Eccentric obsessions: Elvis and Koizumi (and other passions of the world's leaders)

As Japan's premier prepares to pay homage to Elvis at Graceland tomorrow, the closet hobbies of world leaders past and present are laid bare. From pitchers to crooners, auteurs to impressionists, these are politicians with hidden passions
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Indy Politics

Junichiro Koizumi Elvis Presley

For years, Junichiro Koizumi was known in Japan's sclerotic political world as henjin or weirdo - an eccentric with unpopular ideas, suspiciously dapper good looks and that expensively coiffed grey perm. So when he became Prime Minister in April 2001, Mr Koizumi did what any conservative Japanese politician worried about his odd image would: he released a collection of Elvis tunes.

The CD, featuring 25 hits including "Are you Lonesome Tonight?" and "It's Now or Never", and carrying a grinning Mr Koizumi on the cover with Elvis in his 1950s prime, was personally put together by the new Prime Minister who gushed about his love for "the King". "I never get tired of listening to his songs no matter how many times I hear them," he said, adding that there was a "healing power" in Elvis's music that helped him endure the stress of high office.

"Elvis is the greatest singer who ever lived in the 20th century," he told a young reporter.

Any suspicions that this was a cynical ploy designed to endear the wily Prime Minister to the electorate have since been dispelled. Mr Koizumi shares a birthday with Elvis - 8 January - and can warble passable English versions of most of the CD (which sold 200,000 copies). Last year, he sang a duet of "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" with the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in Sydney - not the first politician to be treated to an impromptu Koizumi karaoke.

The leader of the world's second-largest economy is a true Elvis fanatic. The Prime Minister's brother, Masaya, is a leading light in Japan's Elvis fan club and the pair once helped fund and unveil a life-size bronze statue of their hero in central Tokyo. Mr Koizumi's aides have told reporters that when their boss has had a drink he can bore for Japan with Elvis trivia.

Indeed, Elvis is thought to be one of the reasons why Mr Koizumi has bonded so strongly with President George Bush, who is scheduled to take him on a pilgrimage to Graceland tomorrow. Mr Bush, a famous teetotaller, is unlikely to indulge in the great Japanese tradition of drunken karaoke, but don't expect similar favours from the Japanese Prime Minister. Last year he serenaded the President with "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" at Mr Bush's birthday party.

Jacques Chirac Sumo Wrestling

If he had not been a politician, Jacques Chirac would like to have been a sumo wrestler. The French President is a devoted fan of the ancient Japanese form of wrestling. He has tapes of bouts sent over from Japan and often watches them in the Elysée Palace while drinking - one of his other unlikely passions - Mexican beer.

He once told the French sports newspaper L'Equipe that he would love to have been a sumo wrestler in another life. As a politician famed for his ability to trip up his opponents, and friends, Chiraco san is evidently a sumo champion manqué. His protégé turned rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, evidently believes, like many ignorant people, that sumo is a Japanese sport for overweight men wearing nappies. He once mocked M. Chirac's hobby as "not very intellectual".

The President told a Japanese newspaper recently that, au contraire, sumo was an "international and eternal" art. After that, who dares to say that the French President is not a heavyweight?

Hugo Chavez Baseball

Contrary to popular belief, Hugo Chavez didn't join the army to launch his political career, or gain an education, he did it to further his baseball ambitions.

"I became a soldier, not because I had a military vocation initially, but because it was the only way that that young, poor-class child from the provinces could go to the centre of the country: through baseball, which was my dream."

His greatest dream, he told an interviewer, was to play for the San Francisco Giants. Once in Caracas, his hopes of catching the eye of a scout failed to materialise.

The Venezuelan president turned out to be more of a soldier than a pitcher and became more interested in running the country than home runs. However, the eccentric leader, who also has a Berlusconi-esque passion for singing folk songs and painting, has latterly found his way back to the baseball diamond.

He captained a national all-star team in a match with his fellow Latin American lefty Fidel Castro.

Silvio Berlusconi Music

Silvio Berlusconi may no longer be Italy's Prime Minister since losing the general election in April, but his devotion to his hobbies far outstrips that of the man he sneeringly described as "that nice cyclist", Romano Prodi. The pastime for which he is best known is music: accomplished at piano, guitar and double bass, he claims to have paid his way through university by singing and strumming on cruise ships, accompanied by an old friend called Fedele Confalonieri (who now runs his television company Mediaset).

He has written the lyrics for a CD of Neapolitan-style love songs, played by Mariano Apicella, and Berlusconi and Apicella jam together frequently during the summer holiday at Berlusconi's enormous Villa Certosa in Sardinia. His youthful employment with a picture framer also gave him a lasting passion for collecting pictures, and, since buying Villa Certosa, he has become a devotee of cacti, of which he possesses at least 400.

Kim Jong II Cinema

North Korea's Dear Leader has a love of cinema that borders on the pathological. He is said to have collected more than 10,000 movies (his favourites including the Godfather series, James Bond, Daffy Duck cartoons and horror movies) and to have bought every Oscar-winning film. Elizabeth Taylor is, reportedly, his much-loved pin-up.

This fascination with collecting cinema memorabilia has even extended to people - in 1978, the South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee was grabbed and taken to Pyongyang, where the Dear Leader was waiting. Her husband, Shin Sang Ok, a producer and director, was kidnapped when he went to look for her in Hong Kong. They were held separately for five years before they were reunited at a party banquet. They said afterwards that Mr Kim had apologised for the kidnappings and asked them to make movies for him. They made seven films before escaping to the West in 1986.

Mr Kim has visited the state film company hundreds of times, produced a patriotic 100-part serial on North Korean history and written a book on cinema theory. He also created a private dance troupe, which broke the mould on the traditional Communist model.

King Abdullah II Adrenalin

If there's a car worth driving at breakneck speed or a plane flying high enough to jump out of, there's a fair chance Jordan's King Abdullah II will not be far away. The former commander of the Royal Jordanian Special Forces has a passion for almost any hobby that involves high levels of adrenalin and a dollop of danger. The qualified frogman, who once flew Cobra attack helicopters, has made numerous parachute jumps and regularly competes in motor racing. He was once the Jordanian rally champion and often races cars wearing a lucky T-shirt with 99 printed on it - his late father's favourite number.

Thabo Mbeki Cyber-Junkie

Most of Africa's internet users live in South Africa and the country's President is possibly one of the continent's most prolific cyber-junkies. Thabo Mbeki, who writes a detailed blog, is renowned for his love of the internet and regularly quotes at length from the often obscure web pages he has been trawling the night before. One of his most controversial moments in politics stemmed from his prolific internet use. In April 2000, Mr Mbeki defended a small group of dissident scientists writing online who claimed that the HIV virus did not cause Aids. Against the backdrop of South Africa's crippling Aids epidemic, Mr Mbeki's critics seized on his internet use as alleged proof of his ignorance.

Ferenc Gyurcsany Hugh Grant

It was bizarre enough for British cinema-goers to watch Hugh Grant strut his stuff around No 10 to the energetic beats of Eighties pop in the 2003 film Love Actually. Imagine, then, the shock of Hungarians when they were later confronted with a home video of their real-life Prime Minister recreating the rom-com moment - and casting himself in the role of the floppy-haired, shoulder-wiggling hero. Ferenc Gyurcsany, Hungary's Prime Minister since 2004, recorded the clip as a wedding gift to a government spokesman. Unsurprisingly, his clowning around to the Pointer Sisters' "Jump!" soon found its way on to the internet. Mr Gyurcsany, 44, explained: "It has been a habit for quite a few years with my friends that we watch a Hugh Grant movie on New Year's Eve."

Saddam Hussein Writing

The dramas of real life in Iraq were evidently not enough for Saddam Hussein, who turned his hand to creating warlords, battles and invasions on the page. The former dictator likes nothing better than curling up with a copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, from which he draws inspiration. His first novel, Zabiba and the King, published in 2002, recounts a love affair between a king and a peasant girl - believed to be a metaphor for Iraq - who is violated by a heartless stranger. It was an instant bestseller and made part of the school curriculum. His nom de plume - "He who writes" - was exposed in 2004, when a journalist revealed that Saddam's writing process only goes as far as a few notes. One of his ghostwriters died in mysterious circumstances in 2003.

Clementine Gallot