LIMA, Peru — So how, exactly, do you become one of Latin America's biggest TV stars when you're forbidden to set foot outside your home? How do you become the tart-tongued savior of frustrated housewives and abused girlfriends from Burbank to Bogota -- and the scourge of their lyin', cheatin', wife-beatin' menfolk -- when you're not even allowed to go buy a pack of cigarettes?
If you're Laura Bozzo, you do it with skin-tight jeans and brassy one-liners. You do it with 3-inch pumps and a nicotine-coarsened, machine-gun mezzo-soprano that makes you sound like a Spanish-speaking Lauren Bacall after one too many double espressos. You do it because you "have a debt with" your public, in Bozzo's words, and because "poor people in Peru don't get justice." Or maybe, as the country's legal authorities allege, you do it by selling out for bribes and spending some time in the hip pocket of one of the most feared and hated men in all of South America.
Bozzo has compared herself to Joan of Arc, and it's true that some here consider her a heretic for flouting sacrosanct Latin American values. She's a middle-aged divorcee who dresses like she's 25. Her boyfriend, Cristian Zuarez, is a dashing would-be rock star some two dozen years her junior. She's ambitious, smart and, to the chagrin of her supporters, relentlessly outspoken. "I'm not a prefabricated person," Bozzo says. "I'm myself. I connect as a human being, not as a star, not as a diva. I hate that."
In spite, or because, of these traits, the tall, rail-thin Bozzo, at age 53, bestrides the world of Spanish-language media like Martha Stewart before the fall. Her 6-year-old "Laura in America," a Jerry Springer-like talk show in which long-suffering women and mostly unsavory men act out real-life mini morality plays, is the top-rated program on the NBC-owned, Spanish-language Telemundo network, where it airs twice a day, five days a week. It also appears in roughly a dozen Latin American countries, making Bozzo one of the hemisphere's hottest media properties.
Like its English-language counterparts, "Laura in America" each day parades a different lineup of philanderers and cads, transvestites, incest victims and children with obscure medical ailments. With a tough-love style, Bozzo upbraids the guilty, urges the abused to leave their oppressors and seek help, and exposes her studio audience of working-class women (plus millions more watching at home) to subjects that are rarely seriously discussed or even acknowledged in conservative Peruvian society.
Executive producer Miguel Ferro says that between 12% and 15% of the show's budget goes to provide psychological counseling, medical treatments, food stamps, educational scholarships and other assistance to people who appear on the show and their relatives. "What makes me [most] angry is to see children who've been abandoned. It makes me sick," says Bozzo, wolfing down a lunch of chicken, salad and Inca Kola backstage before a recent taping.
Now Bozzo, who trained as a lawyer before becoming the Dr. Laura Schlesinger of Latin TV, is eyeing her next conquest. She's been studying English for nine months and hopes she'll soon be able to cross over into the Anglo-American entertainment universe. "I am very strong. I am a very optimistic person," Bozzo says, testing out her new tongue. "I try to see the positive. I'm so happy to speak in English!"
There's just one problem: Laura Bozzo may be on her way to jail.
According to Peruvian prosecutors, during the 1990s Bozzo used her program to tar opponents of Alberto Fujimori, the former president who ruled Peru with nearly dictatorial powers before scandals engulfed him in November 2000 and he fled, disgraced, into exile in Japan. Prosecutors contend that Bozzo received $3 million for impugning Fujimori's political rivals on the air and have accused her of misappropriating public money. (An assistant to Peru's attorney general, who is handling the charges against Bozzo, said the government could not comment on the case pending further legal developments.)
For the last 26 months, Bozzo has been under house arrest, confined to a small apartment built directly alongside a TV studio in a quiet residential neighborhood. Her comfortably but sparsely furnished digs include an office and a workout room equipped with dumbbells, weight machines and a heavy punching bag. She's not permitted to leave the grounds or even to wander into the first-floor studio offices, where a team of researchers and production assistants bustles about assembling the raw materials for her show. Though Bozzo is a star throughout the Latin world, her show hasn't aired in Peru since her arrest in 2002. Somewhat like the character Jim Carrey played in "The Truman Show," she has become a virtual prisoner in her own made-for-TV environment.