According to what passes for a biography, Heidi Svenda Bernasconi, a.k.a “Miss Swiss Bank Account,” is originally from Ostermundigen, a town of 15,000 people in central Switzerland. The daughter of a cuckoo clock maker and a Nestle chocolate factory worker, she recently moved to Searchlight, Nevada, joining a Swiss expat community of retired yodelers and milkmaids.
With her braided blonde hair and a traditional Swiss costume, this sexier version of the quintessential Swiss mountain girl is a self-proclaimed “Romney Girl.” She reportedly met the presidential contender while she worked as a tax consultant at the UBS bank in Geneva, where the former head of Bain Capital frequently showed up unannounced and shouted, “Thank God for amnesty!”
Perhaps Miss Swiss Bank Account would have continued a life of anonymity, yodeling for Searchlight’s 539 residents and milking cows in the Nevada desert, if she hadn’t recorded her first single, “I’m a Romney Girl.” And that’s when the trouble began.
Released last month, the video clip, which so far received over half a million hits on YouTube, exalts the virtues of a “taxless life” and boasts about Romney’s accounts in offshore tax shelters, including Switzerland.
If this story sounds unreal, that’s because it is. Although she has her own website – where she can be seen posing not only with Romney, but also with Newt Gingrich – Miss Swiss Bank Account is as fictional as Heidi herself.
The song, a parody of the 1990s hit “Barbie Girl,” is clearly intended as a tongue-in-cheek dig at Romney’s unwillingness to release his tax records and his now-closed bank account in Switzerland. Swiss authorities, however, are not amused.
“The clip gives the impression that having a bank account in Switzerland is dubious in itself, and its only aim is to hide money from the tax authorities,” Switzerland’s Foreign Ministry said soon after the video was released.
And Swiss Embassy officials in Washington complained about it to President Obama’s campaign staff. But the clip turned out to be the brainchild of the Agenda Project / Action Fund, an “organization dedicated to ensuring that public officials serve regular Americans,” according to its website, and not affiliated with the Obama campaign.
(MORE: The War on Offshore Tax Havens)
Still, it is easy to understand why the Swiss are annoyed by the clip’s not-so-subtle allusions to their country as a haven for tax evaders – especially since this is not the first American jab at Switzerland’s banks. Throughout the campaign, Obama’s re-election team has run TV ads showing Romney singing “America the Beautiful” against the backdrop of the Swiss flag and a headline saying, “He had millions in a Swiss bank account.”
“Each misleading comment about our banks is harmful to our reputation,” Sindy Schmiegel, a spokesperson for the Swiss Bankers Association, an umbrella group representing the nation’s financial institutions tells TIME. “We make every effort to explain to everyone everywhere that we mange only taxed assets and have strict measures in place to prevent criminal activities.”
In fact, Switzerland’s reputation as a hiding place for ill-gotten gains is unjustified. Various laws make money laundering illegal and require that suspicious deposits be reported to the authorities. And numbered or anonymous bank accounts are a myth — all financial institutions in Switzerland must identify their customers and ensure that the funds come from legitimate sources.
But despite all the strictly enforced laws and regulations, Switzerland can’t shake off its longstanding reputation for “dirty” banking, even though the Swiss media often points out that thousands of “dummy” companies set up in Delaware are helping U.S. corporations evade taxes in their own country.
So how can the Swiss deal with the damage that the Romney Girl may or may not have inflicted on their country’s image?
The answer could lay in the geographic confusion. As a Geneva politician Manuel Tornare suggested last week in an interview with the Edipresse media group, “If you are a Swiss person in America, a lot of people will think you are from Sweden. Some of them will even tell you how beautiful Stockholm is.”
The Swedes may not like the sound of it, but to the Swiss, this solution may indeed be something to sing about.