ROME (Reuters) - In 2019, Giorgia Meloni made a speech that has come to define her: "I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian, and you can't take that away from me," she told cheering supporters in Rome.
Fast forward three years, and the nationalist leader can now also say she is Italy's first female prime minister.
Meloni was named to the post on Friday after her Brothers of Italy party finished first in last month's national election, up from fifth place in 2018, propelling a right-wing coalition to clear majorities in both houses of parliament.
The rapid rise in the 45-year-old's fortunes is closely tied to the transformation of Brothers of Italy, which has moved into the mainstream without ever fully repudiating its post-fascist roots.
Friends and critics alike say its surge in support is largely down to the steely determination of a woman who won her first local election at 21 and became Italy's youngest ever minister in 2008.
Meloni was given that youth portfolio by new coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi, a wily political veteran over whom she now faces the thorny challenge of imposing her authority. They recently clashed over the war in Ukraine and after he was spotted describing her as overbearing, arrogant and offensive.
Meloni's ascent is especially notable considering her humble background in a country where family ties often trump merit.
Raised by a single mother in a working class district of the Italian capital after her father abandoned them following her birth, she has made no attempt to lose her strong Roman accent.
In her 2021 autobiography, "I am Giorgia", Meloni says she found a new family aged 15 when she joined the youth section of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), created in 1946 by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Hard-working and feisty, she soon caught the eye of party activist Fabio Rampelli, who organised courses to train what he hoped would be a new generation of conservative politicians.
"My idea was to imagine a right-wing government, which had nothing to do with the (fascism of the) 1930s," Rampelli told Reuters.
"Meloni was blonde, blue-eyed, petite, easy-going and witty. She was also very concrete and not ideological. All the characteristics we needed to take the Italian Right to the next level."
FLAMES AND ANGELS
The MSI was folded into a new body called National Alliance (AN) in the mid-1990s before merging with a mainstream conservative group created by former prime minister Berlusconi.
In her biggest political gamble to date, Meloni and a contingent of AN veterans left in 2012 to co-found Brothers of Italy, named after the opening lines of the national anthem.
The party maintained the old flame symbol of the original MSI group and Italian media occasionally publish photographs showing fascist memorabilia in the offices of some Brothers of Italy regional politicians.
No such relics adorn Meloni's office. Instead there are angel figurines, snaps of her young daughter, chess sets, a photograph of Pope John Paul with Mother Teresa, and pots of coloured pens she uses for note-taking.
In an interview with Reuters in August, she dismissed any suggestion that her party was nostalgic for the fascist era and distanced herself from comments she had made as a teenager praising Mussolini, an ally of Adolf Hitler in World War Two, as a "good politician".
"Obviously I have a different opinion now," she said, without elaborating.
Meloni compares her party to the U.S. Republican Party and Britain's Conservative Party. Patriotism and traditional family values are exulted, while political correctness and global elites are excoriated.
"Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death," she told supporters of Spanish rightist party Vox in a fiery speech in June.
"No to the violence of Islam, yes to safer borders, no to mass immigration, yes to work for our people, no to major international finance."
Pollsters say part of her success lies in her novelty value in the old-man world of Italian politics, coupled with the steadfastness of her uncompromising messaging.
Whereas her allies Matteo Salvini and the octogenarian Berlusconi last year joined a unity government under Mario Draghi, Meloni refused, saying appointing an unelected former central banker was undemocratic.
The decision left Brothers of Italy as the sole major party in opposition, giving it a pass on having to defend unpopular decisions taken during the COVID-19 emergency.
She sought to reassure international partners during the election campaign that she would support Western policies against Russia and reinforced the message this week after Berlusconi reiterated his sympathy for President Vladimir Putin.
Meloni is opposed to gender diversity quotas in parliament or the boardroom, saying women have to get to the top through merit. However, she says that being a woman has its advantages in macho Italy.
"When you are a woman you are often underestimated, but that can help you," she told Reuters.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Keith Weir and John Stonestreet)