It is January 10, 1990 when in prime time Rai 1 airs the first episode of The betrothed, a script directed and starring Anna Marchesini, Massimo Lopez and Tullio Solenghi as a parody of the previous television adaptations of the homonymous novel by Alessandro Manzoni. In the fifth episode, when the plague breaks out in Milan and there are bloody deaths in the Lazzaretto, Wanna Marchi makes his appearance: “But how ugly are your husbands when they come back from the Lazaretto, full of pustules and stinking well, gentlemen […] I invented a very important product, a beautiful, wonderful, oily, fragrant cream, even scented “, begins Marchi while trying to sell a miraculous solution to the plague victims, which in addition to the buboes would also heal acne. It is herself to say that, despite not knowing how to read or write, the only things he can do are “cook and sell”. Were it not for the explicit references to the plague and the costumes of the mid-seventeenth century, his scene, more than a parody, could very easily seem like one of the many telesales of which he was the protagonist – and never just appeared – over the decades. On the other hand Vanna Marchi – the original name at the registry office – has never stopped being Wanna for a moment, not even in the new, homonymous Netflix docuseries., which traces its history in four episodes.
Born in the province of Bologna in 1942 from a peasant family and married very young, at the age of 18, ending up in what she would often call a faithless and violent marriage, Wanna Marchi builds the image of herself as a woman who counts, a who made it, often recalling how, especially at the beginning, his life was marked by the need for money. Having obtained the beautician diploma, for a period he worked as a thanatoesthete, until a lady, satisfied with the work she did on the face of her daughter who died prematurely due to an accident, put an exorbitant sum in her pocket, with which Marchi bought a car and began to turn to hairdressers and beauty salons, becoming known as a beautician for living. It all begins for her, however, when she rents a garage as a shop with her earned money. “In the ugliest town in the universe: Ozzano dell’Emilia. I was already selling cosmetics. For me, selling is life, I love doing it. And not for the money: it is a challenge ”.
It was then between 1977 and 1978 that Marchi landed on television, thanks to the program Grand Bazaar, conducted on the local telecentro by the actor Raffaele Pisu and the singer and showgirl Marisa Del Frate, former colleagues in the cult program of the Sixties The friend of the jaguar. It was the origin of Italian teleshopping: needs that had not been necessary until then suddenly became so, just as unnecessary or marginal ones took on a more central role among viewers. How did we live without that such cream? How indispensable was that new kitchen utensil, which will probably never be used? Self the seventies had been a succession of political and trade union demands, fights and terrorist attacks, with individual episodes that continued into the following decade, the eighties they opened in Italy with a more relaxed and hedonistic climate, which marked what is perhaps one of the most complex and contradictory decades of the twentieth century, never really concluded, with elements that overflow into our lives even today.
It was in this historical and social context that Wanna Marchi began to acquire notoriety, after which in reality its first telesales were a complete failure. Each character who alternated in front of the camera to sell their products had a characteristic way of doing, of addressing the spectators, of moving: they were the center of the scene, never the object to be purchased, which in fact took a back seat. Thus hybrid figures were born who mixed the star-like aspects of salesmen with sales pitches of magic operators which, like writes Renato Stella, Professor of Sociology of Mass Communications at the University of Padua, “enhance some character elements that differentiate and characterize the style according to conventions that, in marketing, are usually attributed to the brand […] all unmistakable signs of recognition that can evoke sympathy, curiosity, amazement but which appear very homogeneous to the request for naturalness of behavior required of a common talkshow host “.
Marchi was unique in the way she presented herself: the first time she really started earning, she came to the studio without products, talking about her life. She screams, she waves, shapes her recurring phrases – like “Okay?” and “Guerra al lardo” – acquiring those traits that will lead the newspapers to define it as a “tele-barker”. One of her products that made her famous, among the best sellers just for being promoted by her, was indeed one Belly melter, “Practically given” for the modest sum of 100 thousand lire for three packs. An ointment based on seaweed and dandelion that relied on the newborn social pressure of having to appear beautiful and thin at all costs, which would then have resulted in fatophobia. “Fat ladies, I have nothing against you, I don’t want you badly, I want to wake you up”. At that time, Marchi was selling pseudo-miracle products for more than 300 million lire a day – almost half a million euros, converting to the value of 1984 – yet it is strange to note how, after the first allegations of fraudulent bankruptcy and holes in the balance sheets, to decree the definitive bankruptcy and conviction confirmed from the Cassation at 9 years and 4 months in prison (for fraudulent bankruptcy, aggravated fraud and criminal association), was to go further, starting to sell the fortune, that is nothing. This last trick failed her, and she was exposed. The assertion that a seaweed-based cream could make you lose several kilos all in all was instead believed to be true. On the other hand, even today, in the era of body positivity, being considered “ugly” remains a taboowhich too often is associated with fatness.
The idea of literally starting to give the numbers came to Wanna Marchi and his daughter Stefania Nobile, who had long since become his right hand, suffering successes and failures, after having met Mario Pacheco do Nascimento at Attilio Capra De Carré’s home – entrepreneur who, before abandoning the ship, invested heavily in the two women, opening a new teleshopping channel of which they were the protagonists. On television he was presented as a “Master of life”, a holy man who Stefania had met in Brazil and who after a dinner had slipped a note under the door of the hotel with the forecasts of what would happen to her in the following two years. Needless to say, according to the story, he had guessed everything. Objects to attract good luck, rituals to ward off bad luck and lottery numbers. There were many to call and buy.
Soon, luck was no longer the definitive product to sell, but I just love it to hook new customers. To the complaints calls for the lotto numbers not released, people were told that it was their fault, that he probably had the evil eye, and then they were offered rituals to be able to remove it and thus try to win again: amulets, crystals and then the “salt of Wanna Marchi”, to be dissolved in water, which incidentally, however, never completely dissolved and then you had to pay more money, buy more talismans. “Do you want her daughter to die? For 20 million are you willing to let her daughter die? There is a terrible evil coming and she doesn’t want to stop it ”. One hundred and thirty-two people filed a formal complaint, two million euros the sum to be compensated, sixty-two subjects who became a civil party in the process. And from the docuseries it clearly emerges that the two women, mother and daughter, have never repented. In an interview with Press they said, “We never said we were innocent. We had stolen the apple but we were also tried for killing the farmer. According to my assessment, we risked two years of imprisonment ”. And then: “The prison has taught us so much, we would do it all again for better or for worse”.
Just hear Wanna Marchi talk about the people they had scammed. If every teleshopping knows how to grasp the needs and languages of a specific target, who was their audience? “Unlucky” people but also “inept”, “stupid”, “naive” describes them, in order not to take the responsibility of having taken advantage of moments of weakness, economic, psychological or family, of those who called, especially the elderly or parents in difficulty . “Because the balls deserve to be buggered”, she will say in a very concise and illustrative way. The nineties had arrived, with the war, from afar – from the Srebrenica massacre to the genocide in Rwanda -, and closely with the devaluation of the Lira and the progressive loss of purchasing power by the Italians following Mani Pulite, but even the aftermath of the spread of hard drugs, such as heroin. That decade seemed like a great promise, which later turned out to be betrayed.
Looking at it today, from the docuseries, the Italy of those days seems to us both close and distant at the same time. The story of Wanna Marchi and Stefania Nobile, capitalizers of the persuasive power granted by television, now seemed to be part of a forgotten past, absorbed by the events of the last ten, twelve years, yet the aggressiveness of the language they brought to TV has amplified over time , just as their sales pitch seemed to predict many of the dynamics we are witnessing today on social networks, where perhaps we are a little more careful not to follow those who give us “lardos”, but this is not always the case. The ways may have changed, but our ability to delude ourselves, with a distance between reality and what we aspire to be ever wider, seems not to have been scratched. Thus, the story of what we have been inevitably becomes the mirror of who we still are: “Okay?”.