‘I’m a courageous and free-thinking woman’

No stranger to headlines, the porn-star-turned-politician known as 'La Cicciolina' once offered to sleep with Saddam Hussein in return for peace. This week, at the age of 61, she announced her return to politics – which is why she’s our Italian Face of the Week.

'I’m a courageous and free-thinking woman'
File photo of Ilona Staller with ex-husband Jeff Koons: EPA / AFP

Who is Cicciolina?

She was born in Hungary, moved to Italy as a young woman, and her real name is Ilona Staller. In her time, she's been a model, porn star and politician.

Why is she in the news this week?

On Thursday she announced she'd be standing in Rome’s city council elections at the end of May, as a candidate for Italy’s Liberal Party.

How did she end up as a politician?

Staller started out as a model in Hungary and later developed her career as a porn actress in Italy. In the early 70s, she met the pornographer Riccardo Schicchi with whom she later co-hosted a radio show. It was called Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?, and featured live calls from listeners about sexual matters. And it was on this show that Staller acquired the name “La Cicciolina” – which translates as “the little chubby one”.

She and Schicchi then co-founded Diva Futura, a pornography and erotica film studio. During the 70s, Ciccoliona not only starred in porn films but also made several television appearances – the most infamous of which was in 1978, when she bared her breasts live on air in the show C’era due Volte.

Entering politics a year later, she first ran for parliament as a candidate for Italy’s first Green party, the Lista del Sole – but lost. In the meantime, Staller continued to star in and produce porn films, the most famous being ‘The Red Telephone’, which she co-produced with Schicchi in 1983.

In 1987, she finally won a seat in the Italian parliament as a member of the Radical Party – having polled 20,000 votes. Afterwards, she championed human rights and supported campaigns against nuclear energy and NATO membership.

Four years later, she abandoned the Radicals to set up her own protest party, the ‘Party of Love’, with another porn star.

That same year, she married the controversial American artist Jeff Koons, with whom she had a son.

What did her husband think of her career?

Well, by all accounts he appeared to embrace it. Together the couple made art history in 1991 when Koons produced a series of erotic sculptures and photographs of them both, which appeared in an exhibition entitled “Made in Heaven”.

‘Heaven’ was not to last, however, and in 1992, the couple announced they were going to file for divorce. In a statement Koons, then 36, said: ''The differences between our cultural and social standings are too great.”

And that wasn’t the end of it. In 2008, Staller sued her ex-husband, claiming he owed her $2.3 million (£1.15 million) in child support.

Has she had any other men in her life?

"In her life" is perhaps a stretch but even Staller herself claims to have lost count of the number of men she's slept with. When the question was put to her in an interview with Italian radio station Radio 24, she said: “I’ve never counted them. More than 2,000, perhaps even 3,000 or 4,000 – I don’t know!”    

Didn’t she record a few songs?

Yes, but if you'd asked any Italian about Cicciolina's pop career before the invention of the internet, then they'd probably have looked at you blankly.

The lyrics to her songs were often so explicit that they were banned it Italy. Among these was her most famous song ‘Muscolo Rosso’, which was dedicated to the penis – which went on to become a hit in France.

In 1990, the star famously featured in a music video for the song ‘Touched by the hand of Cicciolina’ by the British alternative rock band Pop Will Eat Itself. You can see the video below.

Tell me an interesting fact about her.

How about two? During her first job in the Italian parliament she reportedly offered to have sex with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to prevent the Gulf War. Needless to say, the offer was not taken up, and she lost her seat at the end of her term in 1991. But that didn’t stop her making the offer a second time in 2002.

Staller is also famed for delivering her political speeches with one breast exposed. Will she be doing so again? No one yet knows…

What does she plan to do if she gets elected?

When she announced her candidacy Staller said that she would be supporting “liberal, libertarian and environmentalist" issues. In addition, she wants to campaign to legalize prostitution, to decriminalize cannabis for medicinal use and to introduce a law in support of same-sex marriages.

What do people think of her in Italy?

While her supporters – or "Cicciolini" as she fondly calls them – often praise her for both her liberal views and her daring foray into the masculine world of Italian politics, Staller is unsurprisingly no stranger to controversy.

In 2011, she attracted many a raised eyebrow when it was revealed she would be receiving a yearly pension of €30,000 courtesy of the Italian state for five-year office in parliament.

Will she continue to star in porn films?

If recent reports are to be believed, the porno diva has changed her ways. In an interview with the Italian news website Today, she confided that she hadn’t had sex for two years.

But far from regretting her controversial career, she recently told Italian radio station Radio 24 that her only regret was “not having expanded my sexual knowledge” as a porn star.

What else does she have to say for herself?

Recently she was quoted by Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, as saying: “Even Grillo [the leader of the protest party, the Five Star Movement] supports issues that I supported in 1989. He’s even put one of my speeches on the web, a sign that I was ahead of the times.

“I’m a courageous woman and free-thinking,” she added. “That’s why I decided to join the Liberal Party.”

Editor's Note: The Local's Italian Face of the Week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Italian of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.