With his endless charm and impeccable fashion sense, Girolamo Panzetta has long been an ambassador of sorts, introducing the best of Italian culture to Japan. Jim Hand-Cukierman catches up with the maestro of moda and gets his views on style, life and love. Interview conducted, transcribed and translated by Kayo Yamawaki.

It’s hard to decide what’s more impressive about Girolamo Panzetta: his natural charisma or the shiny silver shoes he’s sporting under his designer jeans. Either way, personality and style are clearly two factors that have helped make the 45-year-old tarento one of Japan’s most famous Italians.

Serving as a sort of representative of his 60 million some-odd countrymen is a role he takes seriously. And, having molded an image of class, charm, humor and intelligence mixed with just a little bit of unpredictability, it’s safe to say he’s doing a good job of painting Italy in a positive light.

“The me that you see on television is the real me,” he promises, his hands gesticulating in a classically Italian fashion. “I don’t change much [in front of the camera], that’s how I usually am. I thought I should just go with my own character.”

Perhaps Panzetta’s lack of pretense stems from the fact that working in the entertainment industry was never his intention in the first place. Born in the small southern Italian town of Avellino, he was raised in nearby Naples – known for its art, pizza and crazy drivers. He studied architecture in college and was on his way to working for his family’s restora-

tion firm, but as it turned out, destiny had other plans. Accompanying his father on a research trip to Japan about 23 years ago, a seed was planted the moment he stepped off the plane.

Despite dashed expectations that everyone would be dressed in kimono, “I felt this country was made for me,” he remembers. “I don’t know why, it’s just the impression that I had. But when I left, I didn’t think I would come back, because I couldn’t communicate with people.”

He would come back, however. And it would be for the same reason that has led so many people to travel across the oceans: love. “My second time coming to Japan was because of my wife, who I met in Italy,” he says, adding dryly, “We’ve been married 20 years – it’s time to stop!”

Upon his return to Japanese shores, Panzetta attended a language school to solve the communication problem and went to Tokyo’s Meikai University for four years, majoring in economics. But when the television station NHK recruited him for a regular gig on its Italian study program, a future filled with balance sheets suddenly became a lot more glamorous.

“I never thought about being on television and I didn’t have any particular desire for it,” he says. “But I always liked to be with people. When I started appearing on TV, I just talked to the cameras as I would with people, and the reaction was really good. I figured if you talk with your heart, it will be expressed through the cameras.”

His manner certainly struck a cord with viewers, and with his popularity on the rise, the opportunities before him seemed to be continually expanding. Like many, however, Panzetta would learn that show business can be as rough as it is lucrative.

“When I was on the Italian lesson program on NHK, my friend and I wanted to publish a book about food,” he recalls. “But there was this one person in the project who only thought about their own profit and not ours. Things did not go well, and the book didn’t sell.”

Fortunately, the publishing world granted him a second chance. “Deep in my heart,” he says, “I did have some ideas for books. And around that time, I got a phone call from a different publisher with an offer to produce one. We had similar ideas, so we went ahead. Usually, once you fail with a book, you don’t get another opportunity. But it sold, and it’s still selling. Since then, I started getting more jobs for radio and TV as well.”

Today Panzetta is a frequent guest on TV variety shows, and he’s making his way into film after providing the voice for the Italian car in the Japanese dubbed version of the animated Disney movie Cars. He is also the author of numerous books and essays on Italian cooking, language and culture, and one of his most recent projects was Giromania, an illustrated guide to his style secrets released in December 2007.

“Everyday is different,” he says – obviously no exaggeration considering his various endeavors. But so much exposure does have its pitfalls…“When I’m in the restroom, people recognize me and it can be a bit of a pain,” he admits with a laugh. “If people ask me to take photos, I’m happy to do it, because I appreciate it, too. I just don’t like to lose my privacy.”

Man’s man

If nothing else, most people probably recognize Panzetta from his monthly appearances on the cover of the magazine Leon, which caters to middle-aged men. Even those who aren’t fluent enough in Japanese to read the monthly journal have no doubt seen his mischievous grin peeking out from its advertisements in the Tokyo Metro. He’s just

the sort of man women like to date and men want to emulate—gentleman on one hand, untameable bad boy on the other. As a result, Panzetta has become something of an icon for men in his demographic, known nowadays as choiwaru oyaji, or “somewhat bad old men.”

“In Italy,” he explains, “older men think they still look good, and that attitude shows up in their appearance. If they thought they didn’t look good, that would be the end.”

It’s a line of reasoning that has translated surprisingly well to Japan, embraced by legions of salarymen looking to shatter the perception that they’re beer-guzzling, chain-smoking, ramen-eating oafs. Men in general are paying more attention than ever to their personal appearance, and Panzetta stresses that change is possible even for those who can’t afford to splurge on pricey clothes. “I’m not like, ‘I have to have this brand,’” he insists. “I don’t die for fashion.”

Panzetta is well aware of the demands many men face, and that constantly shelling out cash for family necessities can be a big disincentive to spending money on oneself. “Put the kids through university, buy stuff for their wives… they forget about themselves. But you don’t have to buy anything expensive. Change your hairstyle once in a while, or just change the color a little bit. People will see you in a different light, and then you’ll feel different yourself.”

To sum up his philosophy, he likens clothing to flowers. “If you keep the same flower, it is bound to go bad.” Likewise, he says, “If you wear the same stuff all of the time, it’s not good.”

Still, for men who haven’t revitalized their wardrobes in years, the thought of suddenly taking a walk on the wild side can be pretty daunting. Thankfully, Panzetta’s message provides some needed reassurance as well. “I think men get more attractive as they grow older,” he insists, “so even if they’re old they’re not garbage.”

Of course, the confidence boost a man receives by improving his look can benefit another big part of his life as well: winning the affections of women. And though Panzetta seeks to dispel a common misconception – “When people see me in town with a girl, they automatically think I’m dating her, but I just have a lot of friends” – he still has some thoughts on the subject of love. After all, they don’t call Italian a romance language for nothing.

“Italian women think they are princesses even when they’re old ladies,” he says. “Italy is also a Christian country, so women’s guards are very strong. To break that wall, men have to bump their heads so many times. But here in Japan, it’s a man’s society. Japanese men rarely praise women.” He suggests that a little flattery can go a long way. “In some cultures, women are not used to being praised, so you can easily make them happy. Not just here–anybody in any culture likes to be admired.

“Even when there’s a wall between you,” he continues, “you can find a small hole to get into their feelings.” That said, sincerity is crucial, as he warns, “If it’s not coming from the bottom of your heart, it’s a lie.”

For all his swagger and panache, female observers will be pleased to know that Panzetta’s more than just a sweet talker. “I always try to remember that I should be good to the people around me, and that goes for men as well as for women,” he says. “If I have a friend whose birthday is coming up, I think about what I should get for that person. If a person is not really genki, I wonder, ‘how can I make him or her genki?’ I like to make people happy. I‘ve always had that feeling.”

And what better way to bring happiness to a person than by tantalizing their taste buds? Despite his own apparent lack of skill in the kitchen, Panzetta has long been a big proponent of the delights of Italian cuisine. Recently, however, he went a step further and opened his own restaurant in Tokyo’s Gaienmae district. Ristorante Giromondo serves traditional dishes inspired by Panzetta’s own Neapolitan background, though he says the chef is very stubborn and doesn’t let him suggest anything for the menu.

The restaurant is in fact a continuation of what he says is already a strong tradition of fine Italian cooking in Japan. “Italian foods made by Japanese are really quite good,” he notes. “Of course not all, but Japan and Italy both have their own noodle culture, so Japanese tend to have good taste in the way they boil pasta.

“Some places,” he readily acknowledges, “are even better than Italians’.”

Schedule permitting, Panzetta likes to stop by Giromondo to dine and chat with the clientele. But with such a busy agenda, he rarely gets a chance to do all the things he enjoys. “Personally,” he muses, “I want to go spend time by the ocean, like in Okinawa or the Maldives. I like to dive, and I also want to use this new surfboard I just got. The problem is time.”

Not that he’s complaining. “It is really busy, but I very much enjoy going overseas for the shoots and getting to see different cultures.”

In many ways, this openness to other cultures has probably helped make Japanese so receptive to his. Plus, there’s no denying that he fits in well here, even as he takes care not to lose his Italian identity. “I’m not Japanese,” he reminds us, “so I don’t think it’s natural for me to act completely Japanese. But even from the beginning, I guess I had a lot in common, and now it’s becoming like a habit. I often apologize with gomennasai or thank you with arigatou – a lot more than I did before.”

Doing so doesn’t mean he’s selling out his own background. It’s simply a way to make those around him comfortable–something Panzetta does extremely well. It’s hard to tell where he’ll end up or what he’ll be doing in the future, as his life up to this point has been one surprise after another. But regardless of any new directions, it’s a good bet that his charm will remain intact.

Asked about his goals, it seems he’s not set on anything in particular. Pausing for a moment, he finally responds: “I’d like to do more dramas and movies. I’d like to do more of that and see if it’s interesting.” Otherwise, he says, “my goal could be a new life. I don’t know where I will end up living. Because I love the ocean so much, I’d like to move closer to it – a warm place.”

If Panzetta has learned one thing over the course of his career, however, it’s that destiny can take you to unexpected places. As a result, he’s not setting anything in stone. “Up to this point, I didn’t really plan, things just came,” he says. “So from now on, I’ll just go with the flow.”

Story by Kayo Yamawaki
From J SELECT Magazine, March 2008