Abandoned by her father and bullied by other children for being chubby, life was not too rosy for Giorgia Meloni when she was growing up in a scruffy working-class district of Rome.
Thirty years on, she is having the last laugh.
The leader of the hard-Right Brothers of Italy party could, conceivably, become Italy’s first ever woman prime minister, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Brothers of Italy, which is the modern-day heir to Italy’s fascist movement, was then a fringe party commanding less than four per cent of the national vote. A recent Ipsos poll found that the party is now Italy’s second most popular party, behind the centre-Left Democrats.
Ms Meloni, 44, has edged ahead of her main rival on the Right, Matteo Salvini, 48, the leader of the anti-immigrant League party.
There is widespread speculation that Mario Draghi, the current prime minister, could resign and then become president, replacing the incumbent, Sergio Mattarella, who will retire in February.
That could trigger an election which would most likely be won by an alliance of parties on the Right, including Brothers of Italy, the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s much-reduced Forza Italia party.
Mr Salvini has said publicly that if Ms Meloni takes just one more vote than him, then she should become prime minister.
“I’m getting ready to govern the nation,” Ms Meloni said in an interview. “I’m ready to do whatever the Italian people ask me to do.”
The mother of one has come a long way from her childhood in Garbatella, a working-class district in Rome that was built in the 1920s.
Her father’s abandonment of her, her sister and her mother – he sailed away from Italy on a yacht called “Cavallo Pazzo” or Crazy Horse and wound up in Gomera, one of the Canary Islands – was deeply traumatic.
Plied with biscuits and cakes by her adoring grandmother, Giorgia put on so much weight that by the age of nine she weighed 65kg. She was called “cicciona” – “fatty” – by the other kids.
At the age of 15 she joined the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the post-war successor to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement.
She signed up at her nearest branch, in Via Guendalina Borghese, in the heart of Garbatella.
“That’s the place where it all started”, she writes in a newly published best-selling autobiography, I Am Giorgia.
The branch was closed this week, its façade covered in tatty posters and the red, white and green of the Italian flag.
A few streets away, Francesco Novelli, 22, had little good to say about Ms Meloni.
“She may not be a Fascist but she’s definitely an extremist,” the barista told The Telegraph in Bar Mattarello. “Personally I don’t like either her or Salvini, even if many Italians do support them.”
Garbatella may be Ms Meloni’s home territory, but it displays a strong Left-wing streak. A nearby social centre is decorated with murals of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
“This is a working-class area and we lean more towards the Left,” said Martina Bianchi, who works in the Rusty Dagger tattoo parlour.
At the age of 31, Ms Meloni became the youngest minister in Italian history, serving in a government led by Silvio Berlusconi.
She founded Brothers of Italy in 2012. Its initial performance was pitiful, attracting just 3.5 per cent of the vote in European elections in 2014 and just over 4 per cent in a 2018 general election.
But policies including a naval blockade of the North African coast to stop migrants from reaching Italian shores and incentives for couples to have more children, have seen its popularity surge.
Ms Meloni also opposes any further political union with the EU, which she says has “tragically failed”.
“She is the main beneficiary of the shrinking of support for Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party,” said Francesco Galietti, of the political risk consultancy Policy Sonar.
Ms Meloni has been buoyed recently by a couple of high-profile defections from the League – the mayor of Verona, a city in the north of Italy, and Vincenzo Sofo, an Italian MEP and the fiancé of Marion Marechal Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen, leader of the hard-Right National Rally party in France.
“She’s on a good trajectory and could make it to the very pinnacle of power,” Mr Galietti said.