Raffaella Carrà caused shock and outrage and was condemned by the Vatican in 1970 when she wore an outfit that exposed her tummy on a variety show on Italian television. It was seemingly the first time that any woman had dared to reveal their midriff on national television in the socially conservative country.
But the public loved her (most of them), and societies change, sometimes quite rapidly, and just a few years later Carrà had a big international hit with A Far L’Amore Comincia Tu – which translates roughly as You Be the One to Initiate Sex.
It was a message of female empowerment that predated by a long way the Spice Girls and their kiddie-friendly brand of Girl Power and the more explicit lyrics of British and American pop stars such as Madonna.
Carrà made it into the British Top Ten and onto Top of the Pops in 1978 with an English version, entitled, only slightly more ambiguously, Do It, Do It Again.
She remained relatively little known in the UK, but she was a genuine icon in Italy Spain – where she was given her own show pretty much as soon as Franco died – and in Latin America. Thousands lined the streets of Rome for her funeral procession, which was broadcast live television on RAI, the Italian equivalent of the BBC.
Carrà also had a big following in the gay community, attracted by her energy and flamboyance.
In one variety show performance she danced in a gold two-piece number – with exposed midriff, while her chorus line were all in gold masks with huge gold cups and saucers on their heads. In another she dressed as a nun and perched on top of an apple for a Beatles medley.
Once she said that she dated only gay men in her teens and she was a vocal advocate of LGBT rights. She later dated several heterosexual Italian celebrities, but said she had knocked back advances from Frank Sinatra, with whom she appeared in the 1965 war film Von Ryan’s Express.
She was born Raffaella Maria Roberta Pelloni in Bologna in 1943. Her parents split up and she spent her early childhood in the coastal town of Bellaria in Rimini, where her father had a bar.
As an infant she was charmed by singers and dancers on television and spent hours copying and mastering their routines.
At the age of eight she got a place at the National Dance Academy in Rome and she was only nine when she made her film debut in Tormento del Passato (Torment of the Past).
By her late teens she was singing and dancing on Italian television shows, as well as developing her film career in Europe in such films as Fury of the Pagans, Ulysses Against Hercules, Pontius Pilate, Caesar the Conqueror and The Shadow of Zorro.
In her early twenties 20th Century-Fox signed her up and cast her opposite Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express, which shot on location in Italy and in the studios in Century City in California.
While in the United States in the 1960s she witnessed the decade’s youthful cultural revolution first hand and went to see the rock musical Hair, with its groundbreaking nudity, every night for a month.
Back in Europe she co-starred in a French-language feature film of The Saint entitled Le Saint Prend L'Affût (The Saint Lies in Wait), with Jean Marais as adventurer Simon Templar.
And she became co-host of the Italian variety show Canzonissima, which provided the platform for her famous bare midriff Papal outrage.
Television executives shared the Pontiff’s consternation only until they realised just how popular she was.
They did attempt to ban her very literal interpretation of a song called Tuca, Tuca as Touch, Touch, banning it after only three performances, but they relented when film star Alberto Sordi said he would appear on the show only if she got to do it again.
During the 1970s her fame and popularity spread throughout much of Europe and there were sojourns in Spain and South America.
There was further controversy after she returned to Italy, with the focus this time on finance rather than wardrobe.
She was now earning so much that her pay cheques from the state broadcaster RAI were branded “immoral and scandalous” by Italy’s Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.
Carrà, for her part, once revealed that she always voted Communist.
In the late 1980s and the 1990s she divided her time between Italy and Spain and developed her career as an interviewer and chat show host, with Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa among her guests.
Four years ago Carrà featured prominently in a major exhibition in Milan on 1970s Italian television. The curator and artist Franceso Vezzoli said: “I think Raffaella Carrà has done more to liberate women than many feminists.”
Her songs were used as the foundation for a Spanish feature film last year, entitled Explota, Explota (Explode, Explode).
The movie begins with a young woman visiting a television studio and explaining to the director of a variety show that she is not a dancer.
He plays her one of Carrà’s songs, she cannot resist and is hired.
Carrà never married or had children.
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