He gave every appearance of material "success" – fast cars, good looks, a successful business, and a Playboy-model girlfriend.
But Fabrizio Corona, the self-styled Paparazzi King of Italy, risks losing it all; an Italian court has called for him to be imprisoned for more than seven years for allegedly blackmailing celebrities with photographs of them in compromising situations.
Mr. Corona's rise and possible fall – a court is due to decide at the end of this month whether he is guilty or innocent of the charges – is a cautionary parable about the culture of celebrity and the often unseemly nexus between show business and political power in today's Italy.
The two worlds are inextricably linked in a nation where billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns a newspaper and magazines and exercises direct or indirect control over a majority of television channels, attracting persistent conflict-of-interest accusations. But there are some signs the Italian public, especially women, are rebelling against the objectification of their gender in the media.
200,000 euros for Fiat scion
Corona made a fortune by setting up a paparazzi photo agency, commanding a team of photographers who snapped politicians, actors, and sportsmen in places, or with people, that they should not have been.
But there was a twist to his business model. Instead of offering the pictures to glossy gossip magazines, he went straight to his targets, demanding money in return for the images not being sold for publication.
The best known of his alleged victims was Lapo Elkann, a scion of the Fiat auto dynasty. In 2005, Mr. Elkann collapsed from a drug overdose in a dingy flat in Turin in the company of a transsexual. As Elkann was recovering in hospital, Corona allegedly threatened to sell compromising pictures of the 28-year-old heir to the carmaking empire unless he was paid 200,000 euros.
Corona then, according to the prosecutor, turned his attentions to the world of politics and sport, allegedly attempting to ransom photographs of a number of high-profile legislators, two professional soccer players, and a champion motorcyclist.
In a Milan court, prosecutor Frank Di Maio accused Corona of using "mafia-style threats" to blackmail at least six celebrities.
"Fabrizio Corona is ... gifted with a certain intelligence, charisma, and charm, a young man who could have used his abilities to build a valid business, but he did not because he was blinded by money," said Mr. Di Maio.
Corona insisted that he had simply and legitimately offered his photographs for sale to his "targets" and called the prosecutors seven-year sentencing request "shameful."
'Valette' showgirl culture
Corona also played a central role in a recent documentary, "Videocracy," which explored the control Mr. Berlusconi's television empire holds over Italians, 80 percent of whom obtain their news from TV.
Much of the film, which was acclaimed at the Venice Film Festival, followed Corona as he stalked his celebrity targets and used his paparazzi contacts to forge a career in television. The scandal involving Corona has been dubbed Valettopoli, after "valette," the scantily clad girls who serve as eye candy on Italian TV.
Berlusconi freely admits that he has a personal weakness for the opposite sex, but the way in which his television empire has used female flesh to boost ratings, in a relentless schedule of quizzes and game shows presented by nubile young women, has sparked a backlash. An online protest against the prime minister's sometimes chauvinistic quips and saloon bar repartee recently attracted more than 100,000 signatures.
Donatella Martini, of Milan, the head of a group that campaigns for greater gender equality in Italy, said the lack of political correctness in Italy was in part a result of the unrelenting diet of glitz and sex served up by Berlusconi's television programs. "In his view, only sex sells. Over the last 20 or 25 years, Italian TV has been invaded by the culture of the showgirl, and young women see them as role models," said Ms. Martini.
Member of Parliament Rosy Bindi says the online protest marks the stirring of a "new feminism" in Italy, which slipped five places to 72nd in the latest gender equality ranking compiled by the World Economic Forum.
But Ms. Bindi's view may be overly optimistic. Berlusconi still enjoys approval ratings close to 50 percent and faces no credible political challenger.