Bimbo school

USA Today

Frattamaggiore, Italy:

A pile of shapely girls and a sprinkling of young men writhe dramatically on the floor of a cavernous studio. In another room, a forest of long-haired, long-legged beauties practice the strut of catwalk models. Elsewhere, Mariah Carey look-alikes and Britney Spears wannabes belt out antiquated pop tunes. Class is in session, and the ‘studenti’ are studying diligently, so they can graduate this June from Italy’s first government-supported training institution for entertainment workers. Or, as media and critics here call it, ‘bimbo school’.

In a nation where barely clad ‘veline’ (closest translation: bimbos) populate virtually every television programme and where variety and game shows are the major form of TV entertainment, the school aims to turn these young Italians into quiz show hosts, showgirls, letter turners and performers. The school is backed by $1.5 million from the European Union and has caused surprisingly little stink, except among a small circle bemoaning what it sees as further evidence of a national epidemic of brainless and sexist TV programming. “With all due respect to bimbos, this school is more than that,” insists its pony-tailed principal, Dino Giordano, a former radio DJ and television show presenter. “We’re teaching young people the mechanism of entertainment.”

The European Union dispenses billions of euros in “structural” grants to financially distressed areas in Europe, and the Campania region in southern Italy certainly qualifies. Here in Frattamaggiore, a gloomy little town, young people are desperate to escape. In the past decade, the town’s population has dropped from 50,000 to 40,000. Unemployment among the young throughout Campania is estimated to be 50 per cent. But if Campania is short on jobs, it is well stocked with beautiful women, for which the region is famed throughout Italy. So it may be as much the lust for stardom in this celebrity-driven country as dismal employment levels that drove more than 1,200 young women and a handful of men to apply for the 97 slots in the school when they were announced last year. “I want to be a pop singer like Christina Aguilera,” says Anna Capasso, 20, who bears a striking resemblance to Sandra Bullock. “I want to be famous.”

“These aren’t just girls who walk on desks,” Giordano says in a reference to the long-running programme, ‘Striscia la Notizia’ -- literally ‘Strip the News’. In that show, produced by the television corporation owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, two nearly topless dancers prance across the anchorman’s desk. To be fair, the programme offers a dose of political satire and occasionally investigates and uncovers fraud.

In his book, ‘The Dark Heart of Italy’, British author Tobias Jones catalogues some of the sights he regularly witnesses on Italy’s ‘veline’-soaked television programmes: pole-dancing female show presenters, politicians enjoying a lap-dance, dancing girls in bikinis. In one election debate, Jones says, the hostess took off an article of clothing every time the debate got boring. There is evidence of growing concern about the direction television content is taking here. Last year, Lucia Annunziata, chairwoman of the governing board of Rai, the government-funded television company, persuaded the corporation to pass guidelines aimed at reducing the offensive portrayal of women on TV. But the impact has been minimal, admits Lorenzo Ottolenghi, Annunziata’s spokesman.

The main reason? Competition with Mediaset, Berlusconi’s corporation, which, Ottolenghi says, “has made naked women a point of programming.” For the students here in First Tel’s entertainment school, however, to appear on Italian television represents the pinnacle of success. “It’s my obsession,” says Mario Riccio, 24, one of the 13 men enrolled in the programme. Riccio holds a degree in graphic design but yearns to be a ‘showman’ emceeing television variety shows. “I’m not looking for love,” Riccio says. “I’m looking for fame.”

Operational costs

The EU pays students 2 euros an hour ($2.50) to attend school, and First Tel 1 million euros to operate the school for a year. It is said to be the first EU grant that addresses what school director Guiseppe Giuliano calls “the culture of entertainment.” Students study a 600-hour course that covers everything from diction and singing to theatre and dance. After graduation, they have the option of trying to get a job elsewhere or signing on with First Tel, the freelance production company that runs the school. First Tel plans to use the students to create its own television shows that it will sell to local, regional and national stations.