ROME (AP) — In a bubble-gum-pink frock and high heels, the 72-year-old contestant strutted before the TV cameras, hips swinging to a pounding dance beat and eyelashes fluttering before the millions of viewers.
After endless programs featuring half-naked girls pawing at balding hosts, this one tries to turn the trend on its head with a show of pageants in which each elderly woman sings and dances for a big cash prize while her height, weight and age are displayed on-screen.
Some are appalled by the six-night-a-week program. The Vatican newspaper said this sort of thing shouldn't be televised; women's rights campaigners call it shameful.
But many of the contestants describe "Velone," which can be roughly translated as "Big Showgirls," as a welcome bit of fun in a country that often overlooks its sizable elderly population.
"Whoever invented this show deserves a prize," said the 72-year-old contestant, Dina Pavanello. "I talk with tons of women of my age, and they're happy about it."
"It's not like it once was, where someone who's 60 is already old and locks themselves away," she said. "Now, at our age, there's so much to enjoy in life; anything that allows that is great."
What surprised some is the show's success. It has already sparked a rival program for seniors.
Television here has long been dominated by infantile programs featuring bursts of song and leg-snapping dance numbers. Above all, they are an excuse to parade scantily clothed, ululating starlets, each jostling for a corner of the screen.
"Velone" was born as an ironic twist to all this.
The producer, Antonio Ricci, was behind last summer's hit show "Veline" — "Showgirls" — in which young women pranced and danced to win a permanent TV starlet job. Critics disdained that program, prompting Ricci to launch an identical show this summer, except that the women are elderly and the prize awarded at the end of the season is worth $280,000. Participants must be 65 or older, and the oldest so far was 94.
For one aged star, 82-year-old "Velone" contestant Giovannina Belintende Vigano, the recognition was long overdue.
"When I was a girl I wanted to be an actress but my father wouldn't let me," she said. "I've always had ugly regrets. Finally, I've had a bit of satisfaction on television."
"Velone" appears on Mediaset, the network owned by media mogul Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Now Mediaset's major competitor, state-owned RAI, has responded to the success of "Velone" with its own program, a "Big Brother" for the elderly.
"Super Senior," which begins in September, will follow six elderly men and six elderly women living together for 15 weeks as they prepare to put on a play.
TV critic Aldo Grasso of the Corriere della Sera newspaper says programmers may have finally noticed the old-timers among their audience. Some 18 percent of Italians are 65 or older — a 50 percent higher proportion than in the United States.
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