KARIMA EL-MAHROUG, the beautiful 18-year-old nightclub dancer nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heart-Stealer) at the center of a sex scandal involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, went on television last week to explain herself.

As her gripping testimony, décolletage and muted leopard-print top drove up ratings on a channel owned by Mr. Berlusconi, Ms. Mahroug said she had never had sex with him — “He never even laid a finger on me” — and never asked for 5 million euros ($6.7 million) to keep quiet. “I’m capable of exaggerating, but not that,” she said.

Nor, she said, had she ever worked as a prostitute, although she did say Mr. Berlusconi gave her 7,000 euros in cash after the first party she attended at his house (when they were introduced, she said, “Hi, I’m Ruby, and I’m 24,” she recalled). She also said she once stripped for “a client” at a Milan hotel, but when she told him it was her first time, he paid her 1,000 euros and told her to leave.

Ms. Mahroug seemed unfazed by the suggestion that wiretapped phone conversations published in the Italian press last week might contradict her. (In one, she said she had attended the prime minister’s parties since she was 16.) Nor was she moved by prosecutors’ allegations that Mr. Berlusconi had described her as a niece of Egypt’s president when the prime minister helped release her from police custody for theft last May.

“Oh, I don’t know what’s in the wiretaps,” Ms. Mahroug said. “I don’t know what journalists write that’s true or not true.”

Neither, it seems, do many Italians. Ms. Mahroug’s performance was the latest installment in a surreal and very Italian tragicomedy — one that blurs fact and fiction, reality and reality television — in a land where the border between appearance and reality has long been hazy, both in and out of politics.

In this episode, magistrates recently announced that they were investigating whether Mr. Berlusconi gave Ms. Mahroug and other women cash, gifts and rent-free housing in exchange for sex. But the full drama has been airing for the 17 years that Mr. Berlusconi has been Italy’s most colorful politician, playing to an audience shaped by the sensationalist television culture he helped create in his three decades as Italy’s largest private broadcaster.

Today, the dramatic tension is rising. Mr. Berlusconi appears less the leader of a Western European democracy than a character in a late Roman Imperial drama, whose actors seem powerless to control their fates against larger currents of destiny. “He is, in a certain sense, a prisoner of this world that he created,” said Mario Calabresi, the editor of the Turin daily La Stampa.

As described in the Italian press, it is a world in which older men hold court and flirt with leggy showgirls and where middle-aged women, a prime audience for Mr. Berlusconi’s channels and an important bloc in his electorate, swoon over young male heartthrobs. It is also a world in which bad girls confess that they just want to leave “the world of spectacle” to get married and settle down, as Ms. Mahroug said in her interview, to the applause of the audience.

Gently prodded by Alfonso Signorini, a host on Mr. Berlusconi’s channels and the editor of Chi, a tabloid owned by the Berlusconi family and central to its image-building, Ms. Mahroug described a rough life.

She said she was raped at age 9 by two uncles in Morocco, a claim her father is contesting in the press, and moved to Italy with her mother, where she struggled in school and turned to petty theft. She said was ashamed of being Moroccan, so told people that she was Egyptian.

“I invented a parallel life,” she said.

“You invented a parallel life,” Mr. Signorini echoed. Not quite an admission of guilt, the line became a running theme in the interview — and the key to understanding the entire scandal, if not Italy itself.

HOW can it be, many non-Italians ask, that Mr. Berlusconi is still in power? The basic answer is simple: politics. A growing number of Italians would probably change the channel if they saw an alternative, but the left is weak and the center unfocused, and for now the prime minister has a parliamentary majority, if narrow. His fate now lies with his coalition partner, the Northern League, which is growing increasingly restive, and no one has ruled out early elections.