Defiant in the face of a sex scandal, Premier Silvio Berlusconi said today that he is still popular because Italians secretly want to be like him.
He denied any strains with the Catholic Church and denounced what he called a “subversive campaign” to unseat a democratically elected leader.
Mr Berlusconi’s comments came a day after the woman who unwillingly initiated the scandal – Noemi Letizia, whose 18-year-old birthday party Mr Berlusconi attended – broke her silence.
In a TV interview, Letizia described her relations with the man she calls “Daddy,” and her dreams of Hollywood glory.
“I love America and I would love to work in America,” Ms Letizia said in the interview broadcast by Sky Italia.
The 72-year-old billionaire and the young model from a Naples suburb have been the subject of speculation since Mr Berlusconi attended Letizia’s birthday party in April.
His wife cited his presence there when she announced, shortly afterward, that she was filing for divorce.
The premier has said Ms Letizia is the daughter of an old friend and denied having a sexual relationship with her.
Ms Letizia said in the interview that she calls Berlusconi “Papi” – or “Daddy” – because she has known him since she was a little girl.
In recent months, new allegations have surfaced about the premier’s encounters with younger women, including a call girl who claims to have spent the night with him.
Mr Berlusconi has denied ever paying for sex, but said in the summer that he is “no saint.”
“The majority of Italians in their hearts would like to be like me and see themselves in me and in how I behave,” Mr Berlusconi said today during a phone interview on a TV channel he owns.
“They also know that Silvio Berlusconi doesn’t steal and doesn’t use his power to his own advantage,” he said.
Mr Berlusconi’s governing coalition appears solid despite the scandal, although his support among practising Catholics had slipped slightly, according to a recent survey.
A centre-left opposition busy selecting its new leader has been unable to capitalise on the scandal.
In spite of his influence on Italian media – both as a media tycoon and as premier with indirect influence on the state broadcaster – Mr Berlusconi said an Italian press dominated by the left had mounted a campaign to overturn his government.
It is “against the will of the people, and therefore it is a subversive campaign,” he said.
Some Catholic publications have criticised Mr Berlusconi for the scandal.
A Berlusconi family newspaper recently accused the editor of Italy’s pre-eminent Catholic newspaper of being involved in a scandal of his own.
The church is a politically significant in predominantly Catholic Italy.
Still, Mr Berlusconi insisted that relations between the church and him and his government remain excellent. He denied reports that he had sought a meeting with the church’s No 2 official to clear the air.
To Ms Letizia, the scandal has brought sudden notoriety. Wearing a white mini-dress and pearls, she said in the interview that she enjoys being followed by paparazzi and hopes her new fame will help her get acting jobs.
“Until today I couldn’t do anything because I wasn’t known. But now I have acquired notoriety and if they call me to work in America, I will absolutely not be afraid,” Ms Letizia said. “I know what I want; I know I can get to America.”