'Berlusconi girl' stuns Austrian 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 at the Vienna Opera Ball, most eyes were still on one particular jewel - Ruby.



With Ruby, aka Karima el-Mahroug, at the centre of the scandal plaguing Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, her scheduled appearance at Austria's ball of balls last night 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, 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 Mr Berlusconi for sex while she was still under age.



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 favour of her attendance and the ball's organiser threatened to ban Richard Lugner, the quirky 78-year old millionaire who invited her and former Dallas star Larry Hagman.



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



It is THE event of the annual ball season that stretches from autumn 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 Mr 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 choice 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.



Mr Berlusconi was indicted last month on charges that 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.



Mr Lugner - who is reported to have paid £34,000 for her appearance - said he did not understand the fuss.



"If Berlusconi liked her, she's good enough for the Opera Ball," he said.



But ball organiser Desiree Treichl-Stuerkh, said she was a "prostitute involved in ongoing legal proceedings against Berlusconi" - and as such, persona non-grata.



She said Mr Lugner would not be given an opera box next year, adding her office had fielded calls from prominent ball-goers asking how they could avoid being filmed or photographed with the Moroccan teenager.



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".



But 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".

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