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Did teen 'Heart Stealer' fall for Berlusconi's bling?

Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images

Karima El-Mahroug, better known by her stage name “Ruby the Heart Stealer,” went from a runaway belly dancer to the richest (alleged) concubine in Italian President Silvio Berlusconi’s harem in a few weeks.

by Claudio Lavanga of NBC News 

ROME - She is known as the “Heart Stealer” but she could just as well have called herself the “gold-digger.”

In only a few weeks, Karima El-Mahroug, better known by her stage name “Ruby the Heart Stealer,” went from a runaway belly dancer to the richest (alleged) concubine in Italian President Silvio Berlusconi’s harem.

A recently published list of the presents she received from Italy’s embattled prime minister could prove either that they really had sex, as Italian investigators claim, or that Berlusconi is the most generous philanthropist in Italy?

Delving into the treasure trove she filled with presents from the prime minister, investigators found goodies totaling more than $300,000. Among them are two Rolex watches worth approximately $70,000 each, a $25,000-designer necklace and an expensive Valentino dress he gave her on Valentine’s Day, when they first met. Is there a better day to meet a heart stealer?

Because he is accused of having had sex with El-Mahroug when she was still a minor, therefore committing a felony, Berlusconi has defended himself with a series of contradicting accounts. First he said he believed her when she told him she was the granddaughter of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Then the prime minister said he showered El-Mahroug with presents after taking pity on her.

So what’s worse? If the prime minister believed that the nightclub belly-dancer was a relative of a head of state, how can Italians trust he will be taken seriously on the international stage? But if Berlusconi showered El-Mahroug with expensive presents because he took pity on her, when is he going to take pity on the rest of recession-battered Italy?

Example for women?
While Italy has never been a model of gender equality, others are more concerned with the example “Rubygate” is providing a generation of Italian women. Many are afraid that admissions by dozens of party-goers that they earned a living by attending Berlusconi’s reputedly wild events will only encourage young women to use their bodies to get ahead.

On Feb. 13, hundreds of thousands of women across the country protested against sexist norms that, many believe, Berlusconi’s cavorting encourages.

“Women in this country are denigrated by the repeated, indecent and ostentatious representation of women as a naked sexual object on offer in newspapers, televisions and advertising,” The Washington Post quoted protest organizer Ida Poletto as saying.

While in Milan, NBC News interviewed two of the many former and current TV showgirls who are said to have attended Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga” parties, or sex-fueled post-dinner fiestas at the prime minister’s villa. They said they saw nothing wrong with receiving expensive presents from a 74-year-old leader.

"He’s like a second father to me, and yes, sometimes he helps us out,” Barbara Guerra, a starlet on one of Berlusconi’s private channels, told NBC News. “But as a friend, without asking anything in exchange. Like any friend would do in his position.”

The question many women who have rebelled against this renewed culture of sexism in Italy are asking is: Where does an act of friendship end and prostitution begin?

Whatever the answer, more and more women I have interviewed in Rome have no doubt in their minds: If they were given $200,000, they too would gladly go to one of Berlusconi’s wild parties.