Raffaella: TV stardom, Italian-style

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CALL her Italy's media superwoman. A remarkable combination of on-camera skills has made her the most popular female star on TV in that country. Now she'd like to leap across the chasm traditionally separating the pop cultures of Europe and the United States.

``I'm curious to see if the American viewers would accept an Italian or European touch in TV entertainment,'' says Raffaella Carr`a. ``After all, the earth is just a little ball. If my company and one from the US could make an exchange and do a talk and entertainment series together, it could be very interesting. Otherwise, why did they invent the satellite?''

If anyone can add an dash of internationalism to American network TV entertainment, it's probably Raffaella, as she is usually called. Her versatility would surprise most US viewers used to more specialized roles for their TV personalities. When her series ``Buonasera, Raffaella'' was on location here recently, she was called upon to switch styles nimbly -- from high-powered singer and dancer, to game-show moderator, to talk-show host who could interview guests ranging from Richard Chamberlain to Henry Kissinger.

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The feat was typical of what Raffaella has been doing on RAI, the Italian network, over the past few seasons. She's been an international star and a favorite in her own country for years -- performing in films, on stage, and in several TV shows during the late '70s and early '80s. But when she began a TV show called ``Pronto, Raffaella'' in 1983, the format she tackled was daunting. She became, in effect, a one-woman magazine of the air, doing a live 3-hour weekly show that displayed her whole range of skills.

The show was offered during a traditionally dead period of Italian TV -- midday -- but Raffaella soon had Italians rushing home to catch ``Pronto.'' Last fall she switched to the evening hours and began ``Buonasera, Raffaella,'' turning Thursday into Raffaella night for millions of viewers.

A number from ``Buonasera'' was being rehearsed when I arrived at the cavernous Silvercup Studios here. Music was booming from powerful speakers as Raffaella and her company went through a dance number on a glittering set that included a striking image of the Manhattan skyline along one wall. She performed with an almost palpable vitality that seemed to quicken the whole stage. Later -- wrapped in a black cape and peering from large, quick, friendly eyes -- she walked out onto the floor to greet me.

``Doing the show here has been a great challenge,'' she conceded -- still a bit breathless from doing her number, ``but I really appreciate the help of the Americans.''

Why hasn't there been more transatlantic entertainment of the kind Raffaella would like to see? Is it because Americans are less cosmopolitan than Europeans?

``No, I say the contrary. Americans are cosmopolitan, but they are a little bit closed in their show business life. But someday, if you give us the chance to know a little bit more about you, and if you learn more about us -- if we can produce something together -- it would be a great hit. You have had a strange view of Italian-Americans at times -- it wasn't always a good one -- but today I think it is much better.''

Although ``Buonasera'' is over now, Raffaella's TV contract runs for another year, and her next series is expected to be similar in style. Everybody wants to be on the air with her these days. Besides political figures, she talks to stars, Nobel Prize winners, sports heroes. During bubbly interviews -- conducted in the studio or by satellite with guests throughout Europe -- she offers adroitly paced running translations (in four languages), complete with descriptive asides for Italian-speakers (``Oh, he's so funny!'').

``The important thing when I interview somebody, here and in Italy, is to make them feel at home,'' she notes. ``I told Dr. Kissinger, `Don't worry, you'll be at your ease,' but he didn't believe me so much. At the end, though, he said, `Yes, you are perfectly right.'

``The most similar personality to him at home was our foreign minister, Giulio Andreotti, who looks like Dr. Kissinger, the way he moves his face. Some people said, `Oh, it's not good to have him on.' Others say, `It's great to have him.' But everybody must admit he is clever and a great conversationalist.

``Then I've had the head of our Senate. He came into my house for dinner. He wanted to see me first and asked me, `Why do you want me in your show?' `Because everybody knows you politically, but not personally,' I said. `The few times you are on TV, it's from the Senate. Why can't we get to know you better? You belong to our country, so come over and explain who exactly you are and give us a little bit of your personality.' ''

According to Raffaella, ``When you have a close-up, if you say a lie the audience sees it. I don't need to add a word. The camera has a very special way, more than a movie camera. If there is a little perspiration here, or a little nervousness there, you can see it.''

Ordinary Italians are a part of her programs, too. They phone, write in, and sometimes appear on the show with requests for all kinds of aid -- confident that fund-raising or other help will be galvanized through this woman who has become a media symbol of the helping hand. ``I discovered, in dealing with `power' people, that if you talk to them and ask them, `Why don't you have this community do this and do that,' '' Raffaella explains, ``they start to listen to you and begin doing things. There might be a mother who says, `I have a big problem. My daughter needs this and that. What can we do?' I try to help. During the week we call important people who can solve the problem. Or maybe there is a quarter of a town that doesn't have lights. I do not put myself in the place of the state, but try inform the government that there there is a problem. With this approach we have had wonderful responses.''

The resulting goodwill traveled with Raffaella when she came to the United States.

``I found something I was nearly sure I would find,'' Raffaella reports: ``the collaboration and the happiness of our Italian-American community. They were waiting for us and appreciated that we came. With a show you get closer; with music, with show business, with the singers, it's a way to get through to the people so they are happy.''

Besides New York and Italy, her visiting show was carried on stations serving various communities in the US, South America, and Canada. ``Raffaella's here? Can I talk with her?'' was the cry from longtime fans when they learned she was in the US. In their adopted country they had followed her career in Italian magazines and elsewhere and now wanted to play her TV game or ask her for help.

One letter was from a woman who'd come to the US from Italy some 40 years ago, leaving two brothers in the old country whom she hadn't seen since. Around these elements Raffaella staged a media event (in the best sense of the word) that typically combined her international outlook with her strong sense of people's personal needs -- and also drew tears from technicians and other veteran studio hands not noted for sentimentality. She brought the woman on her show and asked her to look up at a monitor. There on a screen -- by satellite from Italy -- were her two brothers greeting her. Raffaella handed her tickets to Italy so they could meet.

``In America you are used to doing this kind of thing,'' Raffaella observes -- by this time she and her helpers had moved to her dressing room -- ``but for Italy it's kind of dangerous, because they tease you and say you are a saint. But if you don't do it, nobody does.''

Does she notice other cultural differences between Italian and US attitudes?

``What I've learned here is that the rhythm of your life is `go-go-go,' so I have to have that rhythm and pace in the show while I'm here, much more than in Italy. In Italy I have, for example, 9 or 10 guests in a 3-hour show. Here I have 20. I try to copy your way of TV without making me appear anxious to my Italian audience. They don't have this fast pace usually -- otherwise they are dead at the end of the show. You have commercial or other spots frequently.''

Do children watch as much TV in Italy as here?

``Not quite as much, but a lot. Usually when I speak about children and television I say that parents should not let them see too much of it. They should say, `Babies, it's over. You go away now.' ''

Raffaella started her career early. ``I used to dance for my own pleasure when I was a little girl,'' she recalls. ``My grandmother was my biggest fan. My father and my mother said I had to go to school, and I did it of course. They preferred a more quiet life, but I'm too independent to be a normal woman. God gave me this energy and I have to put it somewhere. I try to put it where it will make people happiest.''

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