Raffaella Carrà: Italian pop icon and entertainment legend

Raffaella Carrà: Italian pop icon and entertainment legend
With her blonde bob, sultry voice and lithe dance moves, Carrà was a cultural phenomenon

Raffaella Carrà, an Italian singer, dancer and television personality, attained superstardom in her native country as well as in Spain and Latin America, tantalising and sometimes scandalising her audiences with risque performances that celebrated sexual empowerment.

With her blonde bob, sultry voice, lithe dance moves and racy, sequined get-ups, Carrà, who has died aged 78, was a phenomenon in Italy, where she first became popular in the 1970s as a host of the TV variety show Canzonissima. She went on to sell a reported 60 million records over a decades-long career that kept her in the spotlight until nearly the end of her life.

In a country where divorce had only recently been legalised and where the Vatican acted as a powerful arbiter of societal life, Carrà created a sensation in 1971 when, in what was reportedly the first such act in the history of Italian television, she bared her midriff on the air. For days, according to the Italian daily La Repubblica, news accounts spoke of little but Carrà’s navel.

She was the object of similar fascination in Spain, where she hosted the TV programme La Hora de Raffaella shortly after the death in 1975 of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Her fame carried over to Latin America, where young women on dance floors would toss back their hair in sync with Carrà to Spanish versions of her suggestive songs.

Commentators strained for superlatives to capture the degree of her celebrity in Italy. She was known as the “queen of Italian TV” and, on at least one occasion, was described as “more miraculous than Padre Pio”, the canonised Italian mystic who has attracted a modern cult following.

“If one is determined to test the very pulse of Italian popular taste, [the] first stop has to be the actress-cum-dancer-cum-singer-cum-TV presenter, Raffaella Carrà,” a reporter for the Irish Times wrote in 2002. “Bottle blonde, superbly fit and totally professional, Raffaella not only represents the very best, and worst, of glamorous, glitzy, over-the-top Italian TV entertainment but she has also become something of a national icon.”

Around the time of her belly button baring, she created another stir with her TV performance of “Tuca, Tuca”, a song whose title echoes the Italian words meaning “touch, touch” – and accurately represents Carrà’s accompanying dance moves. (In one memorable rendition, she performed the number with Italian film star Alberto Sordi.)

Carrà seemed to embody the idea, increasingly taking hold as second-wave feminism gathered momentum, that women deserved to take control of their sexuality. One of her best-known songs was “A Far L’amore Comincia Tu”, an anthem translated in English as “Do It, Do It Again” and that called on women to make their desires known in bed.

Carra in 1972

Despite the sometimes provocative nature of her performances, Carrà, who also hosted numerous talk shows on Italian television, maintained broad popularity.

“She made millions of television viewers dream in front of her navel,” a writer for La Repubblica, Irene Maria Scalise, wrote in 2008, “but she never became a sex symbol. She was the first pop icon, but she always appealed to housewives. She revolutionised the way of entertaining the public, but then she became a tradition. She was wildly famous but never a diva.”

Raffaella Maria Roberta Pelloni was born in Bologna on 18 June 1943. Her parents separated shortly after their marriage, and she was raised largely by her mother and maternal grandparents.

Carrà later studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, also in Rome, working as a teenager with eminences including movie star Marcello Mastroianni. By then she had already had her first film credit: she debuted under the name Raffaella Pelloni in the 1952 drama Torment of the Past.

Carrà acted in historical epics known as sword-and-sandal films before appearing in Von Ryan’s Express (1965), a Second World War prisoner of war drama with Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard. (By then she had taken the stage name Carrà, from the futurist painter Carlo Carrà.)

Carra presents the 700,000th Roman number plate in 1964

During a visit to the US, she obsessively attended performance after performance of the musical Hair and resolved, according to an account in The Guardian, to bring its energy and exuberance to her own performances in Italy.

Her Italian television career took off in the 1970s and propelled her, by 1986, to a $2.8m contract with RAI that made her the mostly highly paid performer on Italian state television.

That figure prompted protests in Italy, where the government at the time was implementing austerity measures. But Rai – and Carrà – defended the contract citing the popularity of such programmes as Pronto, Raffaella?, a midday talk programme that reportedly attracted the viewership of nearly one-fifth of all Italians.

“You don’t think RAI gave me the money out of love, do you?” Carrà remarked at the time. “They do it because it makes money.”

Such was the reach of her talk shows that even Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, agreed to be interviewed by her. “The important thing when I interview somebody, here and in Italy, is to make them feel at home,” Carrà told the Christian Science Monitor in 1986. “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.’”

More recently, Carrà appeared on TV as a judge on the Italian version of the reality television show The Voice.

Carrà was often described as an icon of the gay pride movement and in 2017 was honoured at a World Pride event in Madrid.

She had relationships with Gianni Boncompagni, an Italian television and radio presenter, and Sergio Japino, a choreographer, but was never married and had no children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

“I used to dance for my own pleasure when I was a little girl,” Carrà told the Christian Science Monitor, reflecting on the arc of her career. “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.”

Raffaella Carrà, musician, presenter and actor, born 18 June 1943, died 5 July 2021

The Washington Post

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