News / Europe

Self-Made Berlusconi: Power, Pizzaz and Faux-Pas

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi (C) speaks with Justice Minister Roberto Maroni (R) and League North Party leader Umberto Bossi during a finance vote at the parliament in Rome, November 8, 2011
Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi (C) speaks with Justice Minister Roberto Maroni (R) and League North Party leader Umberto Bossi during a finance vote at the parliament in Rome, November 8, 2011

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is no stranger to the spotlight.

The self-made media mogul has been elected prime minister three times, recently telling political supporters Italy had "no alternative" to his leadership, though he also said being prime minister was a "burden that I personally would be glad to be rid of."

Through it all, the 75-year-old Berlusconi has constantly stayed in the headlines both for his triumphs and his gaffes, holding onto power despite ongoing sex scandals, accusations of fraud and tax evasion and declining popularity.

The man destined to become one of Italy's richest men was born in Milan, Italy on September 29, 1936. He turned to the spotlight early on, earning money by singing in nightclubs and on cruise ships to pay for his education.

After graduating from law school in 1961, Berlusconi entered the construction business. Roughly 10 years later, he founded a cable television station called Telemilano. The station became the start of a vast media empire called Mediaset.  

Mediaset is now part of Berlusconi's Fininvest holding company, which includes several television networks, newspapers, Italy's largest publisher and the football club A.C. Milan.

Berlusconi decided to enter politics and, in 1994, founded the conservative Forza Italia party, ran for Prime Minister and won, forming a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.

Berlusconi's first go-around as prime minister ended quickly - his government collapsed after just seven months, after he was indicted on charges of tax fraud.  

Berlusconi was eventually convicted on those charges but they were later overturned and he ran again in 1996, losing out to the left-leaning Romano Prodi.

Despite the defeat at the polls, Berlusconi refused to give up and was elected prime minister for a second time in 2001. He remained prime minister until 2006, becoming Italy's longest serving prime minister since World War II.

A center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi defeated Mr. Berlusconi in 2006, but Berlusconi was reelected in 2008, following Prodi's resignation.

Throughout his three tenures as prime minister, Berlusconi has been followed by controversy and headlines.

Shortly after his 2006 defeat, he made news by passing out at the podium during a political rally. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and later flew to the United States for surgery to implant a pacemaker.

Silvio Berlusconi's reputation for partying with women has also grown since his 2008 election.

In May 2009, his second wife announced she was getting a divorce after he had been photographed at a birthday party for Noemi Letizia, an 18-year-old aspiring model. Berlusconi denied any charges of wrongdoing.

In July, some Italian news organizations said they had audio recordings of Berlusconi talking to an escort, Patrizia D'Addario, who said she was one of several women paid to attend parties at Berlusconi's residence in Rome.

Berlusconi denied the charges but, in his first remarks after the tapes were released, told the public he was "no saint."

Most recently, Berlusconi is awaiting trial for allegedly paying to have sex with underage girls, including a 17-year-old nightclub dancer known as "Ruby." He has denied the accusation.

A November 2010 file photo of a Moroccan girl nicknamed Ruby, who allegedly received payment from PM Berlusconi in return for sex, at a party in a Genoa disco
A November 2010 file photo of a Moroccan girl nicknamed Ruby, who allegedly received payment from PM Berlusconi in return for sex, at a party in a Genoa disco

Ruby, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, denied the two had sex, though she admitted accepting $9,000 to attend a party at the prime minister's home.  

The 75-year-old has also become known for his political gaffes.

Shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama was elected in November 2008, the Italian leader said Obama, who is African American, had a "good tan." And in April 2009, he raised eyebrows during a gathering of world leaders in Germany, after he missed a group photo while talking on his mobile phone.

Earlier that week, Berlusconi agitated Britain's Queen Elizabeth at the G-20 summit in London by loudly calling out to U.S. President Obama.

Berlusconi estimates he has made about 2,500 court appearances during the past two decades, but despite the controversies and a plunging approval ratings - one recent poll estimated his support at 24 percent - he continues to hold onto power, dismissing ongoing calls for his resignation.

The U.S. magazine Forbes ranks Mr. Berlusconi 21st on its list of the world's most powerful people. It ranks him as 118 on its list of the world's richest people with an estimated net worth of $6.2 billion, as of November 2011.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.

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