The Latest Threat to Romania: Beauty and Brains

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In recent days the Romanian press has been inundated with articles about a 36-year-old, very attractive MP and lawyer named Elena Udrea.

It all started with an article published in the British Sunday Times about the "row brewing over the decision to appoint Elena Udrea as Romanian cabinet minister responsible for regional development"; it was argued that, first of all, she posed in her underwear for glossy magazines and secondly, that she was embroiled in corruption allegations -- allegations she claims were politically motivated and which were subsequently determined by investigating prosecutors to be unfounded. Nonetheless, other European newspapers, like Die Welt, published articles deriding her as an "ex-glamour girl."

The central theme underlying all this is clearly that a woman who once posed in sexy clothes can't be trusted to manage the 4 billion Euro EU aid budget for Romania.

I guess the Czech Republic offers a more acceptable alternative: the main candidates for prime minister in next year's election are both men -- one is implicated in nefarious business dealings with gangsters; the other was photographed naked with an erect penis at Silvio Berlusconi's villa, frolicking among young babes.

I haven't lived in Romania for many years now, but while visiting recently I often heard her name, even from a garrulous taxi driver: "What do you make of this Elena Udrea?" one asked me rhetorically, "she can do whatever she wants because she is Basescu's lover, can't she?" I muttered something about not knowing anything about the subject, hoping he would just stop talking.

I asked some Romanian friends what they knew about her, but nobody could tell me much except that she was said to be the president's lover. This became accepted as common knowledge, quickly embraced by the majority, because, as one pundit put it, "otherwise she couldn't have achieved such high positions in his government." The opposition media heavily promoted this idea, needless to say.

I decided to have a better look at who Elena Udrea is.

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Elena Udrea

She was president Traian Basescu's adviser during his first term until she resigned following corruption allegations made against her husband. After the charges were dismissed, she was subsequently appointed minister of tourism.

She was then accused that, as a minister, she pocketed a lot of money after raising the budget for different events. I watched a televised show where she was invited to respond to a host of new allegations.

The mediator was a young, angry man, quite impatient and full of cheap shots. By contrast, I found her to be a very intelligent, extremely well-spoken and stylish young woman, who one by one demolished all his arguments with well-thought and well-documented answers. She brilliantly made a complete fool of her interviewer, who, in his attacks, relied exclusively on gossip promoted by the opposition media. For instance, he repeated the accusation that she had outrageously spent 75,000 Euros for curtains for her ministry building. Elena explained calmly that the sum was actually 7,500 Euros and it was not spent for curtains, but Venetian blinds for all the offices in the building.

He sprang on her with another "scandal" circulating about her spending 65,000 Euros for a stage on the occasion of an Easter concert on the Black Sea coast. "It was actually 350,000 Euros," she said. "How much?!" the mediator jumped, anticipating a scoop. "The sum was 350,000 Euros, not just for the stage but for the whole event, including the promotion. As a result, we brought in 8 million Euros and I am very proud of the whole thing. Here is the proof," she said as she handed him the documents backing up her claims.

There was a phone-in segment, and two calls came in, one from a notorious ex-secret police officer (Securitate) figure during Ceausescu's regime, now vastly wealthy, owning newspapers and television channels, the other from a half-wit but very powerful politician in the opposition party, who I once watched incredulously on another TV talk show as he struggled and finally failed to conjugate the verb "to be". The Securist accused Elena of lacking respect for parliament when she dresses in pink! The second one, in his challenged, reduced vocabulary, criticized her speeches on the parliament floor.

My research discovered continual and ruthless character assassination attempts orchestrated by the media: for example, candid and unauthorized paparazzi pictures taken of her on the beach were deceptively presented to create a scandal about her immorality, as if she'd been posing for these shots in a bikini. According to Elena herself, the articles in the foreign press were driven by comments made by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a political scientist and commentator, who Udrea claims is conducting a personal vendetta against her.

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Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

At the same time, ironically, Romanian newspapers were inundated with news of another homegrown beauty, this one held in a prison in Ecuador for drug trafficking. Both the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and the Romanian president, Traian Basescu, actually made comments about her looks, the former calling her "beautiful" and the latter thrilled by her "superb eyes". The underlying message here is that, this girl is a poor, pretty thing, and deserves a better fate. Of course, I wish her the best, but I can't help but recognize how these reactions to female beauty are so utterly misogynistic.

If a beautiful woman arrives in a position of importance, she is considered a clever whore who knows how to manipulate men. Her competence is entirely excluded as a possible reason for her success. In Romania, and, no doubt, in other parts of the "developed world," men still feel threatened by beautiful, smart women, and as long as they continue to be unable or unwilling to recognize the potential merits of a woman, even a pretty one, the society will remain stuck in a limbo somewhere between a Taliban mindset and a civilized one. The sooner people stop acting as if beauty and brains in the same package goes against the laws of the Universe, the better for all of us.

It's sadly laughable and all too predictable though how the jailed beauty, on the other hand, plays right into the male mentality of an ideal situation: because she represents no threat at all, she deserves chauvinistic support and sympathy, the helpless, lovely, little creature.

I am most discouraged however by just how easily serious, international newspapers jumped at the occasion to denigrate a talented woman -- who is not afraid to be feminine and wear attractive clothes -- by promoting the presumption that this fact alone might render her unfit for her job.

Unfortunately many men, and not only Romanians, still have to grow up and accept the fact that beauty doesn't preclude intelligence in a woman, and stop feeling threatened by it -- or perhaps they should just join the Taliban.