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Ruby's presence shakes up staid Vienna Opera Ball

The TV cameras were told to ignore her, and Austria's rich and powerful sought to avoid her. But amid all the bling on display Thursday night at the Vienna Opera Ball, most eyes were still on one particular jewel — Ruby.
Karima el-Mahroug, Larry Hagman, Richard Lugner
U.S. actor Larry Hagman, Karima el-Mahroug, Austrian businessman Richard Lugner and his girlfriend Anastasia Sokol, from left, pose for photographers Thursday.Kerstin Joensson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The TV cameras were told to ignore her, and Austria's rich and powerful sought to avoid her. But amid all the bling on display Thursday night at the Vienna Opera Ball, most eyes were still on one particular jewel — Ruby.

With Ruby, a.k.a. Karima el-Mahroug, at the center of the scandal plaguing Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, her scheduled appearance at Austria's ball of balls was a sensation most of the wealthy and influential guests present would have been happy to do without.

State TV was initially ordered to avoid covering her. But with the Berlusconi scandal big news, she was hard to keep out of sight — let alone out of mind.

Ruby's comments on the eve of the ball added to Vienna high society's bad case of nerves.

"I can't waltz," she told reporters before pausing for effect, and adding with a smile: "I can only belly dance."

For centuries, Vienna's high society has waltzed blissfully through wars, recessions and firebomb-throwing anarchists opposed to the moneyed decadence they think such events represent. But it has never had to deal with an 18-year-old dancer said to have been paid by Berlusconi for sex while she was still underage — and the ripples caused by her presence relegated Libya's revolution and other top news events to the back pages of Austria's newspapers.

Vienna's top priest was drawn into the fray, citing scripture in favor of her attendance. The ball's organizer threatened to ban Richard Lugner, the quirky 78-year old millionaire who invited her and former "Dallas" star Larry Hagman.

State television's program head ordered cameras and commentators to make a wide detour around her. That, in turn resulted in protests from TV employees who see her as the biggest news of the event.

As guests started striding over the red carpet leading to the entrance that ban appeared to have been at least partially withdrawn, with hosts occasionally mentioning Ruby's presence. A camera showed her arriving, barely visible because of the paparazzi, and later panned over the box she shared with her entourage.

In typical reporting ahead of the ball, this week's front cover of News, one of Austria's most widely read magazines, was dominated by a montage of Lugner in tails and top hat, his arm around a scantily clad Ruby and the headline "Scandal Surrounds the Opera Ball." Moammar Gadhafi and the uprising in Libya is relegated to a narrow strip running down the left side of the cover.

To underestimate the uproar is to ignore the place that the Vienna Opera Ball holds in the hearts of Austrians.

Raising eyebrows
It is THE event of the annual ball season that stretches from fall into late winter. Watched on TV by millions from home, champagne-sipping government leaders hobnob with captains of industry from ornate boxes high above the main floor of the State Opera, while the less wealthy and influential crowd tables below. Their hands daintily perched on those of their male partners, debutantes — daughters of the rich and famous — celebrate their coming out into the privileged upper echelons by opening the festivities with a lilting waltz.

Some of Lugner's past guests among a panoply of Hollywood actresses and other lookers had already raised carefully plucked opera ball eyebrows. He hosted porn star Dolly Buster in 1999 and burlesque artist Dita von Teese three years ago.

But his pick of Ruby — after actress Bo Derek backed out — was simply too much for some in Vienna, where parents of the moneyed class still send their kids to manners courses.

Berlusconi was indicted last month on charges he paid for sex with Ruby, when she was under age, then used his influence to cover it up. Both have denied having a sexual relationship.

Lugner — who is reported to have paid 40,000 euros ($55,500) for her appearance — doesn't understand the fuss. "If Berlusconi liked her, she's good enough for the Opera Ball," he told News.

But for ball organizer Desiree Treichl-Stuerkh, she is a "prostitute involved in ongoing legal proceedings against Berlusconi" — and as such, persona non-grata. She said Lugner will not be given an opera box next year, adding her office had fielded calls from prominent ball goers asking how they can avoid being filmed or photographed with the Moroccan teen.

Her predecessor, Lotte Tobisch, said Ruby's presence "is wrecking the Opera Ball," while Wolfgang Lorenz, the state broadcaster's head of programming who issued the coverage ban, warned against "turning the festivities into a hookers' ball."

Jumping into the fray, Toni Faber — a ball-goer and head priest at Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral — sided with Ruby. Warning against hypocrisy he cited Jesus in newspaper interviews, declaring, "the tax collectors and the prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God ahead of you."

Prominent cultural anthropologist Roland Girtler also doesn't understand the excitement, noting that throughout history, courtesans and highborn ladies of dubious repute were always welcome at balls. And despite the unease at the higher levels of Vienna's society most Austrians seemed comfortable with Ruby's presence.

'You always learn new things'
A survey of 850 people prepared by Austria's Humaninstitut had 70 percent of respondents saying that — now that Ruby is in Vienna — "we should welcome her with Austrian charm."

As for Ruby? She was just looking forward to the evening.

"It's certainly going to be a wonderful experience for me and I'm very grateful to get to go," she told reporters.

While she won't be among the first couples on the dance floor she says she intends to join the fun — despite her lack of waltzing skills.

"I'll dance along. You always learn new things."