself, it owes much of its success to its saucy veline -- whose name stems from the sheets of paper handed out by Fascist-era news censors.
Back on the airwaves after a four-year hiatus, the “Veline” program showcasing the search for a new pair shot to the top of summer ratings with more than 21 percent audience share, according to a poll for TV weekly Sorrisi e Canzoni.
In this year’s auditions, contestants’ “challenges” included being quizzed while jumping on a trampoline, singing while being doused with water from a kettle, or the crowd favorite: lapping up milk squirted from a baby’s bottle from afar.
“Milk is good for you,” teased the male host, as one hapless contestant wiped off the milk splattered on her face.
The evening’s winner -- left soaking wet by the water kettle -- was emotional about making the semi-finals.
“When they put the crown on my head, I felt an adrenalin rush that I have never felt before in my life,” said Cristina Buccino, who is also fascinated by astronomy and philosophy.
For some the show is one of the more prominent examples of Italy’s long-running obsession with showgirls and the endurance of a TV concept that has survived the reality show and other formats.
While the veline on “Striscia la Notizia” are the most popular, showgirls in revealing outfits can be seen everywhere from variety shows to the Italian version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?,” without having any obvious link to the content.
“With the exception of the nightly newshour, it has become a generalized entertainment format to have showgirls to seduce the audience,” said Michele Sorice, professor of the history of radio and television at Rome’s La Sapienza university.
“The ‘Veline’ model would not be a problem if it was one of many models offered on television, but we don’t have television that seems to be capable of other options,” said Sorice.
“At times, there are terrible programs in say, Britain or Spain, but at least viewers have a richer variety of shows to choose from.”
He blamed a lack of true competition on Italian television, which is dominated by the state-owned RAI network and Berlusconi’s Mediaset, who share 84 percent of advertising revenues. Internet or satellite TV and competitors like Telecom Italia remain much smaller players.
Italian television chiefs also usually have smaller budgets than in other countries, so avoid risk and go for tried and tested formats like “Veline,” he said.
“For men it’s a bit of a trap, and for women they represent a model of success and fashion,” he said.
One of Italy’s most famous TV presenters, Mike Bongiorno, has openly attacked the abundance of “veline and striptease” on television today. Italy’s broadcast watchdog chairman last year panned TV programming as “shoddy,” saying it lowered its tone to cater to the widest audience.
Lilli Gruber, an Italian anchorwoman and war correspondent whose no-nonsense style made her a symbol of quality TV, says the popularity of showgirls is emblematic of the outdated expectations and the second-rung status of women in Italy.
Only 45 percent of Italian women are employed, among the lowest within the world’s most developed economies. They account for just 21 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament, and hold only 17 percent of management jobs in Italy.
Gruber cites a survey showing that working women form only 16 percent of the female figures on Italian advertisements.
Scantily dressed females, however, are everywhere -- a shapely woman in a leopard-print thong looks coyly over her shoulder in an advertisement for bottled artichokes, another is wrapped only in spaghetti noodles to advertise cookbooks.
“Television is a mirror of society and Italian society tells women that you have to look sexy and young all the time,” said Gruber, now a member of the European Parliament. “We can’t get out of the stereotype of the superbabe or the foxy mama.”
On a broader level, the showgirl trend taps into the Italian obsession with “bellezza” or beauty, and the appeal of overnight success in a nation where bureaucracy stifles ambition and climbing the career ladder takes decades, says Sorice.
Becoming a showgirl is often a quick ticket to lucrative advertising contracts or a dalliance with a football star. Italy’s Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna was one, and former “velina” Elisabetta Canalis won acting roles and the heart of Italian football striker Christian Vieri.
“It privileges easy success through shortcuts and without daily effort,” Sorice said. “It’s a type of magic success.”
Antonio Ricci, the brains behind the “Veline” show, finds the criticism amusing. He argues the show is a provocation, but also a critique of vacuous television personalities.
“Whoever wants to become a television journalist is subjected to far worse humiliation than the girls competing to become veline,” Ricci told Reuters. “Just like Christopher Columbus who didn’t invent America but discovered it, all I’ve done is make veline visible ... they’ve always existed.”
And media analyst Luigi Pugliese says Italians just have different tastes than say, Americans, who are more likely to shy away from nudity but less perturbed by gun violence.
“Italians don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a good-looking, half-naked woman next to a male presenter giving the news,” said Pugliese, a partner at Booz & Co. “Italians don’t like guns and blood and they prefer their women. Less guns and blood, more half-naked women. That’s our bread and butter.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith