His family was not even allowed to set foot on Italian soil until 2003. But one of Italy's formerly exiled royals hopes that an unlikely win on a reality TV show will catapult him toward a political career and restore the honor of his once illustrious family.
Emmanuel Filiberto of Savoy, the grandson of Italy's last king, waltzed his way into millions of living rooms – and into the affections of his countrymen – on the Italian equivalent of "Dancing with the Stars."
Dressed in tight black trousers matched with a clashing red tie and striped waistcoat, the prince won the final round of "Ballando con le Stelle" – "Dancing with the Stars" – a program that pairs B-grade celebrities with professional dancers, who teach them how to cha-cha and tango.
Paired with a glamorous Russian dancer, the prince won 75 percent of the phone-in votes in the grand finale of the popular show in March.
Now, the rumba-dancing royal plans to use his victory as a launching pad for entering politics and restoring the tarnished image of his family, which was banished into exile when Italy voted to become a republic after World War II.
"I had no idea about dancing when I started," says the prince, who has spent most of his life in Switzerland and works as a banking consultant.
"I think Italians discovered someone that they'd not known before – someone authentic and respectful."
In early April, the prince swapped his sequin-studded dancing outfits for a sober blue jacket and black polo when he visited victims of Italy's devastating earthquake.
Warming up to politics
In true budding politician style, he shook hands with rescue workers, comforted homeless survivors, and gave interviews to TV crews in the devastated town of L'Aquila.
"I cannot contain my emotion over this tragedy," he said. "All Italians should show unity – this is a good time for brotherhood and solidarity."
Now his plan is to put himself forward as a candidate to become one of Italy's members of the European Parliament in Brussels.He is seeking backing from a center-right party – either the People of Freedom bloc of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, or the smaller Democratic Union of the Centre.
Does he count Mr. Berlusconi, the media mogul and self-made billionaire who is into his third term as prime minister, as a friend? "Friend is a big word, but I've met him several times," he says. "He's a person who I respect a great deal."
But Prince Emmanuel's political ambitions reach far beyond Brussels. He says he could one day see himself reaching the very apex of Italian politics, prime minister.
"Why not?" he asks. "I'll take things slowly, and we'll see what will happen. I would like a role in Italy – whether it is as an MP or as prime minister, it's for the people to decide."
Dancing the cha-cha is one thing, but forging a political career in a country that turned its back on its royal family more than 60 years ago will require some fancy footwork.
Youth and good looks may carry him so far, but the prince – whose title is not recognized in Italy, as the monarchy was abolished by referendum in 1946 – has far to go to rehabilitate the name of the House of Savoy.
In fact, his TV success was a rare public-relations coup for the Savoys. Two years ago, they made themselves deeply unpopular with Italians by demanding $365 million in compensation for losing their titles, property, and land. The claim reopened old wounds and caused such outrage that the family was forced to drop it.
Family's murky past
The prince will have to distance himself from the murky past of his father, Prince Victor Emmanuel, who has been embroiled in a series of scandals over the years.
The older prince was briefly jailed in 2006 on suspicion of corruption and recruiting prostitutes for clients at a casino in an Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. He was never charged, and denies the accusations. In 2004, he was involved in a punch-up at a Spanish royal wedding, assaulting his cousin and arch rival, Duke Amedeo of Aosta, who also claims the defunct Italian throne. Prince Victor Emmanuel is also remembered for an incident in 1978 when he fired a rifle from his yacht while moored off Corsica and killed a young German tourist. A court case dragged on for years, until, in 1991, he was acquitted of manslaughter by a French court.
"There have been various shenanigans over the years," says James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome. "The Savoys tend to have either misbehaved or to have been decent but dim. The prince is regarded by most ... as a rich playboy, although he seems to be less thick than his father."
His son's tilt at a political career may also be hampered by the memory of the family's war record. His great-grandfather, King Victor Emmanuel III, fervently supported Mussolini's fascist dictatorship and collaborated on anti-Semitic race laws that sent nearly 8,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
Prince Emmanuel has hardly maintained a regal detachment from the hurly burly of Italian life since his family came out of exile. He is a staple of gossip magazines, having married in 2003 a beautiful French actress, Clothilde Courau. And he has appeared in TV commercials, using his royal credentials to promote, among other things, pickled olives.
In a front-page editorial, one of Italy's most respected broadsheets mocked the prince's TV victory, hailing him as "a king for an evening."
"The hereditary prince of a kingdom which no longer exists won the scepter and throne, or at least their parodies" in the "papier-mache" world of reality TV, La Stampa opined.
The prince stood in last year's national elections, when Berlusconi was reelected prime minister, but won just a tiny fraction of the vote.
"The prince's manifesto seems to be populist center-right, but Italians already have that from Berlusconi," says Professor Walston.
"He'd like to do what some of the Balkan royals have done, which is to come back into democratic politics and use the royal name. But there are very few Italians who are confirmed monarchists, and they are a dying breed. If a referendum on bringing back the royals was held today, they'd be lucky to get 10 percent."
The prince shakes off doubts about his credibility with the unassailable confidence of a man with centuries of royal rule behind him. Asked if he could envisage Italy restoring its monarchy, he by no means rules it out. "Italy is a republic and I respect the Constitution. But I look at the examples of other monarchies, like Britain, Spain, or Sweden, where the monarchy has been a unifying force which rises above politics."
The prospect of a royal restitution looks extremely distant. But the prince believes he has a role to play in the homeland that he had never visited until six years ago. "There are plenty of things that one can do without being a king," he says.