Italy scandal teen shakes up staid Vienna Ball

VIENNA (AP) - When Vienna’s glitzy Opera Ball blossoms into a swirl of elegant waltzing couples Thursday evening, one famous guest will be watching from the sidelines.

“I can’t waltz,” says Ruby _ a.k.a. Karima el-Mahrough. Pausing for effect, the Moroccan teen at the center of the scandal plaguing Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi smiles at reporters and adds: “I can only belly dance.”

For centuries, Vienna’s high society has waltzed blissfully through wars, recessions and firebomb-throwing anarchists opposed to the moneyed decadence they think such events represent. But it has never had to deal with an 18-year-old dancer said to have been paid by Berlusconi for sex while she was still underage _ and the ripples caused by her presence are relegating Libya’s revolution and other top news events to the back pages of Austria’s newspapers.

Vienna’s top priest has been drawn into the fray, citing scripture in favor of her attendance. The ball’s organizer has threatened to ban Richard Lugner, the quirky 78-year old millionaire who invited her. State television’s program head has ordered reporters covering the ball to avoid mentioning her at all costs. That, in turn has resulted in protests from TV employees who see her as the biggest news of the event.

In typical reporting, this week’s front cover of News, one of Austria’s most widely read magazines is dominated by a montage of Lugner in tails and top hat, his arm around a scantily clad Ruby and the headline “Scandal Surrounds the Opera Ball.” Moammar Gahdafi and the uprising in Libya is relegated to a narrow strip running down the left side of the cover.

To underestimate the uproar is to ignore the place that the Vienna Opera Ball holds in the hearts of Austrians.

It is THE event of the annual ball season that stretches from fall into late winter. Watched on TV by millions from home, champagne-sipping government leaders hobnob with captains of industry from ornate boxes high above the main floor of the State Opera, while the less moneyed and influential crowd tables below. Their hands daintily perched on those of their male partners, debutantes _ daughters of the rich and famous _ celebrate their coming out into the privileged upper echelons by opening the festivities with a lilting waltz.

Some of Lugner’s past guests among a panoply of Hollywood actresses and other lookers have already raised carefully plucked opera ball eyebrows. He hosted porn star Dolly Buster in 1999 and burlesque artist Dita von Teese three years ago.

But his pick of Ruby _ after Bo Derek backed out _ is simply too much for some in Vienna, where parents of the moneyed class still send their kids to manners courses.

Berlusconi was indicted last month on charges he paid for sex with Ruby, when she was under age, then used his influence to cover it up. Both have denied having a sexual relationship.

But for ball organizer Desiree Treichl-Struegh, she is a “prostitute involved in ongoing legal proceedings against Berlusconi” _ and as such, persona non-grata. She says Lugner will not be given an opera box next year, adding her office is fielding calls from prominent ball goers asking how they can avoid being filmed or photographed with the Moroccan teen.

Her predecessor, Lotte Tobisch, says Ruby’s presence “is wrecking the Opera Ball,” while Wolfgang Lorenz, the state broadcaster’s head of programming, has warned against “turning the festivities into a hookers’ ball” _ and has ordered his reporters at the event to ignore Ruby.

Jumping into the fray, Toni Farber _ a ball-goer and head priest at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral_ has sided with Ruby. Warning against hypocrisy he has cited Jesus in newspaper interviews declaring, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Prominent cultural anthropologist Roland Girtler also doesn’t understand the excitement, noting that throughout history, courtesans and highborn ladies of dubious repute were always welcome at balls. And despite the unease at the higher levels of Vienna’s society most Austrian’s seem comfortable with Ruby’s presence.

A survey of 850 people prepared by Austria’s Humaninstitut had 70 percent of respondents saying that _ now that Ruby is in Vienna _ “we should welcome her with Austrian charm.”

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