SHE was the undisputed queen of Italian TV shopping – until her empire all came crumbling down.
Wanna Marchi was a cultural icon in the Eighties and Nineties with her ‘miracle’ slimming creams, 'lucky' lottery numbers, 'magic' table salt and trinkets to protect against evil.
She, along with daughter Stefania Nobile, raked in millions from viewers of their shopping show, with some going bankrupt after buying into their schemes.
But the duo were eventually exposed as fraudsters after a sting operation by a TV show, Striscia La Notizia, and both were eventually sent to prison.
Now a new Netflix docuseries – Fortune Teller: A TV Scam – charts Marchi and Nobile's meteoric rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace.
Born Vanna Marchi, the devious trickster was a beautician by trade and began developing her own beauty products in the late Seventies.
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After charming the creator of Italy’s first Italian home shopping network, she was given a spot on his programme.
With her bright red hair, outlandish personality and shouty catchphrases – she'd frequently yell D'Accordo?’ which means 'Agreed?' – Marchi stood out.
The Italian media branded her a 'tele-barker' – as opposed to marketer – and she became known as the 'queen of teleshopping'.
She didn't hold back with viewers – gesticulating wildly and brazenly insulting them if they refused to buy her slimming products, made from micronised dandelion and algae extracts.
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One of her best-selling products was the 'melting belly' cream, which claimed to boast miraculous weight-loss properties – and cost a mere £45 (100K lire) for three packs.
Other products included hair regrowth lotion, anti-wrinkle cream and herbs to help you sleep.
From 1983 she fronted the Wanna Brands Show, a programme dedicated entirely to products she sponsored, alongside her children, Maurizio and Stefania.
As her fame grew, Marchi recorded a single in 1989 entitled ‘D’Accardo?’ and even had a couple of minor comedy parts in films and TV.
Marchi first got into trouble with the law in 1990 when she declared her Wanna Marchi company bankrupt.
The authorities ruled her claim was fraudulent and she was arrested and sentenced to a year and 11 months in prison.
Upon her release she quickly returned to TV sales alongside her daughter – this time selling 'magic' products.
In 1996, Wanna and Nobile joined forces with Brazilian ‘magician’ Mário Pacheco do Nascimento to establish a company called Ascié srl in Milan.
Their new show would often start with a story about a friend, relative or person in the news who had fallen on hard times, claiming they were not only unfortunate but foolish for not consulting Marchi.
Do Nascimento, who branded himself a holy man and fortune teller, would sell “personalised” lottery numbers which he promised would bring fortune to those who paid a price for them.
Ascié srl would also flog all sorts of items that viewers were told would bring them luck and ward off the “evil eye” – a supernatural curse in Mediterranean culture.
These ranged from kits containing sachets of 'magical' salt to detect its presence and protective sprigs of ivy and amulets.
Despite telling viewers they were magic, in reality they were often cheap and easily bought – like sachets of table salt and cuttings from a plant in the courtyard of the corporate offices.
And customers who purchased the “personalised” lucky lottery numbers were given the same digits.
Marchi would conduct elaborate rituals to demonstrate the 'power' of the salt, pouring it into vessels filled with water. If it didn't dissolve, she said it established the presence of the evil eye.
In reality, sodium chloride has limited solubility in water if enough is added.
From 1996 to 2001, Marchi and her team scammed around 300,000 people – some of whom bankrupted their families with huge payments, according to records later uncovered by police.
They would typically target vulnerable, uneducated older women who were easily intimidated and manipulated.
In 2001 their fraudulent operation was exposed by a satirical Italian investigation programme called Striscia la Notizie – which translates to Strip the News – with the help of a pensioner called Fosca Marcon.
Ms Marcon had received a random phone call from a member of Marchi's team telling her the presenter had dreamt about her, urging her to pay €150 to be sent the winning lottery numbers that had appeared in Marchi's premonition, but she refused.
When they called back the following day, her son Filippo emailed Striscia la Notizie.
Ms Marcon then engaged with the Marchi organisation, pretending to be interested in the products. She spent £155 on lottery numbers and ‘magical’ salt – while Striscia la Notizie recorded their exchanges.
She was instructed to add the salt to water and leave it in the dark for a week, and to try the lottery numbers – which did not work.
When Ms Marcon phoned up feigning anger, one of Marchi’s spokespeople insisted that the salt not dissolving meant black magic was working against her, which was why the lucky numbers hadn't won.
However, for a further payment of €2,000, Nascimento would concoct a potion to rid her of the 'evil eye'.
When Ms Marcon refused, Marchi's daughter attempted to scare her into it, claiming she would never sleep again unless she did.
This phone call was recorded and exposed on TV.
Meanwhile Italy's tax police launched an investigation into Marchi's finances.
They found she'd earned 63 billion lira (£28m) between 1991 and 2001 by selling ‘lucky’ numbers.
Sent to prison
On January, 24, 2002, Marchi and Nobile were arrested, along with five other people linked to their company.
Marchi was apprehended as she tried to flee the country to Spain. Nascimento successfully fled to Brazil, and ultimately avoided justice.
The mother and daughter refused a plea deal and shortened trial and asked for it to play out in front of the cameras.
A total of 132 people filed a formal complaint against the company, and around 60 were a civil party in the trial, which began on July 2, 2003.
On April 3, 2006 Marchi and Nobile were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for aggravated fraud.
The following month they received 10-year jail sentences for making false claims about their products, and were ordered to repay €2.2million (£1.9m) to those they had defrauded as compensation.
This was largely made possible by the seizure of Nobile's property.
Their sentences were reduced slightly following an appeal in 2009.
Marchi and Nobile were later convicted in April 2010 of fraudulent bankruptcy of the company Ascié srl.
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Since their release in 2015, Marchi and Nobile have appeared on TV several times and attempted to start a cooking Instagram channel during the Covid-19 lockdown.
It is believed they are now living in Albania, where they peddle catchphrase T-shirts and sales courses.
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