It’s a gloriously sunny morning in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, as a solitary figure sits quietly, basking in the early morning rays. Two young men walk past, chatting animatedly when they notice her and scream, “Netta… We love you!” The 25-year-old Israeli singer looks up, takes off her headphones, and smiles at her adoring fans, “love you too, guys” and she blows them a kiss.
Eurovision Song Contest, Lisbon ****
Since her song, Toy, was unleashed on an unsuspecting public back in March Netta Barzilai had been one of the hottest favourites to take the Eurovision crown that the contest has seen in recent years. Her unusual style, which features her using a looper to record and resample her voice and then play them back to create complex layers as she sings, is complemented by the bright and kooky style of her colourful kimonos and signature hair buns. Replete with chicken-clucking noises and the zaniest performance that side of the River Tagus it seemed that nothing could stop her in her quest to bring Eurovision glory back to Israel’s shores. But all was not well in the Israeli camp…
The first week of rehearsals saw Netta’s commanding lead in the polls and betting slide after some rather frantic looking performances. As one journalist put it, “the live performance just doesn’t have the instant appeal that the video has… I’m disappointed”.
Qualification for the final in Tuesday’s semi-final was then blotted by a very public slurring of Netta’s entry by last year’s winner, Portuguese jazz singer, Salvador Sobral, who branded Toy “horrible plastic rubbish”. Ouch!
Meanwhile other favourites were starting to burst out of the Eurovision Bubble. With odds of around 150/1 at the end of April it seemed like Cyprus was set to be another also ran, with an average sounding Rihanna/Beyoncé styled track. Until 31-year-old Eleni Foureira took to the stage in a figure hugging, flame-themed catsuit. Backed by a troupe of four similarly attired dancer/singers Eleni strutted through three frenetic and dynamic minutes of hair-flicks (hairography – if you will), squats, thrusts and oozed sexy confidence as she set the huge stage on fire with her song Fuego (Fire). The end of her first rehearsal saw screams and whoops and a standing ovation from the assembled press. Suddenly, this was no-longer a one-horse race.
No sooner had Cyprus declared their assault on the throne when plucky little Moldova threw their hat in the ring with a brilliantly-staged, 1970s-bedroom farce themed performance – complete with a set of doors that open and close to reveal lookalikes of the three singers having a very frisky time of it. With a song that could have been written anytime in the last 50 years, this was pure Eurovision at it’s best – cheesy, camp and fun-filled and once again the members of the press went wild for it.
I caught up with the UK’s entrant SuRie (a stylised version of her first names Suzanne and Marie) at a swanky reception held by the UK ambassador in Lisbon and asked her what she made of this year’s show – having previously worked as stage director and backing vocalist to two of Belgium’s top five placing entries in recent years.
“There’s definitely a much more relaxed vibe about this year,” she enthused. “Maybe it’s because we’re in the sunshine and by the waterfront, but it just feels far more like a holiday this time.”
I ask about her expectations for the UK given ongoing Brexit concerns amongst our European neighbours. “D’you know what? I’m just gonna go out there and have fun. I’ll do the best job I can for us, and if they like it they like it, and if not I’ll know I gave it my best shot”. Stoic sentiment from one of nicest and most genuine artists I think we have ever sent.
Sadly, things didn’t run so smoothly for our girl in Saturday night’s final as a political protester stormed the stage during her performance and grabbed the microphone from her shouting something like “Nazis of the UK media, we demand freedom”. Security immediately dragged the chap off and SuRie bravely finished her performance with the 14,000 strong audience audibly singing along and supporting her. She was offered the opportunity to sing again but declined.
Whilst the UK could manage no higher than 24th place, the end of the night provided a tense voting sequence which ultimately proved that Europe did feel like Chicken Tonight as Netta took the trophy for Israel just ahead of the hairography from Cyprus.
In her winner’s press conference a beaming Netta, who explained that her song is a feminist anthem supporting the #metoo campaign, thanked Europe for “voting for different, for diversity”.
You can’t deny that we certainly did that.