Image: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Guido Niccolini  /  Reuters
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made his first public appearance in a month late Thursday, looking trim and tanned.
updated 1/23/2004 8:10:18 AM ET 2004-01-23T13:10:18

After weeks out of the spotlight, Premier Silvio Berlusconi was back in public sight Thursday, playing down a long absence that led to widespread speculation that he was ill or having cosmetic surgery.

The premier, speaking to journalists on a Rome street corner, grinned when asked what he’d been up to in recent weeks.

“I’ve always been working, eh,” he said. “I took a few hours for myself every morning to get back in shape — a little checkup.”

During his absence, unconfirmed reports said he had plastic surgery. There were no obvious signs of any plastic surgery Thursday, but he appeared much thinner.

Berlusconi denied newspaper reports that he had gone on a Tibetan diet and drunk goat’s milk, although the premier said he had fasted.

“I enjoyed reading all the fantasies that came out in the newspapers,” he said. “I lost a lot of weight, and above all I revived myself after the European toil that was terrible” — a reference to his six-month term as the rotating president of the European Union, which ended Dec. 31.

Premier skips ceremony, meeting
Earlier Thursday, Berlusconi skipped a ceremony at the Carabinieri police headquarters. A day earlier, he pulled out of a planned meeting with the Maltese president.

Many had expected him to re-appear at a Saturday rally to mark the 10th anniversary since the billionaire businessmen stepped into politics, founding the Forza Italia party that has become this country’s largest.

“He absolutely can’t miss that,” a Cabinet minister, Rocco Buttiglione, said earlier Thursday.

Berlusconi’s last appearance before the Italian public was at a Dec. 20 year-end news conference. He has spent much of the last month at his villa in the posh Sardinian resort of Porto Rotondo.

He has come back to Rome on a few occasions, meeting privately with coalition allies and aides. There had been no published photographs or TV footage of the premier.

Sickness, plastic surgery?
Berlusconi’s near-disappearance prompted speculation that he might be sick. His aides have shrugged that off, saying the premier needed a rest after the six-month EU presidency, and is now at work.

“He is fine, he looks like my son,” Cabinet Minister Umberto Bossi said before Berlusoni’s appearance Thursday. “If Berlusconi doesn’t appear in public, it is only because he’s busy in private.”

Mystery also surrounds the premier’s reported plastic surgery. A doctor first said Berlusconi had a touchup around his eyes, but then denied he knew anything about it.

A newsweekly, the left-leaning L’Espresso, insisted this week that the conservative Berlusconi underwent extensive plastic surgery on his face and neck. The magazine said the operation took place in a Swiss clinic late December, and was led by a top Californian surgeon. Berlusconi’s convalescence was complicated by a swelling around one of his eyes, the magazine said.

The premier’s office has declined to comment on the reports.

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