Picture this: a businessman who made his name in the property industry following a loan from his father, who owes his millionaire status to a career in television and is known for his fair share of controversies and chauvinistic attitudes towards women – not to mention, he’s pretty sensitive about his hair. On the whole, people don’t take him that seriously until, one day, he announces he’s going to run for office. They laugh, they mock him but… he wins. Sound familiar? In the eery introduction to Bunga Bunga – a new podcast from the audible geniuses at Wondery (makers of Dirty John) – host Whitney Cummings paints a vivid picture of a Trump-like figure and his determination to ascend into the dirty world of politics. Only it’s not the President of the United States she’s describing, but rather the enigmatic former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.
Having occupied the top seat in Italian government for an astonishing four terms between 1994 through to 2011, it only took one scandal to bring this all-powerful man to his knees.
Eight episodes long, the series traces Berlusconi’s roots from a nightclub and cruise ship singer to real estate and media mogul – as well as the early controversies which threatened to tarnish his political empire and business interests. It also analyses how Italy’s misfortunes – economically and politically – played into his hands, paving the way for this charismatic man to promote the New Italian Miracle to a despondent and mistrusting population. It also explains how he harnessed his extensive network of contacts (some of them supposedly Mafia-linked) to propel him to the top of the political system, and how he continued to use them once in power. From there, the series looks at how the newly elected Prime Minister tackles ongoing restlessness among the electorate, while also deflecting continuous political threats from the far Left and state prosecutors. And although his first term is widely derided as “disastrous”, listeners will be more than aware that this doesn’t stop him returning to power in the future.
With episode titles like ‘I Know How To Make People Love Me’ and ‘Bigger Than Jesus’, the association with other – current – world leaders is far from subtle. In fact, you might say it’s nothing short of a cautionary tale. Contributors to the episodes – some of them journalists, others first-hand witnesses – paint a very different picture of Italy to the image Berlusconi would like to project. With high-profile people shot or kidnapped “weekly” and growing economic inequality across the state, the influence of the mob is made more than clear. And yet – to the Italian people at least – the provenance of Berlusconi’s power and incredible fortune continues to be shrouded in mystery.
With efforts to discredit him rendered largely futile, it seems there’s little that will unseat Berlusconi once he returns to power six years after his first term. That is, until rumours of his participation in ‘sex parties’ involving underage girls became the centre of a media storm in 2010. Experts disagree on the meaning of the phrase, but ‘Bunga Bunga’ is generally understood to refer to “a sort of underwater orgy where nude young women allegedly encircled the nude host and/or his friends in his swimming pool” or “erotic entertainment hosted by a rich host involving pole dancing and a competitive striptease… the prize being prostitution for the host.”
Having been formerly accused and convicted of paying 17-year-old Moroccan prostitute Karima El Mahroug, also known by the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Italian for "Ruby the heart stealer"), for sexual services between February and May 2010 when she was underage, Berlusconi was eventually found not guilty on appeal. Another conviction, which originally found him guilty and sentenced to seven years in jail for misconduct in office, when he arranged to have El Mahroug released from police detention during an incident in which she was briefly held on claims of theft, was eventually overturned in 2014 – making him eligible to hold elected office once again.
With episodes only released in weekly instalments, Bunga Bunga has yet to reach its climactic ending (four episodes are currently available on Wondery, Spotify and Apple Podcasts). But thanks to Cummings’ signature charm and wit throughout, it makes for easy and entertaining listening. In fact, the tale – with all its twists, turns and mass corruption – makes it difficult to understand how Italy, once a nation revered for its cultural and intellectual prowess, could tolerate such indignity and global humiliation. Take from it what you will, but one thing’s for sure – Wondery has done it again, adding another addictive show to its already-impressive line-up.
Listen to ‘Bunga Bunga’ here.