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Italy’s sex scandal reaches all the way to the Vienna Opera Ball

RONALD ZAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS Ruby, a.k.a. Karima el-Mahroug, arrives at the Vienna Opera Ball with her host, Austrian businessman Richard Lugner.
RONALD ZAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ruby, a.k.a. Karima el-Mahroug, arrives at the Vienna Opera Ball with her host, Austrian businessman Richard Lugner. (Ronald Zak/Associated Press)
By George Jahn
Associated Press / March 4, 2011

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VIENNA — The TV cameras were told to ignore her, and Austria’s rich and powerful sought to avoid her. But amid all the bling on display last night at the Vienna Opera Ball, most eyes were still on one particular jewel — Ruby.

With Ruby, a.k.a. Karima el-Mahroug, at the center of the scandal plaguing Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, her scheduled appearance at Austria’s ball of balls was a sensation most of the moneyed and influential guests present would have been happy to do without.

State TV was initially ordered to avoid covering her. But with the Berlusconi scandal big news, she was hard to keep out of sight — let alone out of mind.

Ruby’s comments on the eve of the ball added to Vienna high society’s bad case of nerves.

“I can’t waltz,’’ she told reporters before pausing for effect, and adding with a smile: “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 relegated Libya’s revolution and other top news events to the back pages of Austria’s newspapers.

Vienna’s top priest was drawn into the fray, citing scripture in favor of her attendance. The ball’s organizer threatened to ban Richard Lugner, the quirky 78-year old millionaire who invited her and former “Dallas’’ star Larry Hagman.

State television’s program head ordered cameras and commentators to make a wide detour around her. That, in turn resulted in protests from TV employees who see her as the biggest news of the event.

As guests started striding over the red carpet leading to the entrance that ban appeared to have been at least partially withdrawn, with hosts occasionally mentioning Ruby’s presence. A camera showed her arriving, barely visible because of the paparazzi, and later panned over the box she shared with her entourage.

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 had 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 actress Bo Derek backed out — was 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.

Lugner — who is reported to have paid 40,000 euros ($55,500) for her appearance — doesn’t understand the fuss. “If Berlusconi liked her, she’s good enough for the Opera Ball,’’ he told the Austrian magazine News.

But for ball organizer Desiree Treichl-Stuerkh, she is a “prostitute involved in ongoing legal proceedings against Berlusconi’’ — and as such, persona non-grata. She said Lugner will not be given an opera box next year.